Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have opposite views on dealing with social distancing. I am trying to follow the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leave the house only when necessary. I have been to the grocery store, the pharmacy, and the gas station, and I have exercised outdoors. Other than that, I have stayed home.

My husband, who works in public safety, feels that these social-distancing measures are too extreme, and he worries about the effects on people’s mental health and the economy. He frequently goes to the hardware store, and has hung out with his friends on a few occasions. When he’s socializing with his friends, they stay outside and “at a safe distance.”

My main concern is that we have two teenage sons, one who has asthma. My husband thinks it is okay for them to have friends over and has allowed our older son to have his girlfriend visit. Although I am not comfortable with this, I have left the decisions up to him because he works in public safety and I know he wouldn’t do anything to put our children at risk. I just struggle because this goes against everything that I have read (from credible sources such as the CDC and the NIH).

When we try to have a discussion about our opposing views, it turns into a fight. We have tried to communicate our sides to each other in emails but that hasn’t helped, as neither one of us is able to understand the other person’s view. This is causing tension in our home, and I don’t want to put any more stress on our relationship or our children. What can I do?

Jen
Newark, Del.


Dear Jen,

When couples find themselves at an impasse and come to me for help—whether that’s in what we now call “normal” times or in the current unprecedented moment—the first thing I do is suggest that they begin the discussion by taking a moment to draw upon their reserves of compassion, not just for one’s partner, but also for one’s self. That’s especially important now, when we’re all on edge and tensions run higher than ever.

I start with compassion because compassion helps people move from what therapists call the content of the disagreement (in your case, what it means to safely socially distance) to the process (the emotional meaning of the conflict between you). So far, you both seem to have been stuck in the content—trying to make your case and bring the other person over to your side. As you’ve seen, that’s kept you both backed into your respective corners. But once you’re both able to communicate on the process level, you’ll be able to return to the content with more flexibility, generosity, and willingness to work together.

In order to consider what’s going on emotionally for each of you right now, you’ll need to sit down and have a different kind of conversation. Instead of each focusing on the expression of your own thoughts and feelings, you can express genuine curiosity about how the other person feels. For instance, your husband has mentioned his concern for “people’s mental health and the economy,” but can he talk about this on a more personal level? You might ask him whether he’s feeling financial pressure right now, and if he is, don’t try to reassure him with a response such as “But we’re doing fine financially” or “But we’ll recover from this soon,” because that will invalidate how he’s feeling. Instead, use your curiosity to connect with him by saying something such as, “That sounds stressful … tell me more.” Ask questions until you understand more fully how he views the economic fallout and where his mind goes when he thinks about its impact on your family. Is he afraid of losing his job? His nest egg? Opportunities for the future that he had been counting on, which now seem unlikely to happen for quite some time (or at all)? You don’t have to feel the same way he does—your role here is simply to learn more about his emotional landscape.

Likewise, you can ask him to tell you more about his comment that he worries about people’s mental health. By “people” does he mean himself, and if so, in what ways does he find himself struggling? A more introverted partner may be relatively content to stay at home, whereas someone more naturally extroverted may feel as if his emotional food supply has been cut off. Alternatively, is he simply bored when he’s at home, and if so, what’s that like? For some people, boredom is terrifying because their mind wanders to unpleasant places. Visiting with friends or making trips to the hardware store could be a way for your husband to distract himself from that open space of boredom. Consider, too, that many people defend against anxiety by denying the object of their fear (for instance, that your son is particularly susceptible to complications because of his asthma), and it might be easier for your husband to tell himself that your fears are overblown than to face the reality of how widespread and dangerous this virus is. The more curious and understanding you are about what he may be going through, the more your husband might be able to tolerate not only his own struggles right now, but also yours.

Once you both get a deeper sense of how this moment in time is affecting each of you (again, the “process”), you can return to the content by trying this exercise: Argue your partner’s side of the disagreement. Doing this will make the other person feel deeply heard and understood, and also more willing to hear and understand a different point of view. If you’re arguing his side, depending on what you learned in your earlier conversation, you might find yourself saying something such as, “I don’t think I can cope without my friends,” and he might find himself saying (when arguing your side), “I’m terrified that our son will get very sick.”

This is where a shift begins, because after seeing the world through the other’s eyes, you’ll probably think, Wow, for him to not have that social outlet really sucks—and in a way that’s different from how it sucks for me. He, in turn, will likely reflect, It’s very reasonable for her to feel anxious about bringing people into our house, even though my experience of anxiety is different from hers.

At this point, you’ll start to realize that instead of being on opposing sides, you’re actually on the same team—neither of you would intentionally endanger your family, and both of you have the same goal, which is to keep everyone safe. Your task then, as team members, is to figure out what needs aren’t being met, and how you can work together to meet them—to preserve not only the family’s physical health, but also its emotional health. How can you help each other get through this?

Can he support you by not allowing your kids to have friends or romantic partners over, especially given your son’s underlying medical condition? Can you support him in meeting his social needs by managing your own anxiety around his socially distanced, outdoor visits with friends? And together can you find ways to recharge, relax, and create some version of normalcy—through virtual dinners or happy hours with friends, family game or movie nights, and private time for just the two of you? (Lately, I’ve been saying to couples: “You know how when couples first meet, they pretty much quarantine themselves, as all they want to do is spend all their time alone together? Remember how much fun that was? What are some things you did then that you might try to revisit now?”)

Taking this approach will not only help resolve the current issue in this very difficult time, but also give you a framework for negotiating whatever comes up in the future, when you’ll look back and say, “Wow, if we could work together then, we can work together now.”


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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