March 20, 2020 at 11:04PM
For most of us, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of frightening headlines, denial, acceptance, dark humor, shifting from going to an actual office to a virtual office, canceled events, adjustments to kids being home rather than at school, the eerie dawn of “social distancing,” and surreal experiences in grocery store aisles in preparation for an uncertain future thanks to the new coronavirus. These changes can be overwhelming—and can take a toll on our connection with a partner.
What do you do if your partner doesn’t share your view about responsible distance or hygiene protocols? If they deny the seriousness of the situation, minimize the impact of the virus, or insist that they’re not at risk or a risk to you or others?
Fundamental differences in how you and your partner see and handle risk can create a challenging dynamic in your relationship. These differences can affect how safe, understood, supported, or at ease you feel with one another.
How to have a productive conversation about the coronavirus with your partner.
If your talks with your partner on the subject of the virus have taken place in the nooks and crannies of busy, distracted, task-oriented lives and routines, chances are neither of you was truly open to connecting and understanding a different viewpoint. Try to have a new kind of conversation: one you embark on with the intention of being vulnerable and clear rather than winning the argument or changing your partner’s mind.
To increase your chances of a conversation rather than a dispute, consider these suggestions:
1. Prioritize your connection.
Let your partner know you’re feeling vulnerable and want to talk to them about the coronavirus and its impact on your relationship. Tell them that your intention is to stay connected in the midst of stress, worry, and uncertainty.
2. Use the soft startup.
Use what John Gottman calls “a soft startup.” This means using “I statements” rather than “you statements”—psychological shorthand for avoiding judgment and blame and for taking responsibility for your own needs and feelings. A soft startup might sound like, “Hey, can we set aside 30 minutes to talk about how we’re dealing with the coronavirus? I think it’s important for us to stay close, especially now.”
Once you agree on a time you’re both open to talk, temporarily shake off your worries, put away your phones and devices, and focus completely on one another. Agree to listen first before responding, and try to respond with a validating comment before you say anything else, like, “I can see why you would feel that way and want that from me.”
3. Focus on your feelings, not on “convincing” each other.
When you share with your partner, tell them how you feel and what they can do to help you feel safer. Rather than trying to convince them to share your view, or to prove that they’re either irresponsible or paranoid, try speaking from the heart. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, and you may need to remind yourself to circle back a few times to what you’re actually feeling, reminding yourself that thoughts, interpretations, and opinions are often ways we avoid connecting with our feelings.
For example, expressing your feelings about COVID-19 might sound like: “I’ve been feeling vulnerable, scared, angry, and sad. I want to do what I can to stay safe and keep others safe from this disease. I need your help because I want to stay connected to you. It would help me if you’d consider adjusting certain behaviors.” This is very different from saying, “I can’t believe you’re still going on that trip, how idiotic can you get!” or “You were always obsessive-compulsive about germs, I’m used to this with you!”
In Relating Revolution, Kris and Meenal Kelkar advise partners to “speak from the heart; speak leanly; speak spontaneously in an unrehearsed manner; and listen with an open heart.” Keep this in mind when you sit down to have any important or difficult discussion.
4. Keep talking about it.
Don’t give up on your partner if your first, second, or third coronavirus conversation doesn’t instantly result in a change in their behavior—in a reduction of the number of times they touch their face throughout the day or a greater consciousness in the number of people they’re physically close to. It may take time for this reality—and for your words—to sink in. Circle back and have another conversation using these tips a different day.
Having honest, vulnerable conversations in which you and your partner focus on one another and share your emotional truth, fears, and needs will likely help you understand each other better. Even if you don’t see eye to eye on the virus, the level of risk it presents to you and others, or how best to protect yourselves, sharing openly will likely help you both feel less “alone.” This in itself is a protection against mental distress. Sharing how we handle unsettling emotions, navigating daily upheavals and uncertainties, and reshuffling our professional lives has the potential to create intimacy—even when doing so is uncomfortable or difficult for us.
Drawing the line.
In some cases, no matter how often you use “soft startups” or create the conditions for heartfelt conversations, or ask your partner noncoercively and directly for support and collaboration in the interests of both your and others’ health, your partner may not change. They may continue to go to bars, refuse to wash their hands, sneeze without covering their mouth, disregard important requests you’ve made, rationalize and deny the dangers, or flout safety issues.
If this is the case with your partner around the issue of COVID-19, chances are, you’ve already had some challenges with lack of communication in the past, collaborating as a couple, accepting each other’s influence gracefully, and being interdependent in a way that allows you to feel secure and safe. It may just be that this new, high-stakes issue—where your and other people’s health (and for some, even their life) is at risk—has brought a hidden “relationship deal-breaker” to the surface.
If this is the case with you and your partner, perhaps it’s time to seriously look at your shared values. Does your partner value freedom and autonomy at the expense of safety and collaboration? Talk with them about your values, and ask them to share theirs. Try to understand their values, and help them understand yours.
If your partner is unable to integrate your value of safety and responsible action in a time of global crisis into their value system and do their part to reduce the risk of catching or carrying the virus, you may need to consider the possibility that COVID-19 is unmasking an irreconcilable difference between you. This difference would likely have surfaced sooner or later. How you choose to handle this reality—which may not be an easy choice to make—becomes less of an issue with your partner and more of a matter of how you let go of a relationship that isn’t serving you so you can take care of yourself.