How to Manage Your Partner's Risky Behaviors

What to do when your partner's risky behaviors threaten your own health.

Posted Oct 17, 2020

Research consistently shows that partners in long-term relationships influence each other's health habits (e.g. Wickrama et al. 2020). It would seem to make sense, based on this evidence, that during the COVID-19 pandemic, people who are married or involved in an intimate relationship would share health-related behaviors involving social distancing and facemask use. They either boost each other's attempts to protect themselves from the virus or together place themselves potentially at risk for infection. Ask yourself now if this is going on in your relationship? How is your partner's behavior influencing your own adherence to the advice of experts intended to slow the spread of the disease? 

If your closest relationship is with a man, public health research suggests your partner is placing you more, not less, at risk of becoming ill with the virus. As noted in by New York Times columnist Daniel Victor, there are higher rates of infection and death among men due, potentially, to the view that it’s unmanly to follow public health guidelines, especially when it comes to wearing a facemask.

The connection between taking risks and masculinity extends beyond this latest public health crisis to such causes of death as not using seatbelts, driving while intoxicated, and even not getting a flu shot. The feminization of mask-wearing, particularly as reflected in the behavior of President Donald Trump, immediately put this public health measure into the category of behaviors a “macho man” must avoid. In Victor’s words, “many American men who look up to Mr. Trump are taking his cues, choosing to forgo protective measures that health officials say are crucial to slowing the spread of the virus.”

The upshot of this labeling as feminine the wearing of a facemask is that couples involving a man or men are confronted with yet another threat to their relationship caused by the pandemic. If you are a woman partnered with a man, your desire to protect you and your family can be thwarted when that man either refuses to go along with your facemask wearing or issues a steady stream of complaints in the process. Perhaps you’ve gone through this before, with one of those other sources of risk, but his behavior now literally threatens you and other family members, not just him.

One of the latest studies of the psychological components of masculinity by the University of Akron’s Ronald Levant and colleagues (2020) showed just how central the idea of risk-taking is to a man’s sense of identification with male norms. Using a sample of 1561 men drawn primarily from the community, and ranging in age from 18 to 76 (mean=33 years old), Levant et al. sought to develop a shorter but statistically robust version of an existing measure of male norm conformity known as the Conformity to Male Norms Inventory (CMNI).

Reducing the original number of items on the test from 94 to 30, expanding the rating scale, and rewording items to be clearer should, Levant et al. believed, provide an easily administered scale with greater potential to gain insight into what drives men to conform to stereotypically male behaviors. Such a scale could theoretically be of value as public health researchers try to unpack the rather illogical link between manliness and mask-wearing.

After subjecting the revised questionnaire to tests of its statistical structure, the authors identified these 3 items on their new measure, the CMNI-30, as most closely reflecting the idea of risk-taking: “I enjoy taking risks,’ “I take risks,” and “I put myself in risky situations.” The man who conforms to male stereotypes, then, might find it exciting, if not thrilling, to put his safety in jeopardy by flaunting various health warnings.

As part of their investigation, the Akron-led research team also studied the relationships between the scores on the 20-item masculinity scale and two mental health indicators. Although the authors cautioned against over-interpreting the findings, they did report a positive correlation between the risk-taking scale and a brief mental health measure. As Levant et al. note, “greater conformity to masculinity norms was associated with less favorable mental health” (p. 634).

Why would men who strive to conform to a male norm report poorer mental health? Insight into this question comes from a recently published study by the University of Leipzig’s Julia Kaiser and colleagues (2020).

In examining the relationship between adherence to masculine norms and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress among 10 previously conducted studies, Kaiser et al. conclude that the “masculine norms prescribing restrictive emotionality (e.g., dominance/control, self-reliance, emotion restriction)” are what can lead men who adhere to these norms to be overwhelmed by trauma. Indeed, the CMNI directly taps these facets of men’s belief in male norms with items such as “I like to talk about my feelings” (reversed) and “I bring up my feelings when talking to others” (reversed).

Masculine norms, then, not only involve placing a man at greater risk to his health, but may also fail to sustain him when he’s faced with a crisis. If you’re in a relationship with such an individual, then you have undoubtedly witnessed this tendency to shove aside feelings of anxiety, depression, and fear. Add COVID-19 to the mix, and you have a partner who may, on the one hand, be at greater risk for infection and, on the other, unable to put his own potential fear of the virus into words.

It would be hard to imagine that all of this emotional baggage that your partner carries with him wouldn’t affect your own mental health. You’ve become afraid now to insist that he comply with mask-wearing guidelines because you don’t know how he’ll react. You also don’t want to keep pushing a behavior that stirs up some of those fears he’s trying to minimize.

What, then, can you do to avoid having your partner's actions be hazardous to your own health? If you know he’s the type who likes to seem as macho as possible, you can use this knowledge to put your own message to him in words that reinforce his idea of himself as a supporter of you and your family. Unfortunately, the CMNI doesn’t include questions about men’s belief in themselves as head of the family, but given the idea of the “male protector,” it would make sense that tapping into this aspect of the male self-image could help you advance your cause.

You might also consider providing your male norm-seeking partner with facemasks that allow him to project masculinity to the outside world. Consider making or buying ones with such "manly" images as sports logos, racecars, spiders, camouflage, or just basic, tough, black.

To sum up, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new forms of stress that can threaten both relationships and health. Finding your way through this particular set of challenges can help you protect both your health and that of the men whose health matters most to you.

References

Kaiser, J., Hanschmidt, F., & Kersting, A. (2020). The link between masculinity ideologies and posttraumatic stress: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(6), 599–608. doi: 10.1037/tra0000578

Levant, R. F., McDermott, R., Parent, M. C., Alshabani, N., Mahalik, J. R., & Hammer, J. H. (2020). Development and evaluation of a new short form of the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (CMNI-30). Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(5), 622–636.  doi: 10.1037/cou0000414.supp (Supplemental)

Wickrama, K. (A. S. ), Lee, T. K., & O’Neal, C. W. (2020). Couple BMI trajectory patterns during mid-later years: Socioeconomic stratification and later-life physical health outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(5), 630–641. doi: 10.1037/fam0000644.supp (Supplemental)