Here in the UK one of the few (only?) good things to come out of the COVID pandemic has been the support ‘bubbles’ those of us who live alone have been allowed to form with another household. Introduced towards the end of our first national lockdown, support bubbles have become a lifeline for people like me, allowing us spend time in each other’s homes and get within two meters of another human being. (Who knew that would be such an extraordinary thing!)
Who to bubble with (it soon became a verb) was for many a tricky choice to make – did you pair up with biological family or church family, with those who lived nearest or those you felt closest to? As a church pastor I felt a responsibility to make sure everyone else was bubbled well before I got myself sorted and worried that my choice would been seen as favoritism. With a number of good friends who live nearby I kept postponing the decision until our second lockdown came into view.
The best thing about bubbling is that it has established a default relationship in my daily life.
Since then I’ve bubbled with a married couple who live about ten minutes’ drive away. They are part of my church family and in the same small group as me. The wife happens to be one of the best cooks I know, and they both delight in making their home and garden a relaxing place for me to be. Over the last six months we’ve got into a pattern of me being there for supper before going online for our small group on Monday and on either a Friday or Saturday to eat and drink, and watch The West Wing (his first time through, her second, my tenth). With work expanding to fill the rest of my life, it has been the thing that has kept me (just about) sane. I could not be more grateful to them for their love and care for me.
The best thing about bubbling is that it has established a default relationship in my daily life. If you live with your husband, wife, or children, or near other family, you nearly always have default settings for things like what you are going to do at Christmas, who is going to shop for you when you are self-isolating, what you are going to do with an evening off, and who you are going on holiday with. If you are single, you don’t, and that can be one of the hardest things. But for me over the last six months, my default relational setting has been this couple, and it’s been such a positive change.
Now that doesn’t mean we’ve done everything together – we spent Christmas day apart, we’ve been on holiday (when allowed) with different people, as well as together, but it has meant that they’ve been in my mind and I’ve been in their mind when plans have been made and that has been life-giving. Wonderfully their exposure to my patterns of living has meant that for the first time in a while there are people who are seeing my ups and downs and asking good questions, giving good pushback on the amount I try and do.
But alongside all this care they have not become my carers! I have never felt like a sympathy project. It’s been a two-way thing: she is an extrovert; he is an introvert – my presence has given him a break and given her someone to talk to. I have things in common with them as a couple – and as individuals. Because they got married later in life, they know what it’s like to be single long-term and have been so sensitive to my needs as (I hope) I have been a help and support to them as a relatively newly married couple.
Now I’m very conscious that many single people reading this blog will not have been as lucky as I have. That said, one of the massively encouraging things for me over the last eighteen months is how many of my single contemporaries across our family of churches have been kept going by bubbles that have, for the first time, given them a default relationship through choosing to commit to supporting them and being up for being supported by them. One of my friends has thrived emotionally in ways I haven’t previously seen because of his bubble with a family at his church.
But all of this new-found relational health for single people – forged in the emotional pain of a global pandemic – is coming under threat as things open up again. My bubble and I have found our diaries filling up again and us falling out of the patterns we had established. To some extent, this is inevitable and necessary, but the danger is that changes to our default settings will leave some single people more socially isolated after the pandemic than they were at its height. I’ve had a number of conversations with single friends over the last few weeks who are already looking wistfully back at how much their bubbles meant to them.
Don’t burst the bubble! Yes, your patterns need to change, but the commitment you made to each other was a life-giving one that you shouldn’t end suddenly.
All of which makes me want to say to the successful bubbles I’ve seen all around me: ‘Don’t burst the bubble!’ Yes, your patterns need to change – there are now others you can and must see. But the commitment you made to each other was a life-giving one that you shouldn’t end suddenly but seek to preserve in some new form. I know that I need to sit down with my bubble and to share (again) what a difference their companionship and support has meant to me. And we need to think through how we can build new patterns that mean, as everything else (hopefully) opens up, we don’t lose what we’ve gained.
There are very few bits of new language I want to preserve from this pandemic. I can’t wait until we end talk of ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolating’ and the painful experiences they clinically describe. But I do want to keep talk of 'bubbling' and the positive experiences it’s brought me and many others. Indeed, I’d like to encourage more and more people to think about whether now is the time to start a post-pandemic bubble with a person or people who might enrich your life as much as my pandemic bubble has enriched mine.