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Setting Boundaries for the Holidays During a Pandemic

Family celebrating Thanksgiving virtually

With the holiday season coming up, and a new wave of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading, it’s an important time to talk about setting boundaries with loved ones. The ways in which holiday and family traditions must change this year is a loss that each of us is coping with differently. The pandemic has made the role of boundaries in our daily lives and relationships more tangible than ever — properly wearing a mask, maintaining a six-foot distance from others, canceling in-person activities, and avoiding groups and public places. Each of us is making decisions on a daily basis to protect ourselves and our families, but none of us has total control of our own safety since we must rely on those around us to help keep us safe. From the stranger in the grocery store to those we share our homes with, it is more clear than ever that our choices directly impact others, and that honoring one another’s boundaries is the only way for all of us to be safe.

While COVID-19 heightens the stakes around the importance of setting boundaries, the reality is that communicating about our boundaries has always been pivotal to our ability to feel and be safe. In fact, our safety and well-being have always been interconnected — individuals are connected by our relationships, the technology we use, the community we live in, and the broader society surrounding us. Personal boundaries form a protective layer around each of us as we navigate these layers of connectedness. Yet most of the time, boundaries are not as concrete and outwardly visible as a mask or face covering — they are often invisible limits protecting our physical, mental, emotional, and psychological well-being. 

The power each of us has to make choices for the safety of our bodies and ourselves is the foundation of consent. Each of us has the right to practice autonomy in choosing what safety looks like from day-to-day and moment-to-moment. We are also all responsible for the impact of our actions and choices on others, which is why consent cannot exist without each of us choosing to be aware of and honor the boundaries of others. 

This is everyday consent 101 — consent is real and it matters, not just when it comes to sex. We practice consent every time we choose to respect the personal and emotional boundaries of others. When we give others the right to choose and value their choices, we are practicing everyday consent — whether you are asking if it’s OK to give a friend a hug or asking permission before sharing someone’s picture on social media. As the pandemic continues to intensify as we near the holiday season, it’s an opportunity to bring the lens of everyday consent to the choices and limits we must make clear to protect ourselves and others. 

Dealing with disappointment and expectations 
Family traditions, cultural values, and media narratives shape expectations and what is perceived as the “norm.” For many of us, going “home” for the holidays or seeing friends and family is what is expected of us, but that doesn’t mean it is the right choice for you. Maybe this year you aren’t coming to visit, or you aren’t comfortable hosting those who have been involved in past holiday gatherings. Or it may be the case you did make plans, but are now reconsidering those choices or changing your mind. Here’s where the principles of consent play an important role: Regardless of what others expect, you have the right to decide what is best for you and act on those values. 

Asking and listening is love
You have the right to communicate and negotiate limits. Respecting the right of all people to make choices is at the core of consent, and this right empowers each of us to feel confident setting boundaries. Even though it’s absolutely necessary to listen to and respect the limits of others, many of us have unfortunately had the experience of our boundaries being minimized, ignored, or dismissed by people we love and trust. This is not OK. Disrespecting boundaries is a violation, and just like when it comes to consent, we need to normalize accepting and respecting “no.” 

Healthy relationships can handle “no” 
You don’t owe it to anyone to compromise your limits. In healthy relations between partners, friends, and family members, disappointment can be handled because there is mutual respect for one another’s different needs. It’s OK for a loved one to feel hurt or need space to process their feelings, but you should never feel pressured to change your mind. Even though our culture normalizes guilt trips and peer pressure, it’s important to recognize these are forms of manipulation and not a sign of caring. When someone cares, they want your honest answer, even when it’s not easy to hear.  

Even though our culture normalizes guilt trips and peer pressure, it’s important to recognize these are forms of manipulation and not a sign of caring. When someone cares, they want your honest answer, even when it’s not easy to hear. 

Setting an example isn’t easy, but it’s worth it
The reality is that people you are close to may have had some very unhealthy examples and role models when it comes to boundaries and respect. Setting boundaries can be difficult because our loved ones may have different ideas of what is acceptable based on their experiences and values. A lot of times, we compromise on our boundaries because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of others or cause offense. The problem with this approach is that only one person’s needs are met at the expense of someone else’s. One of the most powerful principles of consent is that when all parties are committed to respecting one another, it does not need to be a win or lose scenario. The power of consent is that our freedom of choice and honesty is more valuable than any specific outcome. 

Giving yourself what we all deserve
When consent and respect are at the heart of our relationships, you can let grandma know you love her very much but don’t have any hugs left today. You can let your friend know that you had a great time seeing them but that you prefer not to have the pictures you took together posted on social media. Again, this may not be what the other person wants to hear, but it's a disappointment they can handle. What you are modeling for them is a very valuable skill, and it’s also a way of showing them the level of respect they deserve. They may even find your honesty to be trust-building and validating of their own need to set loving limits.