My Partner Doesn't Care About Coronavirus and I'm Freaking Out
DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend and I are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the coronavirus crisis. We were supposed to go on a romantic vacation to Italy this spring. As things escalated, I kept telling him I thought we should cancel — why take a chance? he kept telling me I was being alarmist and neurotic. We were fighting about whether or not we should go until the country was officially put on lockdown. Now, we argue about whether or not we should stock up on supplies in case there is a quarantine (he thinks it's a waste of time and money and that we have no room in our small apartment) and how much we should change our daily routines. He wants to continue to take the subway and I am trying to avoid crowds of people at all costs. I'm trying to be as informed as possible by reading news updates in real time while he's tuning it all out. I feel like the coronavirus is turning my relationship upside down and I'm not sure what to do to make it better. —Corona Conflict
DEAR CORONA CONFLICT,
I am seeing a lot of couples whose differences have been highlighted by this worldwide health crisis. Stressors tend to highlight the weaknesses in relationships and this is certainly a massive stressor.
Having no playbook we can turn to heightens the anxiety. After all, nothing like this has occurred in our lifetime and for the first time, the World Health Organization has used the term 'pandemic' to describe the outbreak. We don't have accurate numbers about U.S. cases (partially due to a shortage of test kits) and other countries are even censoring information about outbreaks. If you are an already anxious person or a germaphobe, being in the dark about the true facts of this pandemic only escalates that anxiety.
And when your anxiety skyrockets, it's impossible not to have that leak into your relationship.
That said, it sounds like you and your boyfriend are on extreme opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to assessing danger. I suspect that if you change the topic to something else that is triggering, the two of you will have similar differences. It sounds like, outside of the latest coronavirus conflict, your boyfriend is simply very relaxed and you are hyper vigilant.
Couples often are like this because we tend to find people who are the yen to our yang. The healthiest couples I see in my office learn from one another and meet somewhere in the middle to find a safe and happy medium that works for both people. Learning how to respect one another's views and work through these conflicts is an important part of improving your relationship.
There is clearly also a denial factor at play. That your partner who has been saturated with news stories (thanks to you!) showing the mounting dangers of the virus was still planning to go to Italy until it was shutdown tells me that denial is not just a river in Egypt. We go into denial when the facts in front of us are too frightening, triggering, or distressing for us to process.
If your partner is resistant to listen to your concerns about this (very real, serious health pandemic), it's more important than ever to focus on your communication skills. When you are dealing with such serious and emotional issues, it's easy to get triggered and have poor communication, but can be the difference between a positive result and an escalation into an unpleasant fight.
A few things that you can do: Begin the discussion in a calm manner. Don't start by attacking your partner and telling him why he's an idiot to still ride the subway everyday (even if you believe it!) or by raising your voice. (Most of the time, the way a discussion begins will predict the way it ends.) If one of you is truly in an emotional or primitive state, it's important to take a time out and return when you're able to have a productive, rational conversation.
One thing that may help you work through your coronavirus conflict is reflective listening, a technique where you repeat back to your partner in your own words what he or she just said to make sure that you are understanding. You would be surprised how often during a heated conversation smart people miss their partners' points.
I have seen many couples spend time apart because they are struggling to find common ground during this time. Sometimes even just putting a moratorium on coronavirus discussions at home for a day, or even a few hours, can provide relief from the pressure.
At the end of the day though, you cannot allow someone, even someone you love, to push you into making a choice that you feel is not in the best interest of your health. You need to make sure that you do what you know to be right for yourself, based on the current CDC and WHO recommendations — and your own comfort level.
The Coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.