Couples' Conflict in the Age of Coronavirus

Feelings are never right or wrong.

Posted May 24, 2020

Jasmine Wallace/Pexel
Man and Woman
Source: Jasmine Wallace/Pexel

Tom and Lisa and their two children, ages 5 and 7, have been sheltering at home for ten maddeningly long weeks. They are both extremely careful about the various risks and talk about how other people risk themselves and others with their carelessness. They order their groceries online, see friends and family online, and leave the house only for their daily walk together. Still, despite increasing the frequency of their online couples’ therapy, things are starting to wear a bit thin. They each notice the other being short with the children and more quickly irritable with each other.

Things come to a head when Lisa hesitantly approaches Tom to tell him that her monthly book group is going to meet in person for the first time in months and that she would like to join them. Lisa assures Tom that they plan to be very careful and follow all of the CDC guidelines including meeting outside, practicing social distancing, and each bringing their own adult beverage, but Tom is terrified. Tom has asthma and knows that he is at greater risk of becoming seriously ill if he gets the virus. He still remembers horrifying times as a child, struggling to breathe in the middle of the night, scared that he was going to die.

Tom and Lisa argue back and forth. They each keep up to date about the latest news about the virus, so they each send each other articles they find online from infectious disease doctors who are “reliable” and public health officials who “know the inside story.” Each article, of course, buttresses his or her own point of view. Not surprisingly, none of this flood of information changes either’s perspective one little bit. As they repay what is essentially the same argument over and over, Tom and Lisa become increasingly distant from each other and begin to feel hopeless about ever finding a way out of their mess.  

Tom and Lisa’s arguments don’t go anywhere because they are arguing with each other about facts as if they were a couple of attorneys trying to win a case rather than talking about their feelings like two partners trying to reach a deeper understanding and acceptance of each other. They’re talking about this a lot, but neither Tom nor Lisa is saying much about how they feel or doing much to listen to or honor their partner’s feelings. When one of them does manage to talk about a feeling, the other immediately challenges it with facts, essentially saying they are wrong to feel that way. There’s not much listening going on, much less empathy or caring.

It’s as if one of them says they are cold and the other checks the thermostat and says, “you can’t be cold, it’s 70 degrees in here.” Being told it’s 70 degrees certainly doesn’t make anyone feel warmer, it just makes them feel bad about themselves. A more helpful response would be to get up and get a blanket.          

One day, serendipitously, Tom and Lisa have a breakthrough. They start back in on the same old argument when Tom unexpectedly begins to weep softly. For the first time, he tells Lisa how scared he is, and talks about the terror he felt during his childhood asthma attacks. While Tom had told Lisa about his childhood asthma before, this was the first time he has ever really shared with her how frightened and alone he felt as a child. 

The tension between Tom and Lisa quickly evaporates. Lisa holds Tom while he talks about how afraid he is of getting the virus, not being able to take care of his family, and suffocating to death alone in a hospital. Slowly, they work out a plan they both can live with. Lisa will go to her book group, wearing a mask and gloves, but not before talking to each member about how safe they are being. She agrees to go from the book group directly to the clinic to have a COVID-19 test and to quarantine herself in the guest bedroom until they get the results.

At this point, their kids get bored and push their way into the conversation. Tom and Lisa gather them up and head to the park for a socially distanced family outing, confident that if they continue to talk and listen to each other about how they feel they will successfully avoid the COVID-19 conflicts.