Decontaminate Your Relationship

Stop hygiene differences from harming your connection in the age of coronavirus.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

At the height of the first COVID-19 outbreak in Europe and the U.S., a man in Munich licked a subway ticket machine, claiming he was trying to spread the virus. Likewise, a woman in Pennsylvania coughed atop $35,000 worth of food in a grocery store, and a man in the U.K. spit in the faces of police officers. Myriad cases have led governments to take action, and the U.S. Department of Justice has since stated that the intentional spreading of the coronavirus may be considered an act of terrorism.

While most people would never intentionally instill terror in others—let alone in those with whom they are in a close relationship—they often end up doing just that whenever they choose not to take seriously the concerns of those whose sensitivity to contagion is higher than their own. Sure, you aren’t intentionally terrifying your partner when you refuse to Purell your phone before putting it on the counter or to take off your shoes before coming into the house—just as you wouldn’t intentionally break their heart if you were to have an affair. But it’s not enough just to not intentionally cause harm; we need to intentionally not do so, if we hope to keep our relationships (and moral compass) intact.

People have different levels of sensitivity when it comes to germs and hygiene for a variety of reasons. I’ll briefly discuss two such reasons that may be especially relevant here: awareness and gender.

It’s possible that germ-sensitive individuals are simply more “hygiene literate,” more aware of the nature and spread of germs: think about how much more sensitive you are now to the idea of someone double-dipping in the communal bowl of hummus or to touching a public doorknob than you were before the Internet was flooded with videos showing the bespeckled, contaminated surfaces illuminated by a germ-detecting blacklight.

Indeed, awareness and sensitivity tend to go hand-in-hand: when we’re more aware of racism, for example, we tend to be more likely to notice and react to racist attitudes and behaviors. (As such, the term “germ freak” is not only demeaning; it is wholly subjective. For instance, in the 1800s, doctors who advocated hand washing prior to surgery were mocked and scorned.)

Culture also plays a role in perceptions of contamination and hygiene—notably, germ and hygiene sensitivity seem to be gendered. Sensitivity in general is considered a feminine trait (which is devalued and, therefore, often derided); and many attitudes and behaviors regarding hygiene are rooted in sexism. Men who are unshowered or primped are “musky” and “scruffy” while women are “rank” and “ungroomed.”

Plus, women have historically been regarded as simultaneously less hygienic than men (consider the widespread perception of menstruating women as dirty and the marketing of “feminine hygiene” products) and more so, expected to uphold a higher standard of cleanliness. However, despite these facts and that studies show that women are generally more hygienic than men, people of all genders can and do trigger contamination fears in others, as evidenced by the female grocery-store cougher.

So what are we to do if we wish to reduce the chances that we’ll cause those who are more germ-sensitive than we are to feel even more anxious than they already do during this frightening time?

First, take the other person’s contamination concerns seriously. This means listening openly, with the goal of truly understanding why they are anxious and what they need in order to feel less afraid. It also means being willing to become more informed and to act on the information you learn: it may be that your behaviors contradict those recommended by the WHO, which is indeed a cause for concern.

Even if the risk of contamination is small, don’t minimize the other person’s anxiety. Minimizing tends to cause maximizing: when a person feels their fears aren’t acknowledged, they often amp up the volume, internally and externally. They become more anxious and try harder to control their environment. You probably wouldn’t feel reassured by your roommate nonchalantly telling you not to worry because there’s only a small risk that his new pet tarantula (of the venomous blue sapphire variety) that he lets out of the cage once a day will end up on your ankle. Instead, the lack of his concern would exacerbate yours.

Hygiene needs are safety needs—and for any relationship to endure, its members must be committed to protecting each other’s sense of security. Let’s say the person to whom you’re relating is in fact “hypersensitive” when it comes to germ exposure. So what? We all bring vulnerabilities into our relationships. Perhaps you’re extra sensitive to any hint of betrayal after your ex cheated and left you for someone else. Hopefully, your partner would treat this sensitivity with a little extra TLC rather than judge you for your vulnerability.

Moreover, don’t mistake a person’s attempt to control their environment with them being controlling. Everyone needs to feel in control of matters that directly impact their own wellbeing, so the less in control someone is, the more they’ll strive to take control. (And, in fact, refusing to attend to another’s safety needs may itself be a form of controlling behavior.)

Be like Nike and just do it. In healthy relationships, people commit to doing whatever they can (as long as it doesn’t cause them to violate their integrity or feel unsafe themselves) to help the other person feel secure. Safety needs are bottom-line needs, so they must be given priority when they conflict with other kinds of needs. Contamination fears can be outright terrifying and, when triggered, they can release a flood of neurochemicals that cannot just be turned off. So, if the other person asks you to take decontamination measures beyond what feels necessary for you, do it. If a small amount of effort (or even a lot of effort) means we can prevent someone from feeling such distress, why wouldn’t we be willing to do so?

The coronavirus pandemic has created widespread traumatization. People around the world have been feeling powerless and terrified. Now, more than ever, people need their homes and relationships to be safe spaces. They need to feel they are sheltered within a protected fortress rather than locked inside a perilous prison; and that those in their lives are allies who honor their security, rather than terrorists who threaten it. Indeed, each time we help loosen the grip of anxiety that’s around the throat of humanity, we are even more than an ally; we become a hero.