September 24, 2020

How Couples Can Tackle Choices During the Pandemic

Around the world, couples are struggling to cope with the stress that comes with reopening cities and towns (and the pausing or rolling back that, in some places, has ensued). For some, tension has run high for months: As Eric Spiegelman, a podcasting executive based in Los Angeles, tweeted in April, “My wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, it’s called ‘Why Are You Doing It That Way?’ and there are no winners.”

That might’ve been in jest, but with the possibility of resuming certain pre-lockdown activities — going to restaurants, seeing friends, working out at gyms — couples are in the process of addressing differing comfort levels.

One partner might have parents who are older and at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus; the other might be an extrovert who thrives on being around other people and is, emotionally, at a breaking point. And, together, they could face questions like: Should we go to a friend’s barbecue, even though it probably won’t be rigidly socially distant? Who do we invite to our daughter’s birthday party, if we even have it at all?

“The traditional marriage vows are ‘for better or for worse,’” said Jean Fitzpatrick, a relationship therapist based in Manhattan. “This is for worse. And so how do we navigate a time like this? Our relationships will either grow as a result, or they will be harmed.”

Below, some strategies you can use to find a path forward that works for both of you.

Soujanya Sridharan, a recent graduate of a master’s program in Bangalore, India, had started to plan her wedding before the lockdown; she and her fiancé expected 300 people to celebrate with them. Then, the coronavirus hit India, now one of the worst affected countries. She wanted to go forward with fewer guests, but her fiancé was more reluctant: Some of his family members wouldn’t be able to come, and he is more worried about contracting the virus himself.

“When he resisted the idea of going ahead with the wedding, it made me wonder if the lockdown had actually changed his mind about going ahead at all, as opposed to getting married at that time,” said Ms. Sridharan, 23.

They talked through it and worked together to find solutions — whittling down their guest list, showing outfits to each other over Zoom and developing safety measures. He wanted to wear masks in the wedding photos, but saw how much it meant to his bride-to-be to have keepsakes that didn’t reference the pandemic, so he took off his mask for a few pictures.

“Once you feel respected and heard, you usually can negotiate anything,” said Deb Owens, a licensed therapist specializing in relationships who is based in the Philadelphia area. She has been regularly speaking with couples struggling during the lockdown.

In difficult situations, therapists often recommend thinking not just of “you” and “me,” but talking about your relationship as a third entity.

“It’s not, ‘My needs versus your needs, and let’s negotiate,’ but asking the question and having the posture of: ‘What is best for our relationship?’” said Jennifer Bullock, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia.

Important, too, several psychologists and counselors recommended presenting a united front when explaining shared decisions to friends and family. Any sort of “I would, but he’s afraid” seeds resentment and can amplify the problem far past the boundaries of your own home.

It’s always tempting to drop some knowledge when you’re in the middle of an argument. But some therapists think appealing to data, in lieu of listening to the emotions and concerns of your partner, is a losing strategy.

“People just need to consistently ask themselves: ‘Would you rather be right, or would you rather be in a loving, connected relationship?’” said Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a licensed mental health therapist and certified clinical trauma professional based in Kennewick, Wash.

David Woodsfellow, a licensed psychologist and the director of the Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy in Atlanta, agreed. He said that thinking about things in terms of “right” and “wrong” is often less helpful than trying to understand how and what the other person feels.

“Try to understand what they are saying and why they are saying it,” Dr. Woodsfellow said. “It is totally possible to understand things you don’t agree with.”

Of course, facts and concrete information are helpful and often necessary when considering joint decisions, like how safe it is to send children to camp or how long another family would have to quarantine before you became a pod. But when you’re offering data, make sure you’re doing it in the spirit of educating and working with your partner, rather than hammering your own point home.

Some of the most common things that the psychotherapist Matt Lundquist hears are: “I already know what she is going to say,” or, “I already know what he thinks.” It’s almost always untrue, though.

“I will plead with them to suspend their disbelief and really work to deeply and sincerely engage in curiosity,” said Mr. Lundquist, the owner and clinical director at Tribeca Therapy in Manhattan.

In any fraught situation, sit down with your partner and listen. Instead of offering rebuttals, try to treat it more like an interview about where he or she is coming from. Ms. Fitzpatrick suggests asking only open-ended questions — which can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or a “no.” Some of the most tense discussions might be about work or money. You could try, “How are you feeling about our finances right now?” Or if you have been working from home: “How should we approach our safety when you go back to the office?”

Karen Osterle, a couples therapist based in Washington, D.C., said to give your partner the benefit of the doubt. She suggests using language like: “I know you probably don’t mean to come across as dismissive or condescending right now, but when I hear you say I shouldn’t worry, I find myself feeling disregarded.” Or, “Can you see what I mean, even if you don’t mean to make me feel that way?”

A partner’s need might come across as just a preference — for example, if one of you wants to visit family in a different state, it might seem like something that can be postponed. But it could be that a parent really needs help, or your partner is overwhelmed. You’ll find out what’s going on only if you ask.

You’ll know you have truly listened when you can describe your partner’s perspective in a supportive way — regardless of whether you agree with him or her.

Just as fights about the dishes aren’t ever just about the dishes, fights about going to a birthday party post-lockdown aren’t just about the party. Look deeper into the anxieties and frustrations undergirding each position and see if you can fulfill the emotion without doing the precise activity.

“It’s looking beyond ‘I want to go to this restaurant and sit on the patio’ to: ‘What might that mean to you? What does that represent?’” said Samuel Allen, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Keith Miller Counseling & Associates, a private practice based in Washington.

The good news is that there are creative solutions. If one person really needs to get out and see friends, a socially distanced day at the park might be an option.

“This is not just like, ‘What is a middle ground?’” Dr. Allen said. “It’s, ‘What is another method, what is another way that we can meet the need that prompted your original request?’ Ask: ‘What will that bring you, and what are other ways we can achieve it together?’”

Maybe you’re tired of cooking for yourself and another person, and restaurants nearby have tantalizingly reopened. Or you could be exhausted from running after your kids and hear of a summer camp with space available. Ultimately, your well-being and others’ should take precedence.

“Everyone’s concerns need to be respected, and all of the adults in a family system need to be respected as full voting members, but that doesn’t mean that each of the adult concerns are equivalent,” Mr. Lundquist said. “I do generally feel that the person who is more concerned about an issue of health and safety needs to be given a lot of deference.”