What to Do When COVID-19 Causes Relationship Tension

Here's how to get along better when you can’t agree about coronavirus safety.

Posted Aug 21, 2020

“We ran into some neighbors at the hot dog stand, and they sat down right next to us on the picnic table. They weren’t wearing masks. I was uncomfortable but I didn’t know how to say something."

“Everyone in the family was planning to get tested before we met at the beach house this summer, but my mom still felt afraid of all the people she might see on the beach, so we didn’t go on vacation and we lost our deposit. I’m really mad at her.”

Although the coronavirus and COVID-19 aren’t going away anytime soon, many parts of this country have begun to experiment with reopening. Restaurants, museums, and gyms have opened up in various states. Neighbors are starting to make social plans again; people are inviting each other for socially-distanced drinks in the backyard, and youth sports have returned to the calendar, albeit in modified fashion.

But with all of these options and activities now back on the table, new problems have arisen. Some people may feel comfortable joining friends for dinner, but their roommates might prefer that they stay home instead. One parent sees their children’s friends getting together, but their partner insists on keeping the kids at home.

As a recent article by the AARP has pointed out, social invitations that should spark delight are now causing anxiety instead, or even conflict. How, amid the ongoing dangers of the pandemic and the still-present need to maintain public health, can people negotiate a comfortable path between health, safety, and feeling normal again?

Cottonbro / Pexels
Source: Cottonbro / Pexels

To begin with, it’s important to learn how to recognize the source of a conflict. With circumstances being what they are, these days, couples may find themselves arguing about something minor — like filling the car up with gas, or grocery shopping — without realizing that they are actually reacting to the long-term, chronic stressor that is COVID-19.

As reported in USA Today, it’s altogether too easy to lash out at your partner, or at a family member, without realizing where all of that negative energy is coming from. You may feel anger, but in reality, you’re probably expressing fear. The fight-or-flight response in your sympathetic nervous system — which governs the body’s physiological response to stressful events — is being triggered chronically, at a low level, by the dangers posed by COVID-19.

Tziporah Rosenberg, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Rochester, told USA Today that with COVID in the background, our survival instincts may be crowding out our capacity for higher-level skills like empathy, compassion, and patience. As NPR recently reported, this could make it much easier to jump to conclusions or to judge other people harshly (as in, accusing them of selfishness or belittling their safety-related fears).

“Some friends of ours made a plan with my husband to meet for dinner at a barbecue place in another neighborhood. To get there we would have to take the subway, so I told my husband we couldn’t go.”

“My cousin and his wife had a new baby, and my family got together at his house to see it. Everyone went inside, and no one was wearing masks, and everyone was holding the baby. And my 3-year-old niece came out to the door and kept asking me to “Come in! Come in!””

Challenges like these present themselves quite often, nowadays. Imagine that you’ve been invited to the home of a friend or a relative, and when you arrive, you see five other guests whom you didn’t know were coming. Or perhaps your host has graciously prepared a huge platter of finger food and is expecting you to share it with them. Events like these are likely to provoke strong emotions, as an NPR story has indicated, which are likely to lead to conflicts as well.

Conversations about coronavirus safety in such situations may even resemble talks about safe sex: In both cases, it’s crucial for all parties involved to be able to express their values, to indicate the level of risk with which they are comfortable, and to have their feelings heard and respected. In fact, the more talkative you can be about your perspective, the more comfort you’re likely to feel and to inspire in the person with whom you are in conflict.

As suggested by psychologists Barry J. Jacobs and Julia L. Mayer in their article on AARP.org, some very basic communication strategies can help resolve conflicts over coronavirus risk. First and foremost, when confronting an activity that raises safety questions, it’s very important to listen before you make a decision. You’ll need to know how your partner, friend, or family member feels about the risk the activity might create. And be careful: If you have strong opinions, airing them too soon might sound like a rush to judgment.

Also, when you hear from someone else that their comfort level differs from yours, don’t try to chip away at it, or to convince them that they should see the situation your way. Work to accept the reasonableness of their position, just as you would have them empathize with yours. This may occasion some frustration, but try not to express it as a demand to be heard. (It’s very invalidating to use your frustration with another person’s standards as a tactic to shut them down.) Then, try to understand and express support for their concerns.

“I let my kids play soccer with their friends in the park, and I told them not to touch anybody and to wash their hands when they get home, but my husband says they shouldn’t be doing this.”

“This girl I’m dating has been living with her mother, who doesn’t like that I just got back from Florida. I guess I should probably quarantine for a couple of weeks before we have another date, but I don’t really want to.”

As you talk, try to identify the specific risks inherent in the activity you’re considering, as well as the possible opportunities or benefits it might offer. As ABC News suggests, try to make a list of the aspects of the situation that provoke anxiety. (If you’re visiting neighbors, are you comfortable accepting a canned beverage? Are you prepared to use the bathroom in someone else’s home?)

When you’re clear about the particular risks, you can generate some ideas about what you both might need to make you feel comfortable and safe. Be creative, too; there may be a way to carry out the social activity without experiencing as much risk as you perceive in your first reaction. And in the end, after you’ve identified the risks together and brainstormed a few ideas about how to socialize while minimizing these risks, you can make your decision about whether or not to go.

It may sound unusually difficult to work through this process whenever you and your family member, friend, or partner have a reason to break out of the comfort zone you’ve likely been inhabiting for the past several months. But the communication skills described above — listening, validating, identifying risks and benefits, brainstorming solutions, and deciding — are applicable to many other conflicts that commonly occur in close relationships. Learning to value the feelings and opinions of others, especially when they differ radically from our own, can help us become kinder and more empathic with the people we love.


Brady, J.  (2020, July 9.) Coronavirus etiquette: Conflicts about what's safe are straining relationships.  Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/07/09/889395630/some-people-agree-to-disagree-over-whats-safe-during-the-pandemic

David, E.  (2020, June 7).  How couples can minimize conflict over COVID-19 safety as reopening begins.  Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/Health/couples-minimize-conflict-covid-19-safety-reopening-begins/story?id=70999320

Dembosky, A.  (2020, July 8).  Starting a COVID-19 'social bubble'? How safe sex communication skills can help.  Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/07/08/886541838/starting-a-covid-19-social-bubble-how-safe-sex-communication-skills-can-help

Jacobs, B & Mayer, J.  (2020, June 9).  How to stop arguing with your spouse about coronavirus risks.  Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2020/arguing-about-coronavirus-risks.html

Puente, M.  (2020, April 9).  Family feud: Clashing over coronavirus is the new source of household tension, fighting.  Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2020/04/09/coronavirus-quarantine-fighting-causes-family-drama-amid-virus-fear/2955382001/