Outside the Box: You’re a happy couple, but you argue constantly about what constitutes COVID-safe behavior

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Navigating the pandemic involves daily risk assessment. What’s safe? What’s stupid? Whom do we listen to?

Evaluating risk is subjective. One person’s cautiousness strikes another person as overkill.  

It’s easy for reasonable, well-informed people to draw varying conclusions on how to evade COVID-19. Consider how many couples we see strolling down the street—one wearing a mask and the other maskless.

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The coronavirus has tested once-stable, amicable relationships. Over the last year, arguments abound within households about what constitutes safe behavior.

Even if you and your mate are diligent rule followers, disputes can arise. If one of you makes far too many exceptions (excess shopping excursions, elective medical visits, etc.), you may be greeted with hostile stares, not loving acceptance.

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Judging a spouse’s behavior almost never ends well when the verdict is disapproval. Yet with highly contagious variants injecting yet another dollop of fear into the mix, it’s hard to withhold judgment.

So how can you tamp down the tension when you and your significant other don’t see eye to eye about COVID prevention protocols?

Begin by rethinking the terms of debate. It’s not a right-wrong thing.

Given all the uncertainty around catching COVID-19, both of you might plead a convincing case. It’s exhausting to keep asking, “Can I get the virus from…?” and lack a definitive, data-driven answer.

Try this: The next time you disagree, compare notes. Take turns pinpointing your rationale for your conclusion. Weigh the evidence that each of you is citing, vetting its credibility and reliability. 

In many arguments, we fling opinions at each other. Hard evidence, such as the latest CDC guidelines or a news report on peer-reviewed research, tends to carry more weight than a stray anecdote or gut feeling.

Skip the snide commentary. Instead, reframe your criticism as a question, says Megan Bearce, a Minneapolis-based therapist. For example, replace “You’re such a worrywart” with “What is it exactly that worries you about this?”

If you really want to score points, bend a bit and credit your partner for changing your mind. That sets the stage for reciprocal conciliation later (“Honey, now I’m the one who’s willing to give in”). 

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If you hit an impasse, ask, “What are the consequences of that decision?” said Bearce, author of “Super Commuter Couples.” “With Covid, the ramifications don’t just impact one person.” 

Arguments escalate when people talk over one another. So shift into listening mode.

“Seek to understand your partner by asking questions,” said Allison Forti, an associate teaching professor at Wake Forest University. “When somebody is emotionally charged, they want to be understood. Your earnest curiosity shows you care and signals ‘We’re a team.’ ” 

If you’re bickering over whether it’s safe to eat inside a restaurant, for example, ask politely, “Why do you want to go there?” Dignify the answer, even if you’re resistant. Then ask another question such as, “What if our priorities, at least until we’re vaccinated, are different?” or “What needs to change for you to reconsider this?”

Need another exercise? Try thinking like an insurance underwriter and apply a risk management framework. Draw a big square with four quadrants and label them as follows:

  • Low frequency, high severity
  • High frequency, high severity
  • High frequency, low severity
  • Low frequency, low severity

Using a risk matrix to categorize your exposure to peril is a little wonky. But working together to fill in the four boxes can reduce flare-ups and help both of you see risk through the same lens.

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