As people debate masks, social distancing and other safety precautions against COVID, the different levels of comfort has shown up in relationships. One person is more cautious than the other leading to varying ideas of how they should behave which leads to disagreements. Here are a few scenarios that have played out over the past months:
Summer is here. The warm weather beckons. He wants to get together with a big group for a BBQ in someone’s yard and doesn’t feel the need to wear a face covering because “it’s outside.” He knows it’s possible it could spill indoors at some point and isn’t particularly bothered by the idea. She is committed to maintaining 6 ft distance from others, wearing masks and staying outside. He’s been feeling caged-in with COVID, fatigue and needing social connection. She feels a similar fatigue but is more aware of her preoccupation with keeping the family healthy. They argue and it causes a rift. He is frustrated with her. She feels unvalidated and unsupported.
As a couple they’ve been pushing out socially, practicing social distancing, enjoying the contact they have missed. Their children have also been monitored, having limited and safe contact with only a few kids. The parents have a medium size group over for a party outside in the yard, in theory meant to be “safe,” but as the alcohol flows it gets out of hand and caution is thrown to the wind. They play loud music, dance and intermingle closely, forgetting their own guidelines. One of their children upon observing the scene, bursts into tears, scared her family will get COVID. The parents not only feel shame about losing sight of their good intentions and causing fear in their child but of the mixed messages given. Do as I say, not as I do.
These and many other situations have unfolded all over the country as people try to figure out their comfort zones and personal risk assessments in this pandemic. Despite an alarming and growing virus surge in this country, there still exists divergent thinking about what should and should not be done to contain the virus. The same divergent thinking can easily exist between couples too.
What do you do if you and your partner disagree on how to “be” out in the world?
The basics of healthy relationship functioning can serve as guidance. The most important aspect of secure relationships is the level of emotional safety, the glue that binds the couple together through the changes, crises and curve balls of life.
A few aspects of emotional health:
- feeling heard
- feeling understood
- feeling validated
- feeling empathized with
- feeling prioritized
- feeling respected
In a loving relationship, a couple feels at ease and a port in the storm for each other during challenging times. COVID-19 has been an ongoing storm, lashing some more harshly than others, but none the less has triggered a catalyst of feelings, conversation and division on many levels. How we move around in the world and among each other is under the microscope in a sea of conflicting information.
If someone in a relationship feels vulnerable in any way, ideally the partner meets them to help establish security in whatever way possible. If this doesn’t happen, resentment can build leading to relationship disconnect.
If you have different opinions about how you as an individual, a couple or family should be moving around in the world with regards to contact with others, it’s important to talk about it. Have an open, honest discussion about your feelings. Hear the person who expresses their fatigue with being home, with not seeing friends or enough of them and possibly having a desperate need for normalcy. And hear the person who is cautious and profoundly worried about the well being of the people he/she cares about.
Though in normal circumstances finding a compromise of some kind would be encouraged, this situation is more challenging as compromise might still feel threatening for the perceived safety of the one with the more conservative approach. When deep fear is invalidated, it can cause a cascade of deeply rooted problems for the relationship when a primal need is not met. In this case we are talking about the need for emotional safety which if is invalidated, can be damaging. “I can’t rely on you to keep me/us safe.”
To preserve the stability of your relationship, the position of the one with virus fear needs to be prioritized over the one with frustration around virus fatigue.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t set ground rules that attempts to honor both. Can the need for social connection be done safely in a way that feels acceptable to both? Can masks, distancing and group numbers be adhered to in order to allow for the fearful partner to feel safer while allowing for contact with people? If you can at least validate each other’s experience, that’s a great start.
Continue to check in on it in an effort to prioritize the emotional safety and security of your relationship. The future is unclear around many things integral to our society; schools, economy, employment and health. It’s important for you both to continue to share your feelings about all of this. Remember that this is HARD for everyone. Remain compassionate for yourselves and each other during this time. Keep the big picture in mind and know things will get better again.
Many marriages and long-term relationships are feeling the strain of this pandemic. If yours feels in jeopardy or disconnected, it’s important to remember to give your attention to it in order to best weather this storm. Keep lines of communication open and seek support if needed.
If you are in California and considering couples therapy, see my online therapy site, CaliforniaOnlineTherapyAndCounseling.com or the Psychology Today Therapist Directory to expand your search to other states.