No two partners are in agreement about every little thing, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted new areas where couples aren’t on the same page all the time.
From the beginning, there have been conflicts in many households around risk-taking and approaches to safety. But plenty of people were aligned in following public health guidelines and taking proper precautions to reduce spread.
Now that we’re in a different phase of the pandemic, however, the lines may feel less clear. Restrictions have decreased as vaccine access has increased. Some people feel that as long as you’re vaccinated, you should be able to resume your pre-pandemic life in every way. Meanwhile their partners might feel less comfortable with certain behaviors as cases continue to rise and scientists share news of concerning viral variants.
“At this point in the pandemic, we are faced with a crushing number of micro-decisions, from whether or not you should wear your mask inside a store or eat inside a restaurant to whether or not to get a booster or get young kids vaccinated,” said Damona Hoffman, a Los Angeles dating coach and host of the “Dates & Mates” podcast. “It was almost easier for couples who disagreed when the recommendations were more restrictive and more clear. Now you are forced to face the same disagreement with your partner every time you step outside your home.”
So what do you do if you and your partner are both vaccinated but are still struggling with your approach to specific risks? Below, therapists share their advice for dealing with disagreements over COVID-19 comfort levels and the willingness to take risks at this stage of the pandemic.
Know that it’s normal to disagree.
“Expect that there will be differences,” said Terri Orbuch (aka “The Love Doctor”), a sociology professor at Oakland University and author of “Secrets to Surviving Your Children’s Love Relationships: A Guide for Parents.” “That way, you’re less likely to get frustrated and disappointed that reality doesn’t meet your expectation.”
She noted that it’s not necessarily a bad thing if you and your partner see the world a little differently.
“As the salient issues of the pandemic evolve, so will the apparent differences between you and your partner,” Orbuch said. “And, since the pandemic has twists and turns that are new and different from what we have all experienced in our lifetimes, you may be consistently learning new information and divergent views about your partner.”
Share your concerns.
“Make a list of the things you disagree about starting with the most important first,” advised Sanam Hafeez, a New York-based neuropsychologist.
Taking stock of your concerns and organizing them ahead of time can foster a more productive conversation. Don’t treat it as a list of grievances but rather an outline to help you communicate.
“Discuss the differences calmly,” Orbuch said. “Don’t name-call. Pick a good time to discuss. Use your ‘I’ language rather than ‘you’ language. For example, ‘I feel very anxious when you go into the grocery store without a mask.’”
Hoffman emphasized the importance of owning your own feelings and personal comfort level, rather than trying to prove you’re objectively right.
“Your partner may make accommodations for the comfort of someone they love,” she noted. “However, they are unlikely to be lectured into a lifestyle change.”
Remember that you’re on the same team.
Throughout your discussions, it’s crucial to remember you and your partner are on the same team. This is particularly helpful if you have children and are both concerned about their health and well-being.
“I urge couples to visualize a Venn diagram,” said Mabel Yiu, a marriage and family therapist in Palo Alto, California. “There’s the ‘you’ circle and the ‘me’ circle, and those two circles overlap. It’s OK for there to be space beyond the overlap, but focus on that intersecting side.”
She also suggested asking yourself if you are willing to risk the entire relationship over this disagreement, in order to help you get in the mindset of remembering your shared goals and having a level-headed discussion. Although you may have differing views, show that you respect one another and appreciate each other.
“For a relationship to survive, each daily choice cannot become a disagreement,” Hoffman said. “Assess your overall risk and what you’re comfortable with at this point, remembering that as the COVID situation changes, you might also change your perspective. Once you know how you are feeling in this exact moment, you need to find a clear way to communicate it to your partner.”
Try to understand your partner’s perspective.
Just as you expect your partner to hear you out when you share your concerns, it’s important to listen and try to understand their perspective as well.
“Show compassion and empathy,” Yiu said. “You have to accept and respect that there will be differences.”
Orbuch explained that no two people see the world in exactly the same way, but they can try to get a better sense of their differences.
“Try to understand your partner’s perspective,” she said. “Why do they feel the way they do? How can you respect each other’s views of the world and still respect the need for comfort and concern with certain activities now?”
Ask questions and gauge the differences in how you respond to new information as the situation evolves.
Discuss areas of compromise.
“Even if your disagreements over risk seem insurmountable, there are routes to compromise,” Hafeez said. “For example, if you are talking about not traveling by plane, does that mean until no COVID exists in the world or until a certain metric has been met?”
Talk about metrics, timelines and longer-term expectations. Hafeez also advised looking into the reasons behind different levels of risk aversion.
“People who are fearful about their safety might have past trauma,” she said. “Conversely, someone who is very cavalier about following public health mandates or regulations might be rebelling against controlling parents. Realizing the larger issue at hand should help you to approach differing viewpoints with more compassion and less anger.”
Couples might look into activities that can be done without a large group so that the less risk-averse partner doesn’t feel like they’re missing out or comparing their experience to “normal times.”
“For the more risk-averse partner, perhaps education or a meeting with a trusted physician will help to understand what activities are ‘safe’ for someone of their age group and general health,” Hafeez suggested.
If one partner wants to go to a conference where there aren’t many safety restrictions in place, perhaps the other partner can compromise by allowing the trip but setting up an isolated space for them to quarantine when they return. (If you have children, that exact compromise probably won’t work, so perhaps there’s a scenario that involves making less risky choices at the conference or rapid testing upon coming home). It’s all about baby steps and openness to adjustment.
“The virus and how they react to it brings up emotional baggage for many people,” Hafeez said. “The goal is to have a peaceful, safe and loving home where you can enjoy your life. Relationships mean compromise and the things that are at the top of the list are going to take negotiations and some wiggle room on behalf of each partner.”
“Don’t let that anxiety or stress permeate and affect your health and well-being,” Orbuch said. “Practice individual self-care. If not, it may become more challenging to handle and deal with the differences and stress of the divergent views.”
Understand the mental and physical energy that goes into navigating the pandemic and relationship conflicts. If you find yourself getting upset during these discussions, consider taking a pause.
“Take a breather,” Yiu recommended. “Maybe take 20 or 30 minutes apart and deescalate the situation. But make sure to come back to it. Calm down and resume the discussion.”
If you aren’t able to come to any agreement, it’s OK to set boundaries for yourself as well.
“Boundaries are very important,” Hoffman said. “If you compromise your own beliefs or feeling of safety for your partner, you’re going to build up resentment. You can’t control your partner’s actions, but you can tell them how it will impact the way you interact with them if they are unwilling to take your preferred precautions.”
If you start to see more extreme differences or feel like your partner is not hearing you and continually violating your boundaries in this area, it might be time to take a more serious look at your situation. This is especially true if you have children and start to feel concerned about safety.
“In a relationship, feeling safe is crucial to feeling secure in that relationship,” Hafeez said. “If arguments are arising every day, you should seek couple’s counseling.”