After 15 months of limiting their social interactions to small outdoor gatherings with masks and social distancing — and two COVID-19 vaccination shots apiece for herself, her husband and their teen son — Suzanne (who preferred to not use her real name for this article) and her family are finally easing up and meeting with friends and family members inside. Sort of.
While Suzanne's side of the family is fully vaccinated, most of her in-laws, who object to vaccinations on religious grounds, are not. What's more, they are lax about wearing masks, and have thus not been included in recent gatherings.
Over the past few months, the flurry of vaccinations for those aged 12 and up has resulted in relief, a relaxation of the vigilant behavior adopted during the pandemic and a rash of social invitations. But, as evidenced by the White House admitting its target of having 70 percent of U.S. adults partially vaccinated will likely miss its July 4 deadline, not everyone is rushing, or even planning, to roll up their sleeve. And so a pandemic that's already seen fissures form between those who mask and those who don't, and those who have taken COVID-19 seriously and those who have dismissed it as a threat, now ushers in its new social divide: the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.
Stories like Suzanne's abound: The family who frets over an upcoming holiday season with one branch of the family tree iced out. The grandparent who'd rather stay home than get vaccinated and visit their new grandchild, at the request of his parents. The unvaccinated friend fuming because a wedding is open to vaccinated guests only.
At a time when a return to "normal" is touted at every turn, awkwardness, hurt feelings and a sense of being judged are leaving many relationships feeling anything but.
Robert Johnson, who owns the woodworking business Sawinery, tells Yahoo Life that his family is being "extra careful" in terms of socializing because his children are not yet vaccinated. (Both Johnson and his wife, who live in Connecticut, are fully vaccinated.)
"We are still not accepting guests unless it has been two weeks after their second dose," says Johnson, citing a recent birthday party he hosted for his son which "strictly enforced a no vaccine, no entry policy."
Johnson admits that his family's vigilance has led to "some strain" with relatives who are unvaccinated.
"They said that we are acting so high and mighty just because we have our vaccines," he says. "And up until now, these family members refuse to talk to us. But the only way to end this pandemic is for us to trust in science."
Kayaking blog founder Steve Morrow of Gilbert, Ariz., is vaccinated, but hasn't limited his social interactions to exclude those who aren't — "personally, I don't care and will hang out with whoever," he tells Yahoo Life. But differences in vaccination status are still wreaking havoc within his social circle. His parents, who are in their 80s, refuse to be vaccinated and have made Morrow and his wife "feel uncomfortable" about their own decision, he says. He also has friends who won't meet up with anyone who hasn't had their COVID-19 shots.
"The whole situation is pretty messed up," Morrow says. "It is definitely awkward getting together with people who are on such opposite sides of the spectrum. I never imagined the vaccine would cause such a rift in our society and our friend groups. Once we get past the vaccine conversations with family and friends, hopefully we can all get along. It's such a divisive subject right now."
Is there a way through these conflicts without backing down over your personal stance? Therapist Hannah Tishman, who has addressed such fallouts with her clients in addition to witnessing them within her own social circle, recommends not letting someone's health decisions, or the boundaries they need to set, feel like a personal affront.
"Everyone has to navigate their own comfort level and to advocate for their own personal safety and feelings of security," Tishman, vice-president of operations for the New York City-based Cobb Psychotherapy, tells Yahoo Life. "That might look different for each person based on their own lived experiences, health history and personal beliefs and values. Everyone has had a different experience during the pandemic, some experiencing a higher level of trauma than others. It's important that we come from a place of understanding and not judgment when we learn of others' choices regarding their vaccinations.
"What makes one person feel safe may make another feel unsafe, and visa versa," she adds. "There are strong feelings involved as we recover from the pandemic and it can be helpful to express what makes you feel safe and your own needs to loved ones, instead of projecting what you expect from others onto them."
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