Written by: Michele Weiner-Davis
Several weeks ago, I told my husband about my plan to shop for food and supplies in case the Coronavirus reached pandemic proportions.
He smirked and said something like, “You’re so predictable,” referring to my tendency to worry about dire outcomes. I’m just wired that way.
Not to be deterred, I took off to Costco and once there, filled my cart until I could feel the adrenaline stop pulsing through my body. Upon learning about my Costco mother lode, I became the brunt of my family’s jokes.
Fast forward to the last few days. No one is laughing anymore.
Especially not the couples in my practice.
I spent several hours on the phone today with a couple in crisis from California.
Married for 8 years, John, a physician, and Rita, a journalist, had not been able to stop arguing for three days. Their hostility was growing exponentially.
When asked what had been going on between them, it quickly became apparent that the issues identified were merely red herrings; something deeper had hijacked them emotionally.
And it was this.
John and Rita had completely different perspectives about the risk involved with the current COVID-19 situation. Because of his medical background, John felt that, while they should not panic, he and Rita should make immediate changes in their lifestyle to minimize risk to them and their two young daughters.
For John, this meant other than his work responsibilities, he and Rita should limit contact with the public- no socializing with friends and family, staying home as much as possible, stocking up on food and supplies from online sources, and following mainstream medical advice regarding regular handwashing and sanitizing surfaces at home.
Rita, on the other hand, while not oblivious to the health risks, believed that with diligence and sufficient caution, their chances of contracting the illness was slim. She didn’t agree with John’s plan to fully limit social contact, especially for their toddlers who had frequent playdates. Also, Rita was close to her parents and felt grandparent visits were a major bonus in their daughters’ lives.
During our two-hour call, Rita repeatedly asked, “When does the cure become worse that the illness?”
Rita felt that John was over-reacting. She wanted to have intermittent help with the kids and household chores. Furthermore, Rita wanted to be able to meet with friends occasionally and run errands outside their home.
John was furious, insisting that Rita was underestimating the risks involved with the Coronavirus and that she was endangering herself, their children and him.
This argument lead to many others like it, leaving each of them feeling misunderstood, disrespected and angry. Abiding by the new “social distancing” recommendation became easy for the two of them- they avoided each other completely,.
Rather than pull together and mobilize their personal strengths during this worldwide crisis, John and Rita were at odds. But they agreed on one thing- being quarantined with each other felt lonely and suffocating.
Apparently, Rita and John are not alone.
Many other couples in my practice have expressed similar concerns. The details of the altercations vary from couple to couple, but there is one common denominator- the fear and anxiety that arise when faced with the unknown.
And even for those who seem relatively calm about the potential impact of COVID-19 in their lives, they’re worried about their jobs, the economy and the unpredictable ways in which the Panic Pandemic will change life as they know it.
In short, we’re all on edge.
And the funny thing about relationships is that when we feel unsettled- uncertain, anxious, irritable or depressed, for example- we are likely to take it out on the people closest to us, the people we love the most- our partners.
What makes this all the more confusing is that, rather than being direct about our feelings and having heart-to-heart conversations about our inner thoughts and vulnerabilities, our nervousness comes out sideways- we have arguments about the kids, how the dishwasher is loaded, the wet towel left on the floor or the loud snoring that interferes with sound sleep at night.
We fail to recognize or acknowledge the inevitable universal tension underlying our accusations. We blame our spouses rather than our raw nerve endings.
A friend of mine, Susie called and said that she and her husband, Rick had had a really good conversation. Rick projected that their mutual decision to lay low, stay home and avoid others was going to be more challenging for Susie than for him due to the fact that she is a self-proclaimed extrovert with adoring friends.
On the other hand, Rick, her admittedly introverted husband, was quite content to work from home and spend time holed up with his otherwise social butterfly of a wife.
After some thought, Susie replied, “You’re absolutely right. And I know that when I feel unhappy, I can be prickly towards you. Let’s make a promise that we are going to be very patient and nice to each other. We should go out of our way to be kind. We need to be on the same team right now. And I apologize in advance if I get short with you. Let’s be good friends.”
Susie and Rick got it right.
Let’s remember that we’re all in this together. Let’s give each other get-out-of-jail-free passes when our responses to mundane matters seem a bit over the top. Let’s let the small things slide. Let’s use this down time to find new and creative ways to connect rather than blame each other.
Let’s inoculate our marriages against fear, anxiety and uncertainty by making love our most important underlying condition.
Written by: Michele Weiner-Davis, a licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, and author in the field of family therapy. She is the Founder of The Divorce Busting Center in Boulder, Colorado, and Woodstock, Illinois. She is an internationally renowned relationship expert, best-selling author of seven books, psychotherapist, and speaker.