DEAR DR. JENN,
My partner and I have been cooped up in our apartment for the past four months. As time has gone on and we've gotten increasingly stir crazy, we've been fighting about how much potential risk is OK. For example, outdoor restaurants have re-opened where we live. My partner is itching to go, but I still don't think it's a good idea. Every day there's a new decision: Is it a terrible idea to go to that BBQ we were invited to? Is it safe to go to the beach? Do we really still need to wipe down all of our groceries? Can a friend come over for a socially-distanced visit? Is it OK to visit with my mother, who is not as careful as we are? How do we handle all of these decisions without it turning into a blow-out? —Covid Conflict
DEAR COVID CONFLICT,
It's no secret that coronavirus has put a magnifying glass on existing relationship problems, while also creating countless new stressors for couples to navigate. The record number of divorces in China post-quarantine doesn't surprise me: I have seen more conflict amongst couples than ever before. While arguments about the seriousness of COVID have been going on since the beginning of the pandemic, many couples are facing disagreements about how to handle the new gray area of risk we find ourselves in.
I am talking to a lot of couples these days about how to navigate these decision making challenges. Here's what I recommend at this stage in the game.
1. Stay up to date on the latest science.
I spend a good portion of my professional day processing, validating, and talking about feelings. I consider feelings to be pretty important stuff. But when it comes to making health and safety decisions, I do not. We are all missing out on things we want to do, we feel frustrated and long to do activities that are no longer safe — but these feelings should not dictate our decision-making process. Yes, they need to be talked through. Those losses need to be mourned. But, when it comes to making choices that are in the best interest of everyone's health and safety, those should be based on the latest science and information that is available.
2. Assess the risk-reward ratio.
In some cases, the risk simply isn't worth the reward. Think: Going to a bar. Experts consider this to be a dangerous, high-risk activity — and no cocktail is worth it. But, there are times where the risk is minimal and the emotional pay off is huge. For instance, seeing a parent or grandparent you haven't seen in months. Talk it through together calmly to figure out what the benefits are and if there's a way you can put extra safety precautions in place to ease the other person's concerns.
3. Seek to understand.
If you're the more cautious person in the relationship, try to understand why the activity in question is so important to your partner. Is their emotional state more precarious than you realized and they are hoping this activity will make them feel better? If you understand what it is they are seeking to relieve or what need they are hoping to meet, you may be able to find alternatives that could work for both of you.
4. Defer to the more conservative person.
In every couple, there is one person that is more cautious. Given that these are potentially life and death issues, when in doubt, you should err on the side of caution and defer to the more conservative option. This may involve FOMO, but it is worth it. After all, how would you feel if you pushed your partner to go to a social engagement where people are not wearing masks or taking social distancing seriously — and then he or she got sick?
5. Validate your partner's feelings.
Feeling seen, heard, and understood goes a long way towards creating positive regard in a relationship. Even if you ultimately decide against a certain activity, validating your partner's feelings (i.e. “I know this is especially hard on you because you are such a social person”, “I can really see how painful it is not to get to hug your sister”, “I know you are tired of cooking and are longing to go to your favorite restaurant”) brings you closer together.
As challenging as these times are, try to look at them as an opportunity for you to up your game and improve your relationship skills. If you can be a patient, loving, mindful partner in a pandemic you can do it any time. The skills you are developing now will serve you and your coupledom forever.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.