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4 Steps to Conquer COVID-Related Conflicts in Relationships

You can have different beliefs about COVID safety and have relationship harmony.

Key points

  • The delta variant has increased conflict between loved ones around COVID-related safety.
  • Couples can take specific steps to manage differences in COVID risk tolerance, starting with evaluating the reasonableness of one's own position.
  • Sometimes it's helpful for couples to seek therapy if there are deep relationship issues at play, or if one's COVID anxiety is unreasonable.
Source: chameleonseye/iStock

When you and your loved one have different approaches to COVID safety, it can be incredibly stressful. The rise of the delta variant has caused a resurgence of relationship conflict around issues of safety and risk. So, how can you handle it when one person in a relationship wants to fly cross country to their friend’s wedding, while the other person isn’t comfortable going into a grocery store? Here are four steps to follow for people on both sides of the risk equation:

Step 1: Evaluate Beliefs About Risk

There has been a lot of conflicting information about what is safe to do during COVID and what is not, and the delta variant has just added more confusion to the mix. The first step is to sit down with your loved one and objectively evaluate each person’s tolerance of the risk of a given activity.

One question to ask each other is, would a reasonable person agree that it is safe to do a given activity, or conversely, would a reasonable person agree that it might not be safe to do it? There might be some gray areas, such as if both people are vaccinated and one wants to eat at restaurants, whereas the other does not feel comfortable doing so. In this case, there really is no right or wrong answer.

However, there might be situations that have more clarity. Consider a scenario in which one person’s anxiety appears to be off the charts. For example, a man and his wife are planning to drive and visit his middle-aged, vaccinated parents in two weeks, and one insists that they do not leave the house at all leading up to the trip, that they get PCR tested the day before the trip, and that they only see his parents masked and outdoors.

Conversely, there might be a couple living with an elderly parent, in which one person wants to go to a large indoor concert in a town with a high rate of COVID cases.

One thing to ask yourself, if you are the more cautious person in the relationship: Is your caution reasonable? Would the average COVID-conscious person agree with your assessment? Or is it a sign of a larger anxiety problem? If it is the latter, it might make sense to seek the help of a professional to assist you with dealing with your anxiety.

What if you are the less cautious person—are you being somewhat reckless? Does the other person have a legitimate reason to be concerned about your behavior? Is the thing that you want to do worth potentially getting you or others sick and/or rupturing the relationship? These are some questions that might help you reconsider your choice of activity, or think about if there is a safer way to do it.

Step 2: Express Empathy and Validation

Even if you think your loved one is being completely unreasonable in either direction, can you try to see things their way? Maybe they do have a pre-existing problem with anxiety, and it makes sense that COVID has caused so much distress for them. Or, maybe they are an extroverted person and have really suffered from the lack of social opportunities during the pandemic and just want to get their life back to some degree of normalcy.

Regardless of the reason, you will have a much more productive conversation if you can see the other person’s perspective. You don’t need to agree with them, but a little expression of empathy can go a long way in addressing these differences.

A way to communicate empathy and validation is to say something like, it makes sense that you want to ______, given that you _______.

Step 3: Compromise

The next step is seeing if a compromise is possible. Remember to connect to an overarching goal of preserving relationship harmony; this is not a negotiation between two adversarial lawyers. Is there any solution that will make both of you happy? In the example of differing opinions about restaurant dining, perhaps the person who wants to go out likes the idea of eating something new in a different location than their home and would be willing to get take-out and have a picnic in a park.

If you are the more anxious person who is setting overly restrictive limitations, would you be willing to tell your loved one that you understand that your anxiety is a problem and that you will seek professional help? Perhaps there are some aspects of your restrictions that you could ease up on if necessary.

Step 4: Explore Deeper Issues

Maybe you have tried steps 1-3 with your loved one and you can’t seem to de-escalate the conflict and can’t make any forward movement. It’s very possible that there are deeper relationship issues at play that do not have anything to do with COVID that need to be addressed. COVID could just be a spark that lights the fire of anger and resentment that has already been brewing under the surface. If you think that might be the case, evaluate what underlying issues might be present for you and your loved one and try to address those with them.

Seek Additional Help If Needed

The stress and uncertainty of COVID have made relationships challenging for many people. If you don’t feel like you can solve these issues on your own, consider seeking the help of a therapist. A skilled couples or family therapist can be helpful for conflict between people; some might also benefit from individual therapy.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.