About a month ago, my long-term partner nonchalantly informed me during a phone convo that he had and a couple friends had hung out indoors together the night before. Even though his actions irked me, I didn’t want to pick a battle after we'd both had an unusually long workday, and I also empathized with the fact that he’d been seriously struggling from a lack of socializing. I've since realized that fighting with your partner about safety during quarantine isn’t only normal, it’s actually downright healthy. At the time, though, I panicked and shut down, stifling my uneasiness until days later when it bubbled to the surface. If I didn’t vocalize my feelings, I knew they’d breed something much worse: resentment.
Couple's therapists agree that conflicting opinions about what is and isn't safe have become a common source of contention these days — but fortunately, they all agree that there’s a way to discuss these differences in a calm, considerate way. After all, the last thing you and your partner need during an already stressful time is an emotional blowout.
“Getting your partner to buy into the same rules can be stressful,” Dr. Tammy Nelson, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist and host of the podcast The Trouble with Sex, tells Elite Daily. Lots of people are arguing about how to follow government standards and when to loosen the boundaries.”
The first step, of course, is to determine what may or may not be safe in your local community. These guidelines are constantly changing, and as many states reopen, it’s especially important to stay on top of what experts are recommending. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has been continually updating its guide on How to Protect Yourself & Others, so that’s a great place to start. Additionally, many public health experts have been speaking out in various news outlets about how to minimize transmission of the virus as states reopen for business. You can also try Googling “[your state or city name] coronavirus safety guidelines” to find guidance that’s specific to your area.
According to Dr. Nelson, it’s important to openly discuss your “redlines” (hard boundaries) as well as your concerns to ensure you’re on the same page and avoid potential misunderstandings. A redline might be deciding that when loved ones come over, they must stay outside the house and remain 6 feet apart. A concern, on the other hand, might be figuring out how you can keep each other safe if one of you has a job on the frontlines that involves interacting with people on a daily basis, such as a grocery store, healthcare clinic, or food delivery worker. Dr. Nelson notes that it’s extremely important to remember to ask your partner what their redlines and concerns are as well. By being curious about what’s important to your partner, you are showing you care.
Once you’ve identified all of your individual boundaries and concerns out loud, Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent couples therapist in Los Angeles, recommends that you write up a list of issues you agree on as well as those you don’t currently see eye to eye on — the latter of which presents an excellent opportunity to master the art of compromise.
“For instance, you may want to let the daily mail sit in a paper bag for 24 hours until opening it, and your partner wants to open mail immediately,” explains Dr. Brown. “In this situation, one possible compromise might be for you to continue to wait to open your own mail, and for your partner to open their mail at their leisure and promise to safely dispose of the mail so that you don't come into contact with it, as well as wash their hands immediately after handling the mail.”
Being able to compromise is a super valuable skill in any relationship, and now, more than ever, couples will be tasked with finding ways to make sure both parties feel comfortable and heard, even when they don’t agree.
“It's rare for people to see eye-to-eye on everything,” says Dr. Laurel Steinberg, a licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert. “So, a good rule is for a couple to cater to the most-worried partner's preferences unless they are so far out of bounds that daily living becomes unbearable.”
With this approach, Dr. Steinberg notes that the less-worried partner could do some research or get the opinion of a trusted physician to help them make choices that make sense. She also highly advises writing down the rules you agree to and describing in as much detail as possible how they are to be followed. The more specific you are, the less likely there is to be a misinterpretation that leads to conflict.
While the hope is that setting clear boundaries will help you both to be more respectful of each other’s safety concerns, there may be instances in which you or your SO slips up and breaks one of your predetermined rules. What then?
“Since this is a very real health and safety issue that the two of you have agreed upon, it seems imperative that you immediately express your concerns and fears about them breaking an agreement that could negatively impact their and your health and safety,” he says. “Coming from a critical and negative place may very well trigger defensive actions on the part of your partner and they may rebel by continuing to engage in unsafe health practices.”
While you may feel betrayed or even angry if your partner neglects to follow one of the guidelines you decided upon, attacking them by calling them names, taking a judgmental stance, or shaming their risk assessment can backfire and only make things worse. That’s why Dr. Brown recommends setting aside a specific time to express your feelings in a non-accusatory way. It can be helpful to start with an “I” statement instead — something along the lines of: “I feel scared when you [insert XYZ behavior] because it not only puts me at risk but also you and other people we may interact with.”
It’s important to show empathy for how they may be feeling, but also don’t be afraid to execute some consequences for their actions. For instance, Dr. Brown notes that you may want to abstain from intimate physical contact with your partner for whatever amount of time feels safe to you. It’s also worth clarifying that you’re not doing this to punish them, but rather, to protect both of you.
“Hopefully, your partner will feel and express some degree of remorse for violating the agreements you two had about COVID-19,” adds Dr. Brown. “But if your partner blows you off and says ‘You’re just being too cautious,’ then you likely have other problems in the trust department. Did they verbally agree to avoid certain behaviors just to make you happy, knowing that they would likely break one or more of those agreements?”
Keep in mind that these conversations will have to be ongoing, especially as state and local laws change. You may want to agree to check in regularly on your shared safety rules and to adjust them accordingly as needed.
“It's really going to be a series of conversations about how much risk you are comfortable or not comfortable taking,” Dr. Brown explains. “Having and being a partner who is sensitive to a situation that could have dramatic health consequences is vital.”
If you find that you keep having the same fight about one or more safety matters, Dr. Brown notes that it might be helpful to talk to other couples to see how they are coping with similar issues. He also advises seeking out counseling from a licensed professional to get some additional support and potentially new ideas for coping strategies from an unbiased third party.
“Having tried everything you can, the situation may get to a point where your partner continues to break basic safety agreements,” says Dr. Brown. "If you constantly fear for your safety because of your partner's constant disregard, it may be time to live apart or if you are dating, to stop seeing them until they either see the light… or not.”
Ultimately, experts agree that the best thing you can do during one of these quarantine conflicts around safety is to think before you talk.
“It's important for partners to have the skills to bring up all types of concerns in a respectful, healthy way,” Dr. Steinberg tells Elite Daily. “Remember that you are speaking to your best friend. Remember that you are both very likely to remember forever how you related during this crisis. Consider what you want your partner to think and feel down the road about how you treated them — then speak.”
The reality is that you can't control your partner or their actions. However, as Dr. Brown points out, you can control what you will and will not accept where your own health and safety are concerned. Better yet, you can also control whether these disagreements make or break your relationship. By being honest about your comfort zones and showing each other respect, compassion, and consideration, you're in a much better position to not only emotionally support each other during quarantine, but also keep each other safe.
Dr. Tammy Nelson, licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert
Dr. Laurel Steinberg, licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert
Dr. Gary Brown, couple's therapist