Last week my husband Sam and I started arguing. Frequent episodes of bickering about what used to be regular household decisions like whether we need to go to the grocery store. After several days of really resenting his take on almost everything, I realized we were having the same argument over and over. We’re fortunate to have a safe place to shelter, food in the cupboard, and some paying work, but the arguing was severely affecting our ability to deal with the ongoing crisis.
Sam and I are a perfect example of the magnet relationship theory: opposites attract. In life pre-pandemic, I’d go to the beach to quietly ponder the waves or read a long-ignored novel. He’d go to interact, taking walks to connect with people, filling his socializing quota along the way.
Life in this pandemic has thrown into stark relief that the introversion-extroversion spectrum is not the only way that we’re polar opposites. My public health and clinical background and my risk-averse nature mean that I know what sterile technique requires and I yearn for zero risk. I would have us never leave the house, make do with canned goods for the next X number of weeks, and interact with living beings only over Zoom. For Sam, it’s important to carry on as much as possible with the activities that make life worth living—albeit with mask, gloves, and sanitizing wipes.
Even when we follow expert guidance from CDC, WHO, and state public health departments, there are nuances in how we define “safe enough” on the spectrum of safe versus risky and in how scrupulously we execute the safety guidance. And with this coronavirus the stakes are high.
As the predicted peak in Boston approached, our conflict intensified. It finally erupted when the dishwasher broke. I was ready to handwash dishes for a month or two. He was on the phone setting up a repair call. I lost it, and I felt justified in seeing his stance as completely wrong.
Perhaps because of my training as a coach, I noticed the pattern of our fights and stepped back enough to be curious about why he felt as he did. Fortunately, my husband was willing to try an exercise with me. We sat next to each other at the dining room table, a sheet of 8X11 paper placed lengthwise in front of us. Along the left side he listed how he wanted to deal with COVID-19 safety and interacting with the world. I wrote my preferences along the right side. Then we compared our lists.
We found several items overlapped: masks, gloves, sanitizing wipes every time we are out. Handwashing frequently and regular disinfecting of high-touch areas at home. Then we tackled the areas of disagreement. I said okay to the dishwasher repair as long as we left the house during the service call and carefully disinfected afterwards. He agreed to live on the canned and frozen food we have in stock and enter the grocery store no more than once every two weeks. We ended up with a “policy” that is helping us with daily household decisions. We can change the plan together once the peak has passed here in Boston.
My guess is that we’re not the only household dealing with this COVID-19 safety conflict. Just this week, two friends shared similar stories with me. Acknowledging the conflict, being curious about the underlying reasons, and negotiating a way forward together has helped. The exercise is not perfect, but at least we have a framework for discussion, and more important, we know what we’re really arguing about. And the process will probably help us navigate conflicts in the future, post-pandemic, whenever that future arrives.
Photo credit: Kira M. Shannon