What to Do When We Disagree about Following the Sheltering-in-Place Protocols

Couples have responded to the “sheltering-in-place” protocols in a variety of ways. Some have hunkered down and restricted connecting with others, resorting to only zoom meetings and grocery deliveries. Others have ventured out to the market with their masks, taken advantage of walking and hiking outdoors, and had socially distanced “dates” with neighbors, friends and family. Others have dismissed protocols and gone to public parks and beaches, refused to wear masks while shopping, and pushed resumption of previous routines. But what happens when you and your mate don’t agree on how the protocols should be followed? How can you become more of a “team” as you weather this pandemic and its safeguards?

No two people see everything the same. Whether it is parenting, socializing, spending time with extended family, or responding to pandemic protocols, our differing perspectives can inspire hearty discussions. They can also create tension, hurt, and disconnection. The key to navigating all these differences is to have a way to talk about the issues that does not damage the marriage.

What are some things that damage a marriage and make it impossible to talk about important issues?  How can we come to a satisfying resolution? Marital researcher, John Gottman, identified four things couples do that damage the relationship:

  1. Criticism

Criticism causes our mate to feel put down, unloved, disliked, and bad at the core. Most of us have an abiding fear that we are not enough. When our mate is critical, this fear is triggered. Our defenses, well-honed since childhood, jump into action and cut off our ability to take in our mate’s complaint. We hear their criticism as a judgment that we are bad, unworthy, and incompetent. It is like throwing fuel on a fire. All chances for useful communication and understanding are undermined.

  1. Defensiveness

All of us have ways of defending ourselves when we are unjustly accused. We like these defending parts of us as they keep us protected when we are in a hostile environment. What we are often unaware of is that we also have defensive parts  we developed in childhood that get easily triggered whenever we suspect another might be against us. These reactive parts keep us from listening to the legitimate complaints of others and keep us from being aware of how we hurt or offend others by our behavior.

  1. Contempt

This is an extreme way we learn to defend ourselves. When we are contemptuous, we use sarcasm, put downs, hateful comments, dismissive behavior, while trying to convince the other they are unworthy of respect. We convince ourselves that we need to feel superior to the other in order to insure we will not be hurt. Our tactics were likely learned in an abusive or neglectful environment where we had to defend ourselves to survive.

  1. Stonewalling

This is a refusal to engage. It, too, is an extreme form of defensiveness which protects by keeping the other at a distance. Fearing he or she will lose if they are vulnerable or allow themselves to be known or connect with another, the person stonewalling takes the path of disengagement. “If you can’t get near me, I can’t get hurt.”

All four of these behaviors prevent honest dialogue between partners and make it impossible to have a healthy conversation. Couples who want to improve their relationship will commit to avoiding these damaging patterns. They will learn to calm their reactivity, explore what they feel and need, and share with their mate in a more inviting, vulnerable way. They will notice their tendency to defend themselves at every slight.  Instead, they will give compassion to that overactive part of them that is trying to protect, calm, and make new choices for themselves.  This behavior will allow one to hear the other person and their legitimate complaints or feedback. They will be able to ask for respectful treatment from others who are reacting out of their own defensive nature.

So how can you begin to navigate your differences about sheltering-in-place? Whether you are the one who is more strict or lenient in your response to the protocols, in addition to avoiding the four behaviors mentioned, here are some suggestions:

Self-exploration: When we differ with our spouse, we usually like to think we are right. We don’t take the time to consider that our position comes from somewhere. Some self-examination can help you express your position more honestly and help you be more compassionate with a differing opinion.

If you are stricter in adhering to protocols, take some time to look inside and ask yourself what is informing your position? Is it a fear of getting the virus? A life-long desire to please others? A desire to be compliant and responsible? Why is adhering strictly important to you? What do you value? What do you fear? What are your feelings about this? What are your needs?

If you are more lenient in adhering to the protocols, take some time to look inside and ask yourself what is informing your position? Do you resist having your behavior dictated? Is that true of you generally? What are the feelings that come up in you when you are restricted? What do you value? What do you fear?

Communicate your feelings and needs to your mate: Approach your mate with a softened start-up. Gently invite them into a conversation. You might say, “I know that we don’t see this sheltering-in-place in the same way and I am interested in how you think and feel about this. I’m wondering if we could be a bit more curious about each other’s position and see if we could come to a compromise that might work for both of us.”

It is important for this to be a time not to convince each other that your way of thinking is the right or reasonable one but be a time to respect the differences and hear one another out. As you express your feelings and needs, be mindful to avoid language that makes your position out to be the “right” one. Use an “I message.” If you are the stricter one-  “I am concerned (or fearful) that one of us might get the virus and it brings me peace to think we are doing what we can do to avoid it.” If your mate belittles your position, you can offer another “I message” – “When I’m trying to share my honest feelings with you and you put me down, I feel discouraged and unheard. I was hoping we could have an open and loving conversation.” If you are the more lenient one– “I am feeling sad about not seeing friends. I’m also feeling a loss of control over my life and an urge to have a voice where I can.” 

Invite your mate to express their feelings and needs: Try to remain open-hearted as you listen rather than combative or focused on getting them to change their view.

Let yourself be curious about their position. Ask questions like: “Is there anything about the way you grew up that plays into how you feel about this?” Listen with compassion. Validate their feelings. Convey understanding.

Ask for what you need. Offer what you can give: “ I would appreciate it if you would wear a mask when you go to the market or any other place where you are likely to be within 6-8’ of someone. I would feel that you are wanting to protect me” or “I would like to once a week, have an adult only socially distanced visit on our driveway with our neighbors or another couple. I would feel less isolated.” 

Clarify the compromise: “I would be willing to have one socially distanced visit weekly on our driveway as long as they bring their own lawn chairs and glass of wine.” “And I would be willing to wear a mask when I go to the market or any other public place when I can’t be 6’ away.” 

Express appreciation: Thank your mate for their willingness to discuss the situation and to work on a solution with you.

When we try to convince our mate to think and feel what we do, we most often get into a stalemate. When, instead, we are willing to explore ourselves and express our sincere feelings and thoughts in a way that is respectful of our spouses differing view, we open up the possibility for compromise that can allow each to feel more understood and cared for. A thoughtful compromise is better than a brilliant solution imposed on a resentful partner.

Please comment below and let us know how you have resolved any difference regarding this sheltering-in-place that you and your partner experience.

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