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?
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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:
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.