Whether you’ve been married for 30 years or 30 days, a global pandemic is bound to throw a wrench in your relationship.
You’re faced with an onslaught of new decisions. Not only that but things you’ve already reached an agreement on are all of a sudden back up for discussion.
And there’s a twist.
This time, you’re not just arguing about how long the dishes can stay in the sink or whose turn it is to take out the trash, you’re fighting about balancing safety and sanity.
Things that used to be straightforward are now the fodder for huge arguments. What’s more, the guidelines around staying safe are constantly changing. What you agreed to last week may no longer feel safe to you this week.
You end up having what feels like the same pandemic fights with your partner over and over again, and in the end, both of you wind up feeling frustrated and alienated from each other.
You CAN Fix Your Relationship
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way.
The way to stop arguing with your partner is to learn how to negotiate well – whether it’s about how long to keep social distancing or how soon your kids can have a playdate.
Negotiating as a whole is a broader topic I’ll cover soon – keep your eyes out for new blog posts! For now, though, we’ll focus specifically on tactics to help you stop fighting with your partner about COVID risks.
These techniques can also help you solidify your relationship and understand each other on a deeper level.
Let’s dive in.
Pandemic Fights Are Bids for Deeper Mutual Understanding
Conflict in relationships is natural, and it can even serve a purpose.
What’s the purpose, you may ask? Mutual understanding between you and your partner.
In the long run, it’s not anger or specific fights that cause relationships to fall apart. What damages your relationship is the emotional distance that happens when you don’t work as a team.
In strong relationships, conflict is seen as a bid to be better understood. When approached in a healthy way, conflict can bring you and your spouse closer together rather than driving you apart. Negotiating conflict well lets you both feel heard and understood.
So what makes some arguments go smoothly while others turn into the showdown of the year?
With pandemic fights, in particular, there are two key elements to keep in mind for fighting fair:
- Take the emotion out of it – This helps both of you recognize it’s a negotiation, not an attack on your character.
- Use a helpful framework – One person makes an offer and the other can either accept the offer, or respond with a reason they don’t accept that offer as well as a counteroffer. You always want to be moving toward a solution. This pattern of offer and response/reason/counteroffer continues until a solution is reached.
Let’s explore this further.
Take the Emotion Out of Arguing About COVID Risks
Fixing your relationship during COVID requires taking the emotion out of an argument. This lets you and your spouse move toward a solution rather than getting gridlocked. It’s important for both people to leave their emotions at the door, whether you’re the person making the first offer or the one responding to it.
For example, notice how different it would feel to have your partner start a conversation by saying “I’d like to travel and see my family this weekend” instead of announcing “You never let me see my family anymore – I always knew you hated my mother!”
One’s a gentle invitation to join in a discussion – the other is a conversational grenade!
Likewise, as the partner responding to this first offer, imagine the difference between replying “What?! Your parents are elderly, are you trying to kill them?!” and explaining “I’m not comfortable seeing your family this weekend because your parents are elderly and I’d feel terrible if we got them sick.”
Can you feel the difference? More often than not, leading with emotion will immediately get your partner to reply defensively or shut down. This only moves you further and further away from a solution. On the other hand, taking the emotion out of it lets you work with your partner to find a solution together.
Other initial offers for talking about COVID risks can sound like:
- I’d like to travel to see my family.
- I’d like to find a way for us both to be vaccinated.
- I’d like to go back to working at the office full time.
- I’d like to go on that trip we’ve been postponing forever.
- I’d like to have dinner with my friends inside a restaurant.
- I’d like to start going back to my health club.
- I’d like for our kids to be able to have their friends over.
- I’d like to hire a babysitter and have a date night together.
Notice how these sentences are constructed. They all start with ‘I’ and express a positive desire – something you’d like. This helps frame the conversation as looking for a solution rather than as an accusation against your spouse. Remember, the goal is to understand each other and always move toward a solution.
Use Offers and Counteroffers
Getting back to the framework I mentioned earlier, anyone can make the first offer. Ideally, this will be an ‘I’ statement with a positive need and without an emotional charge. It’s then up to the other partner to respond – again, without letting emotion take the wheel.
If you agree right away, fantastic! If not, the important thing is to respond with a reason why you don’t accept the initial offer, and then provide a counteroffer.
Here are a few examples of how this framework can be used in conversation:
Negotiating going back to work:
Spouse #1 (Offer using ‘I’ and a positive need): “I’d like to start working back at the office full time now that my company is allowing us to do that.”
Spouse #2 (Response, Reason, Counteroffer): “I’m concerned about that because you work in such a busy office. I’m worried you’ll get sick and bring it home to me and the children. How about you continue working from home and we can make the upstairs bedroom into an office for you?”
Spouse #1 (Response, Reason, Counteroffer): “I’m not sure that’ll be a good fit because I’m worried I’ll miss out on a lot of the networking that’s now going to be happening in person. Maybe I could go to the office on Mondays and Wednesdays and wear a mask while I’m there?”
Spouse #2 (Agreement): “That sounds great! I know you’re excited to get out of the house.”
Negotiating around the vaccine:
Spouse #1 (Offer using ‘I’ and a positive need): “I’d like us both to get the vaccine now that it is available to us.”
Spouse #2 (Response, Reason, Counteroffer): “I’m not comfortable getting the vaccine because I’m worried it isn’t safe. Could we wait until more people have been vaccinated and then decide?
Spouse #1 (Response, Reason, Counteroffer): “I would like to keep working on this because I really feel that getting vaccinated is the right thing to do for ourselves and to protect others. How about I get the vaccine and you can then decide what you’d like to do?”
Spouse #2 (Agreement): “I like that idea! Let’s start with that.”
Practice, Practice, Practice
It takes practice to be able to use this framework with your partner. Don’t be afraid to stop and re-set halfway through if you feel the conversation is heading downhill. Remember, it’s you and your partner working together to find a solution and understand each other more.
Even with practice, some couples find they’re unable to take the emotion out of their conversations around COVID risks. If that’s the case in your marriage, it’s likely because there are deeper underlying feelings. But don’t lose hope – there are ways to help you reach a solution even through deep-rooted fears.
Gottman, J. M., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D. C., & Abrams, R. C. (2018). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. New York: Workman Publishing.