“I love you, you’re perfect, but could you please wear a mask more often?”
In the age of coronavirus, many couples have been getting into arguments about their exposure comfort level and their willingness to take risks: Should we rent a nearby Airbnb for a staycation or stick it out at home? Should we let the kids go back to school or keep on home-schooling? Should we let our parents come over or just FaceTime them again? Should we dine on a patio at a local restaurant or is it still too unsafe?
“How to deal with the stress of the restrictions and mandates is coming up with everyone, but especially couples,” said Kurt Smith, a therapist in Roseville, California.
In the last few months, Smith has heard it all as it relates to COVID-19: spouses who aren’t on the same page with their risk analysis, couples fighting over how to keep their kids safe, partners debating how to stay financially afloat as mortgage payments and credit card bills come in.
“Quite a few people are dealing with having less income than they had earlier in the year,” Smith said. “I’ve had patients who’ve had their hours cut, lost jobs, or have chosen not to work.”
Last week, one client told Smith that she’s resistant to going back to work as a teacher’s aide, worried that she’ll get sick if she goes in. Her husband is understanding but after five months of being the sole financial provider for the family, he’s getting less patient.
“The loss of family income and her unwillingness to consider any other option than stay at home and wait this out hasn’t gone over well with her husband,” Smith said. “He’s trying to be supportive, but the decision not to work makes him feel they aren’t a team in this area.”
Masks are a particularly prickly subject for couples. (No surprise, since studies have shown that men are more likely to opt out than women, believing masks to be “shameful,” “a sign of weakness” and “not cool.” This, despite the data showing that men are at higher risk than women of dying from the coronavirus.)
“A guy told me yesterday that he and his wife were fighting this week about wearing a mask,” Smith said. “Where, when, how often are common conflicts between partners over masks as individuals see the risks differently. Another couple fought about the purchase of masks ― not about buying them, but about what kind and how much to spend.”
Many couples aren’t equipped to handle the sustained stress the pandemic has brought, especially if their communication skills were lacking in healthier times.
“Relationships that were not in a good place before the coronavirus have been really hit hard by the stay-at-home orders and months and months of restrictions,” Smith said.
Coronavirus concerns can put a spotlight on a host of underlying relationship issues, said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego. She pointed to differing values (Are you a rule follower or anti-authoritarian?), matters of trust (Can I depend on you to keep me safe?) and yes, poor communication skills.
“Plus, because of the coronavirus threat, it’s more likely for each partner to get flooded with anxiety triggering the ‘fight or flight’ mode when they’re reacting to these fights,” she said. “It causes both people to be out of control.”
And of course, having children complicates these issues even further, Chappell Marsh said.
“Parents are dealing with the added stress of economic uncertainty and meeting their child’s needs with schools closed and child care options limited,” she said. “For those who already had differing viewpoints on childrearing decisions, those differences are exacerbated by the fear, anxiety and realities surrounding the coronavirus.”
Unfortunately, the threat of COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. So how do couples at odds over exposure and risk reconcile their differences before those differences get worse? Below, marriage therapists offer the advice they’re giving their clients right now.
Don’t fight in the heat of the moment. Talk about it later, when cooler heads prevail.
Maybe you’re bothered that your spouse just sprung it on you that he wants to take you and the kids boating with a co-worker this weekend. You might be fuming ― “We haven’t even seen our relatives in months. What makes you think I want to break quarantine by hanging out with Kevin and his family?” ― but slow down. There’s no urgent need to talk about it right then and there.
When conflict arises, don’t blow up or stonewall your spouse. Plan a mutually agreed-upon time to talk like cool, calm and collected adults, Chappell Marsh said.
“Identify a time when you can both come to the table with a clearer head,” she said. “The best time to talk is when both parties are calmer and there are little distractions to discuss the issues. Couples with small children find more success when they talk during child nap time or after the kids go to bed.”
Make a genuine effort to understand your partner’s concerns about socializing.
Your goal going into any conversation this delicate should be mutual understanding: If your partner is hesitant to go back to work or send the kids back to school, ask yourself where those feelings might be coming from before trying to solve the issue at hand, said Kelifern Pomeranz, a psychologist in Menlo Park, California.
“Listen to your partner with generosity, curiosity, and in the spirit of connection,” she said. “You want to ask open-ended questions (‘Can you say more about what you are afraid of?’) to learn more about your partner’s beliefs, what is important to them, their concerns and their needs.”
Put aside judgment and defensiveness for this talk. “This is about understanding your partner more fully and deeply, not about being right or trying to convince your partner of your position,” she said.
Start the conversation on common ground.
Begin by identifying what is mutually important to you as a couple, Chappell Marsh said. Make a list of what you both can agree on surrounding the issue. For instance, you might disagree on whether you should hang out at someone else’s home, but agree that a socially distant picnic outside or a hike with masks on most of the time is fine.
“This approach is more likely to set the stage for cooperation and teamwork vs. feeling like your partner is working against you,” she said.
Then, brainstorm a variety of possible solutions where you both can get your needs met, Pomeranz said. For instance, maybe you Google socially distant events and agree that it’s probably safe to watch a concert or movie in a drive-thru setting.
“Be creative,” Pomeranz added. “The answer might be something neither of you have ever previously considered.”
Choose a solution that feels good to both of you.
If you don’t both feel happy at the end of a conversation like this, you haven’t done it right.
“Both partners should feel like they were seen, heard, and their opinion matters,” Pomeranz said. “The solution should feel satisfying for both of you. If only one of you feels like you’ve won at the end of the discussion, then you have both lost.”
If the conversation is a success, it will feel more like a collaboration than a compromise, the therapist said.
“Compromise often means giving up something important to each of you in order to reach an agreement,” she said. “With collaboration, partners work together to develop a solution that feels like a win-win for both individuals.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.