Terror Management and Your Marriage

How to support each other in a time of need.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

Marriage vows are for better or worse and in sickness or in health. Unfortunately, during a pandemic, times are worse and loved ones may be in poor health. I remember in high school engaging in discussions about who one would want to be with at the end of the world. At that time, during the early 1970s, the end of the world seemed like it might be a nuclear holocaust. We never imagined it might be climate change or a pandemic. From an early age, our romantic fantasies are not just about sex but also about comfort when we are feeling frightened and vulnerable. We know that Mom and Dad won’t be there forever to protect us and take care of us at a time of need. So, at a certain age, we start fantasizing about finding a soulmate, a life partner, who will be that go-to person who will always have our back when Mom and Dad are no longer around.

Most of us don’t want to grow old alone with no one there to comfort us when we are frail and can’t easily take care of ourselves without help. We like the idea of growing old together and perhaps privately hope that we die first so we don’t die alone or have to burden our children with having to take care of us in our final years on the planet. All of these fantasies of growing old with one’s life partner presume that our life partners will be strong, resilient, calm, healthy, and comforting when we feel weak, frail, ill, frightened, and grumpy. That is not always a realistic fantasy. What if both members of a couple are feeling weak, frail, ill, frightened, and grumpy at the same time? Who is going to be the pillar of strength when both are feeling vulnerable and in need of comfort? Who will be the caretaker when both members of the couple feel a need to be taken care of?

Terror Management, Viral Infection, and Marital Bickering

Terror management theory posits that existential threats to our survival that arouse fears of death and dying activate various defense mechanisms. One proposed defense mechanism is called “worldview defense”: We become more ideological in terms of whatever our deep-rooted convictions happen to be and we treat anyone who challenges our cherished worldview as a threat. Evolutionary psychology posits that we all possess a “behavioral immune system” that protects us from bacterial and viral predation. Emotions like disgust and phobic avoidance help us avoid people and things that might contaminate or infect us.

A pandemic may simultaneously activate our terror management mechanisms as well as our behavioral immune system. To manage our fears of dying we may become more rigid and inflexible in our thinking, get defensive and angry if anyone questions our point of view, and begin to engage in phobic avoidance of anything that might infect us. We could become frightened and angry if anyone blocks our attempts to avoid anything that might contaminate us. Some of us give in to these fears and panic while others go into denial to minimize their fears. Either way, we get angry if anyone makes us feel that we are either overreacting or underreacting to the threat of viral infection.

This understandable emotional reaction to pandemic creates marital tensions. Who is going to be the pillar of strength when both are frightened, becoming increasingly ideological and intolerant in their thinking, avoiding anything that is threatening, and getting angry and defensive whenever these coping mechanisms are challenged? At this point, members of a couple start triggering each other’s worst fears, leading to petty bickering and no longer comforting each other at a time of need and vulnerability. Couples get into power struggles about the nature of reality as couples angrily debate the best way to manage a health crisis for themselves, their children, and their elderly parents. It becomes difficult to function as a team and be a team player when there is a power struggle as to whose vision will lead the team forward into an uncertain future.

What to Do?

1. Don’t dump your feelings on your partner. Yes, you want comfort and understanding but you won’t get it if you just dump your feelings on your partner. Yes, you feel overwhelmed but you risk making your partner feel just as overwhelmed as you if you just dump your feelings on them. You need to assume responsibility for sharing your feelings in a measured and reflective way that your partner can take in. You are in for a fight if you just overwhelm your partner by dumping your feelings on them.

2. Brace yourself for being challenged. You’d like your partner to validate your feelings and viewpoint as that reassures us and makes us feel grounded. We use our partners as sounding boards to quell our own self-doubts. But your partner most likely has a mind of his or her own and might question your viewpoint or make you feel that you are either over- or under-reacting to an emergency. Don’t get defensive. Don’t feel you need to justify your viewpoint. That will just get you into an angry debate about how to best handle a crisis.

3. Don’t hold a grudge. You probably will get testy with each other despite your best efforts not to. Be open to reconciliation once you’ve gotten on each other’s nerves and snapped at each other. You’re both stressed out so both of you will probably lose it on occasion. To err is human, to forgive divine.

4. Don’t be judgy. In a crisis, there is always some uncertainty as to the best way to cope. No one really has all the answers, and no one has a crystal ball to predict the future. We need to cultivate some humility despite our tendency to become very ideological and overly certain of how things will play out when we’re frightened.

Times like this are a stress test for a marriage. Hopefully, when a couple survives such a life-threatening crisis together, the marriage emerges stronger than ever. You had each other’s back when it really counted, and you are eternally grateful for that.