How to Build Resilient Relationships
Three experts weigh in on healthy relationships post-COVID
The pandemic forced us to think about our proximity to others in strange new ways—and reevaluate the concepts of connection and community. What do we want to carry with us from our days in lockdown, and what do we want to leave behind?
Inspired by work in Buddhist studies and psychology, linguistic anthropology, and communication, three UMass experts encourage us to reflect on building healthy relationships.
We can embrace the messiness of it and appreciate it as a process and a practice— Alex Watson ’18
Show You Care
If you ask Lynnette Arnold, PhD, a linguistic anthropologist at UMass, language isn’t just a grammatical system, it’s also a form of social action. Arnold researches how language creates care, particularly for transnational families. Her work became especially relevant during the pandemic as she watched the world attempt to do the taxing relational work that families scattered across the globe have been forced to do for decades.
Even casual everyday chats are “really vital for building and maintaining relationships,” says Arnold. But communication is complex: “There’s the real conversation we are having or the topic we’re discussing, but underneath that, there’s the relationship,” she says.
Now that boundaries between the digital and physical world are even blurrier, Arnold recommends thinking about technology as a relationship, not just a tool.
Our tone, body language, and vocabulary communicate care—or a lack thereof. Arnold recommends choosing modes of communication that work best for you. If you feel exhausted on Zoom, try a phone call. If you don’t have the capacity to connect in real time, try sending a voice message or a photo from your day instead. You have the power to choose the kinds of communication that are sustainable for you and still communicate care.
Use Technology for Good
Tenzin Dhardon Sharling ’25, a PhD candidate in communication at UMass, used the pandemic to explore how we communicate compassion online. Part of her research is an investigation into how technology makes positive change in the world. “Technology should aid in human wellness, not hinder it,” Sharling says.
As a former activist in the Free Tibet movement, Sharling frequently used social media to promote her beliefs, but she found those digital interactions emotionally and physically draining. “I started to wonder if social media was designed to make you [feel bad],” she says. Now that boundaries between the digital and physical world are even blurrier, Sharling recommends thinking about technology as a relationship, not just a tool. Much like you choose to be around people who bring you joy, you can choose to spend time in online spaces that energize and empower you.
Or, as Sharling says, “With technology, the well-being of our communities and our planet … [should be] the primary goal.”