How to Navigate Disagreements About COVID-19 Safety

Advice for couples who want to stay safe and connected during the pandemic.

Posted Nov 25, 2020

We are nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and couples who weathered the stresses of uncertainty well in the beginning may find themselves disagreeing more as the pandemic drags on.

Maybe it was fine to host socially-distanced, outdoor dinner parties in the spring and summer, but now the lower temperatures and memories of dining at your favorite restaurant indoors are taunting you into arguments with your partner. Or, perhaps, after nine months of remote school with your children at home, you are ready to take the kids to the playground while your partner balks at the safety risk.

What does a couple do when they disagree and the guidelines regarding COVID-19 safety still involve some degree of risk to physical or mental health? As with many things related to COVID-19, the answers can be unclear and unsatisfying, leaving someone in the relationship feeling frustrated or disconnected. As the COVID-19 winter surge leads to an increase in case counts, hospitalizations, and deaths, some couples may experience a parallel increase in arguments over safety-related differences. Consider the following five suggestions to help you navigate these difficult decisions in your relationship.

Name the actual problem.

If you zoom out from the immediate disagreement about safety behaviors — whether to spend the holidays with extended family or attend a friend’s winter wedding — what you are really talking about is risk tolerance. Our risk tolerance is related to our sense of safety in life and we all vary in our ability to cope with risk. In a relationship, a feeling of safety is a critical component to our sense of trust in the relationship, which is one of the foundational components to a satisfying and secure connection. This is important for couples to understand when disagreeing about whether or not to allow their teenager to spend the night at a friend’s house or whether to invite grandparents over for dinner. The disagreement is really about safety and trust. This realization may help you approach the disagreement gently and compassionately.  

Seek to understand your partner rather than convince them you are right.

It is not uncommon for couples in a disagreement to tune their partner out and wait for their turn to reply with a counterpoint. Rather than listening with presence and understanding, they may be conjuring up their next point of refusal. Unquestionably, this is counterproductive to solving an emotionally charged disagreement. If one partner feels misunderstood or unheard, trust and connection can chip away, leading them to dig their heels in about the issues.

Alternatively, try truly focusing on your partner and listening with the intent to understand their perspective. Listen with an empathic ear, one that seeks to absorb the panoramic view of your partner. For example, seek to understand why they want to avoid dining indoors at restaurants, and when, perhaps, that may change for them. Seeking to understand your partner’s perspective and letting them know you hear and understand them is the definition of empathy.

Communicating empathically goes a long way in solving disagreements because it creates space to think flexibly and creatively. Suddenly, something that may seem black and white — whether or not to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family — becomes gray. If you truly listen, you may create new possibilities in the disagreement. For example, regarding Thanksgiving, maybe you learn your partner will celebrate the holiday with more family members if you do it outside with a space heater, or if family members quarantine before gathering. Ultimately, seeking to understand your partner reduces their natural defenses and opens the pathway to a common ground.

Discuss the disagreement when both partners feel calm.

Disagreements that involve COVID-19 safety precautions can activate a physiological stress response for some people, putting them in a fight or flight mode. This increases the likelihood of one or both partners escalating the disagreement or shutting it down. The challenge under these conditions is that it is harder to listen to and understand your partner. Instead, the risk of defensiveness or stonewalling increases, making a resolution seem impossible.

Being emotionally regulated prior to and during the disagreement is important. You can do this by choosing a time to talk when you already feel calm and connected with your partner, maybe you just finished watching a movie together or cuddling on the couch. If you still feel yourself becoming activated during the discussion, take a deep breath, slow down, and remind yourself you care about your partner and want them to feel connected and safe with you.  

Get practical and consider who is impacted more.

Once all of the core conditions are met — trust and safety, seeking to understand your partner and communicate empathy, and emotional regulation — it is time to get practical. Who is impacted more by the safety issue?

For example, if finances are tight because one partner is not working due to fear of contracting COVID-19 and the other partner is mentally and physically burnt out from shouldering the financial burden of the household, then maybe it is time to consider jobs previously unconsidered. Are there jobs that would accommodate safety concerns but still produce an income? Or, if one partner is depressed from months of limited outings and wants to go shopping at the indoor mall for holiday gifts, is the risk worth the improved mental health? Alternatively, maybe going to the mall creates so much anxiety for the other partner that trust and safety in the relationship are compromised. Is there another way to improve emotional wellness that is an acceptable compromise? These are the types of questions couples need to ask while keeping in mind that relationships deteriorate without trust and safety.

Create your own metrics.

Governments, businesses, schools, and universities all set metrics to help guide their decision making regarding COVID-19. Relationships are unique, though, because couples want to make practical decisions while also maintaining intimacy, trust, and emotional safety. Setting metrics for when to engage in the disagreed upon behavior can lead to compromise through delayed gratification and instillation of hope, or seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

For example, if one partner wants to go to the gym but the other partner is worried about COVID-19 exposure, then set the metrics for when both partners are comfortable with going to the gym. Does it need to be after the winter season, when the positivity rate is a certain number, or when a vaccine is available? Setting your own couple specific metrics allows both people in the relationship to get what they need in some way.