We are all trying to find our way in the disorienting, strange new reality of the pandemic. In addition to having lost our own familiar pattern of daily life, getting along with our spouse or partner during “COVID togetherness” is more complicated and challenging. When feeling — or being — constrained, it’s easier to get into struggles to defend our right to freedom and space. With risk in the equation, what used to be considered a basic personal choice has now become our spouse’s concern and a potential area of conflict.
People differ in their judgment and tolerance of risk. Some even seek out risk for the sensation of stimulation, to regulate mood, escape, or act out self-destructive impulses and rescue fantasies. Typically, normal differences in judgment and tolerance of risk in couples come into play less often and more indirectly, for example, when we’re affected by the fallout of what happens to our spouse as a result of a decision they made. Or if a decision impacts feelings of trust and security in the relationship.
But when it comes to decisions that directly risk the safety and life of our partner, as with COVID-19, one spouse’s greater risk tolerance forces the other to assume that same level of risk, requiring consciousness of personal responsibility when making decisions. Though the health stakes are higher with COVID-19, a comparable situation is when an affair or sexual acting out risks transmitting a sexually transmitted disease to a spouse. In these cases, “personal choices” are actually mutual decisions made without consensus or acknowledgment of the inherent responsibility that constrains the right to personal freedom, when it comes to this type of choice.
Our interconnectedness as human beings during this pandemic is now both more conspicuous and at a new level. But it’s always been true. Though it’s easy to lose sight of, we know experientially that our individual well-being and state of mind is more affected by the climate of the relationship than by whether we get to do something we want that feels good in the moment, but jeopardizes or divides us as a couple. To access the wiser part of the brain, we can imagine fast forwarding in time to predict how an action will play out. How good will it feel afterwards to do something you want to do if it makes your partner feel unsafe, and puts them at risk? Will it be worth it?
It’s easy to be tempted into control struggles when we feel trapped and hold on to a sense of unfairness. The good news is that the current context lends itself to the approach competitive teams use for making strategic decisions. With this model, when solving conflict and making decisions, we envision ourselves on a team with our spouse as if competing with other couples in an event or challenge, and wanting to win. Using this paradigm enables us to shift perspectives, bringing into focus what really matters — and allowing us to make things right. If we become strong together, the climate we live and breathe at home will support us and feel more comfortable day to day.
Successful, winning teams know that team members are interdependent but have different skills. They recognize and capitalize on each other’s strengths, factor in one another’s weaknesses, and take care of one other — working together to create better plays. Keeping our eye on the ball in this way not only pays off, but feels better than fueling resentment with a sense of injustice and entitlement about who should do — or get to do what.
The idea here is to find a way to get on the same side as your partner. For example, an effective way to de-escalate conflict in difficult conversations, is to recognize and make explicit your partner’s positive intentions towards you, rather than assuming the worst. Doing this makes the other person feel understood and pulls for their better self.
- “I know you care about me and don’t want me to feel anxious and unsafe. That affects how we both feel.”
- “It’s true I am scared for you to do that. I understand how much you want to and that you’re ok with the risk because you don’t think anything bad will happen. But, even if unlikely, (siding with your partner’s viewpoint) it could happen so can we think it through?”
- “If I did get sick or you lost me, it would be traumatic enough for you. I know you always feel responsible for things. I do worry that if that happened, it would be hard for you to live with yourself having made that decision.
- If your partner seems overly restrictive: “I just want to take a walk, and I know you feel unsafe with that. Is there anything I can do that will make you feel safe with it?” (Giving your partner some control.)
Neuroscience has shown that we co-regulate one another. Our own state is affected by our partner’s and, at an imperceptible level, we react to the vibe of rejection on a neurobiological level. When we harbor anger, or don’t trust one another, it hurts both people, and renders it hard to make decisions that are smart — and good for the relationship, or even remember that we’re actually in everything together. But it’s more important now than ever to unite because how we get along is what has such a powerful impact on our mental and physical health, and the way we feel day to day — especially now.