The pandemic has massively disrupted normal life, creating conflict and suffering in innumerable ways. This much we know. But what I didn’t know, or expect, was how much disruption and the particular kind of conflict the pandemic would create in marriages and long-term relationships.
For the first year of the pandemic, couples actually managed well. The physical and emotional consequences of the virus, being cooped up in the house together, the losses endured, fear, anxiety, financial instability, all of it was handled, by and large, with compassion and patience. Many couples, in fact, grew closer and more appreciative of each other over the first year of pandemic isolation. And yet, something has definitely shifted.
Perhaps it’s the fallout from all the time spent together, or all that required compassion, but what’s showing up in my office right now is a whole lot of impatience—and conflict. Particularly, that is, when it comes to what's safe, how to re-enter life, and at what pace.
Two couples who disagree about COVID
Chloe and Zach are struggling. Both are vaccinated, but for Chloe, being vaccinated means she has the green light to get back to normal life; COVID is in her rearview mirror. It means she can go out to restaurants and events without fear. She still wears a mask when she goes to indoor events, but for the most part, she is living a post-COVID life. Her husband Zach, on the other hand, doesn't trust the vaccine like his wife does. He is still anxious about breakthrough infections and avoids all indoor events, even masked. After Chloe attends in-person events, which she has started to do (alone), Zach spends a period of days quarantining in their small studio apartment, so as not to be potentially exposed to the virus. His anxiety about getting sick from COVID was only mildly eased by the vaccine, and he is definitely not ready to join his wife in regular life, and not ready to take advantage of all the possibilities that are opening up.
In another example, Steve received the vaccine as soon as it came out; he never gave it a second thought. He understood that it might not be foolproof, but felt the benefits far outweighed the risks. Steve trusted what the scientists and health organizations were saying and was ready to roll up his sleeve, and move on with life. He was particularly excited about being able to travel again with his wife, as this had been one their favorite activities as a couple.
Lynn, however, who had grown up in an authoritarian country, felt differently. The idea of having to take a vaccine and show papers in order to be able to participate in daily life made her distrustful and afraid. In addition, she followed a rigorously healthy diet and what she called “toxin-free-lifestyle” and simply didn’t want the vaccine in her body. All this to say, Steve was vaccinated and Lynn was not.
Learning to hold differing truths
I’m not here to discuss the rightness or wrongness of any of these choices regarding COVID. For each of these individuals, the virus and vaccine elicited very different experiences and feelings, all of which were real and true for the person experiencing them. Each of these well-educated and well-informed individuals had heard the science and arguments in every direction. They already knew everything I could tell them in terms of stats and studies.
The problem that needed immediate attention was the fact that their differing feelings and beliefs about the vaccine made it impossible for them to resume their pre-COVID life as a couple. They could no longer go out to restaurants, attend events, travel, or do any of the things they used to enjoy together...to live as a couple in the world, either because of not having been vaccinated or not feeling safe to do so.
As a result, the partner who is ready to re-enter life generally feels resentment, judgment, and anger toward their partner for depriving them of the chance to enjoy life again, and for feelings that they deem as crazy or overly-anxious. Their partner’s experience is something that needs to be fixed (hopefully by me). At the same time, they feel fear and sadness over potentially losing their partner, and the person they want accompanying them in normal life. Simultaneously, the partner who chooses not to be vaccinated, or is still anxious even with the vaccine, feels judged, pathologized, and blamed. They feel that their experience is not heard or allowed; they feel rejected.
My intention in this situation, which is appearing more and more frequently these days, is not to persuade anyone out of their truth or convince them of any other truth than the one they hold. Rather, it is to help the couple find a way to be together with their differing truths—to reinvent who and how they will be a couple in their new post-COVID incarnation. If that’s possible…
If you are in this situation, regarding COVID or any other highly impactful life choice, the first thing to remember is that you are not the keeper of The Truth. It’s not up to you to decide what your partner’s experience is or should be. What’s true for you is true and what’s true for your partner is also true—even when the two truths are radically different.
The beginning of a new relationship is joining these two differing truths with an and not a but. Until you can meet your partner’s truth with curiosity and some degree of friendliness, real progress will be stymied. So, step one is to meet your partner’s truth, to try and understand their experience, not judge, pathologize, or blame it. And not blame them for holding you (both) back from life, assuming that if they chose to, they could have a different truth than the one they have. This truth that you are rejecting, no matter what you think of it, belongs to someone you love, and therefore is a truth you must be able to allow.
The second step is to talk about how you want to be together or if there is a way to be together with your differing truths. Are there other ways to enjoy each other as a couple, to feel enjoyment and intimacy? These are hard conversations but conversations that need to happen. If your partner is not willing, for now, to join you back in the world, or welcome your experience as it is, what will this new reality mean for you as a couple? Furthermore, what are the losses that will come with this new reality. These losses need to be recognized and honored, without blame.
At the same time, remember that whatever situation is happening right now, it will pass. Your relationship existed before COVID, and it can and will exist after it’s through. If, that is, you have the courage to allow your reality, your partner’s reality, and your new reality as a couple, to allow all of them to exist right now, as they are.