Pandemic Couples: Finding Compromise on Infection Risks
Examining your emotions may beat condemning partner’s actions
Unless you’re sitting out the pandemic on your own private island, you probably aren’t getting much space right now. There’s a good chance your spouse has gone from the person you looked forward to seeing to someone you could really do with a break from.
Tough luck. In this new coronavirus world, sliding in and out of lockdown is likely to be the new normal, for at least the next several months. In China, where the virus hit many months earlier than in the U.S., the effect on relationships is already visible: On a single day in mid-March, after lockdown ended, clerks in Hunan province processed a record number of divorce applications.
For many couples, perhaps the hardest part is compromising on everything, from what you watch on TV to where you’ll get take-out. There are sometimes obvious solutions: One of you gets to choose one night, the other the next. And if you really can’t agree, there’s no harm in each doing your own thing, independently.
But what about when what one of you does affects the other?
The fight against coronavirus demands cooperation. If one of you is being reckless, the other one will be exposed to the same amount of risk against their will, even if they’re much more vigilant. A good analogy here might be getting in a car with someone who’s had something to drink. The driver believes they are safe to drive; their passenger isn’t so sure, and is exposed to exactly the same dangers.
If the person who wants to take on less risk is being overcautious, the penalty may be relatively small — the cost of a taxi, say, or not seeing friends. If the person who wants to drive or shun social distancing protocols is wrong, the cost could be very, very great. But if both people are absolutely convinced they’re right, how do you tussle out a compromise, when both of you have to commit to doing the same thing?
Try to stay calm
No one likes to be told what to do, especially if the underlying message is “You’re wrong.” People respond particularly badly when they feel like their freedom to choose is being limited.
Arguing usually isn’t the answer, and can do serious long term harm to your relationship. For nearly 58% of divorced couples, according to data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, constant bickering and arguing, caused by poor communication, was the reason behind the split.
Rathan than quarrel, try to stay calm and approach the other person’s perspective with compassion. The person who wants to take on more risk may be struggling, like so many of us, with the loss of ordinary pleasures like seeing family or going out for a meal. The person who wants to take on less risk may be feeling anxious about a situation far outside of their control, where their health or loved ones are at risk.
By starting at a place of understanding, rather than with an attempt to convince the other person you’re right, it may be easier to unravel how your partner is feeling in the moment and avoid losing your cool.
Defer to the experts
Unless you’re an epidemiologist, you’re probably both working with incomplete information. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus. Instead of extrapolating a plan based on half-understood news reports, look to public health information to figure out an approach that works for you both.
Your first port of call should always be the law, and what state officials say you can and can’t do in your area. That may mean wearing a mask wherever you go, keeping six feet of distance, and opting out of once-normal activities like having friends round for dinner or getting a drink at a bar. (If your partner wants to break the law based on their own impressions of the virus, that might be a deal-breaker in its own right.)
If that doesn’t help you figure out a compromise, look to health organizations like the CDC for further guidance. Is one of you particularly at risk, due to age or a preexisting condition? How should you handle errands like buying groceries? Whatever you’re doing, remember this: The more closely each of you interacts with others, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk to you both. Wearing a mask can reduce transmission by up to 79%. And at the end of the day, public health officials want to keep you safe.
Understand what you’re feeling
You’re undergoing huge upheaval of a sort almost never seen before. It’s not surprising if you’re occasionally taking it out on your partner. Grant yourself the same compassion you’d like to receive from your spouse, and take some time to wrestle with your own feelings. Are you experiencing grief for all the things you aren’t doing and the many months lost inside? Are you resentful of being told what to do by forces that you aren’t sure you can trust? Or are you scared of an unclear future?
By examining your own emotions, you’ll be in a better place to explain to your partner what you’re going through. At the same time, you might get more of a sense of why having to wear a mask or not being allowed to go out makes you feel angry, scared or out of control.