How many people can we socialize with? Can we know how many people they are socializing with? Are our kids old enough to be responsible? What is the degree of risk of getting sick? How sick will anyone in our family get? What are the rewards of socializing for me, for my spouse, for my kids? These are some of the many questions that couples are being challenged with during the pandemic.
However, underlying these questions is a central theme related to different levels of risk tolerance between partners. As with many of these types of conflicts, people have a different personal degree of risk versus the amount of reward. This includes how great are the possible consequences and how likely is it the negative consequences will occur? What are the rewards and how valuable are they?
People have different levels of concern about their personal health and beliefs about how vulnerable they are to getting severely ill or even dying. There are also differences in beliefs about transmission and how probable transmission is to occur in different circumstances. Unless you are an expert in virus transmission already, you likely don’t want to or maybe even can’t get definitive answers.
So how do we navigate these assessments that vary from individual to individual? As with other differences it’s helpful to begin with understanding, compassion and empathy for your partner’s beliefs and worries. The goal isn’t that you both agree on the degree of risk or likelihood it will occur, rather you want to both have a clear understanding of the other’s concerns and what experiences and beliefs underlie them.
Once you have this clarity you can start to look at what behaviors you can agree to that respect the concerns and desires of both people. As you propose possible plans it is important to be able to answer A.) Why will this plan work for me? and B.) How do I think it will work for my partner? If you can’t answer both of these questions then you need to go back to conversations where you seek understanding and clarity about your partner’s concerns. Or if you aren’t clear on your own concerns you might journal or reflect on what are the specifics that lead to your beliefs and worries.
When you agree you are making progress on a plan that may work for both of you, and you both feel your thoughts and beliefs are being considered – then it is time to look for mitigating factors that can reduce perceived risks. Neither partner should feel forced to accept an action they see as too great of a risk. This is where ways to mitigate risks can help partners move toward comfort and agreement.
During this process it is very important not to look at the other person as wrong or ridiculous because their concerns or calculus is different from yours. Doing this puts you in a combative and conflictual stance rather than a collaborative and connected problem solving team. Also, believing you can or even need to convince your partner to view or feel things in the same way you do is likely to lead to being stuck in conflict.
Remember that people are not necessarily consistent in their beliefs and feelings. Pointing this out or insisting they must be consistent is a sure path to remaining stuck. Feelings are by definition not rational, but they are an important and useful part of being human. They guide us to knowing what is important to us and they help to motivate us and to keep us safe. So, seek to understand your feelings and those of your partner. Doing so will bring you closer and help you to agree on a plan.
These types of conflicts come up in other situations such as when couples become new parents. Whatever the source of anxiety relating to risk, this approach is useful for working as a team to create a plan that will not lead to resentment on either side.
If you need help navigating these conversations or other issues, reach out for a free 20 minute consultation.
Using communication and problem solving skills, Kirsten Kell helps couples increase their intimacy both emotionally and physically. She has worked with many couples after infidelity to rebuild trust and safety in their marriage. She also has worked with couples with ADHD in the couple and around parenting challenges related to ADHD and other problems.