En español | Soon after their state's stay-at-home order was lifted, Emmett and Dawn received an invitation for the first neighborhood barbecue of the season. But what should have pleased them after months of being cooped up put them on edge instead. He wanted to attend to eat hot dogs and mingle with friends. She wasn't sure it was yet safe to gather with others without contracting the coronavirus. He thought she was ruled by outsized fears she needed to get over. She thought he conveniently “forgot” that his diabetes made him more vulnerable to COVID-19 and that she had to protect him because he wouldn't protect himself.
During their 25-year marriage, Emmett had always been the risk-taker while Dawn had been the cautious one. Whenever they were at odds over a decision, they argued at first, then reviewed the facts of the situation and found compromises. But this time, the facts about the pandemic still seemed so fluid and uncertain. How would they come to agreement about what is safe to do now that many stay-at-home orders are relaxing?
Many couples are having similar debates nowadays. Should they see others or postpone plans? Drive to the office or stick to the house? Wash hands for two choruses of “Happy Birthday” or one? Wear masks to avoid germs or avoid them as a hindrance? Many spouses are aligned on these and other questions and act in concert accordingly. Others are at tense stalemates with one another. They understand the stakes are high because all immediate family members are connected. If one bold spouse ventures out, becomes infected and inadvertently brings the virus home, then the other could become sick.
The manner — cooperative or confrontational— couples use to handle big decisions like this can strengthen or weaken the degree of trust in their relationships. How can spouses deliberate about these questions calmly and productively to reach workable solutions? Here are some ideas:
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Listen before deciding
Rather than focus on making the big decision — which is how many couples leap directly into struggles — spouses should sit down first and talk through what they know to be realistic about the situation and then their specific concerns. Any plan they create together must rest on listening to one another without judgment and developing greater mutual understanding. The cardinal sin of couple interactions is trying to change your spouse, including her or his tolerance for risk. We must accept where we each are and work with it.
Don't play the frustration card
Sheltering in place and feeling cut off from normal life have been frustrating for many of us. No wonder many spouses feel strongly that it is time to rejoin the world. But high frustration, while understandable, is not a good emotion to have when entering delicate couple negotiations. The best listening and most productive conversations occur quietly and calmly without loud emotional appeals. The belief that “I have to get upset to be heard and taken seriously” isn't often true. Approaching this decision as a contest of wills to be won by the more forceful pressure is usually more alienating than effective.
Make concrete proposals and be flexible
Like most big decisions, ones about ending quarantine are made up of lots of small specifics. Couples should never get stuck on complicated questions such as “Should we go to the barbecue?” Rather, they should ask themselves, “Under what particular conditions would it feel safe for us to go?” The risk-taker can propose going only if they stay outside or wear masks while speaking with others or limit how long they are there. The cautious one can counter by suggesting they keep social distance even outside or speak with others but eat at home or just put in a brief cameo appearance. It is in the back-and-forth about these discrete issues that a compromise may emerge.
Emmett and Dawn did find a compromise to allow them to attend the barbecue for at least a little while. They would bring their own chairs, drinks and food to the party to grill. He promised to keep socially distanced even from his best buddies and leave whenever she needed to even if he was involved in a great conversation. They would both wear masks — correctly — even if others didn't. By settling on this plan, they created a way to fight COVID-19 as a team and bolster their trusting bond.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and health care consultant, and Julia L. Mayer, a clinical psychologist, are married and the coauthors of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers.