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I recommend my clients approach each other with an attitude of being more curious than furious about your partner’s differing position. Your partner is not opposing you just to be difficult or obstinate about social distancing. When you can approach your partner with an open attitude of wanting to really understand what is driving their thought process you start off the conversations from a gentler approach, which promotes compassion and compromise.
Ask your partner what their position is based on.
Is it something they read or saw on a news story? Is it based on how they think their own parents would have handled the situation? Approach your partner from a positive perspective and try to find something you can validate from your partner’s perspective that makes sense to them. It does not mean you agree with your partner or you have changed your position by letting them know you see why you are coming to the conclusions they do. What it means is that you respect that your partner has their own passionate beliefs or reasons for holding their perspective. It also tells your partner that you are going to take their needs into consideration when it comes time to find a compromise.
Many of us have values, beliefs, or expectations about the world that we developed growing up.
If your partner grew up with parents who were very protective or fearful about taking too many risks, your partner may respond or behave in a similar fashion. Many parents who are protective and act in ways that seem like over-reactions or seem hyper-vigilant about their children may hold a belief that to show love for their children they need to protect them. These mama bear or papa bear behaviors are symbolic of the deep love and concern they have for their family’s well-being and safety.
Anxiety around how to deal with uncertainty can also drive different behaviors for parents. Some couples avoid dealing with uncertainty by ignoring it or attempting to minimize talking or focusing on risk so that it does not feel so overwhelming. This can lead to one partner perceiving the other parent as being dismissive or uninterested. It is possible the other partner cares just as deeply but has learned to use avoidance as a coping skill to deal with stressful situations.
Try applying the golden rule to your partner.
How would you like to be received and listened to when you want to feel validated about your own thoughts and feelings? Practice setting your own agenda aside and face your partner. Make eye contact, and show them body language that is open and empathetic. This is someone who you love who loves your children just as much as you do.
Remember that just because you acknowledge your partner’s perspective, it does not mean you agree with the other partner’s view and you intend to just go along with the other person’s wishes. What it says is that you respect that each of you is entitled to your own thoughts, feelings, and opinions and that you are giving them the acknowledgment they deserve.
If you are ever going to compromise with your partner like co-parents who love each other, you are going to have to show your partner that you understand what it is like to stand in their shoes. Why would your partner ever compromise with you if they got the sense that you were not going to try to make sure some of their needs were considered and addressed as part of your compromise?
See if you can start the discussions over using a different approach.
I would ask my clients to begin the negotiations by talking about what they have in common and what they see as their goals that they do agree on. Start the new conversation from a place of discussing shared end goals and seeing all the things that you do believe that are in alignment. This creates a re-do that makes a gentler start-up to the conversations. Next, make a list of all the parts of the issue that are both negotiable and non-negotiable. Then discuss both of your areas of flexibility. For example, one parent may be more willing to be flexible on social distancing agreements when spending time with family members or friends who have been tested.
If the other partner also has some flexibility in this area, then the couple may start to make some traction on finding areas of agreement. Starting with details or features of the social distancing versus black-and-white thinking can help generate movement. As a couples therapist, I do not ever find situations where coercing a partner to do something they do not want to do is ever a healthy or suggested approach to dealing with a partner’s worries or fears. That kind of behavior is about power, control, and manipulation.
Using outside pressure or pushing against someone else to change their position is not going to serve the relationship in the long run. The person who gives in to the coercion gets the message that their thoughts and feelings are not being considered and are not as important as those of the person who has the greater influence.
You may want to consider whether the issues involved are more important to one partner than they are to the other.
This approach is a healthier way to introduce influence in a relationship. If one partner feels more laid back or less anxious about social distancing and the other partner is really triggered by it, then consider letting the partner who is more stressed have more influence on the decision-making process. Relationships are about give and take across multiple issues throughout the course of your relationship, and this might be one of the issues you do not push back as hard on just because your views are different.
As we discussed above, each partner’s feelings are most likely connected to their views about how to best handle uncertainty. Checking in with your partner about how they saw their parents or other family members reacting to or dealing with stress can give you a better insight into what your partner had modeled for them growing up.
If your partner can tell you about memories they had about stressful or uncertain times they experienced in life and how they handled those times, or the lasting impact those difficult times have had on how they view life now, that is a good conversation to have. I would also encourage couples to talk about their own insights about how they respond to stress or worry. Asking your partner what they know about their own triggers and how they respond to difficult situations or uncertainty can open up some meaningful conversations.
Partners should talk about how they will apply their own self-care during social distancing. What they might need from their partner in those moments?
We are living in a time where therapy can be helpful for couples and co-parents to seek out additional support. Unfortunately, this social distancing is unlikely to be the only time you face difficult situations as a couple. Learning to find new ways of navigating stress or developing new tools on how to strengthen your communication skills or ability to compromise will serve the relationship into the future.
Spend about 20 minutes every day having a stress-reducing conversation.
Spend time checking in with your partner about some of the hardest parts of their day or ask them what is most challenging for them being isolated from the world. Your job as the person who is checking in with your partner is to just deeply listen. Your job is not to correct them, tell them they should feel differently, or solve their problems for them. Couples often feel uncomfortable talking about hard or heavy emotions because they feel like they must fix their partners. The point of a stress-reducing conversation is to let the other person know they are not alone.
If it starts to feel like your partner might keep going in circles or repeating the same worries over and over and you are feeling drained, then it is perfectly ok to ask them to help you understand what the biggest fear or catastrophe scenario is for them and then ask them to tell you what they see as their options.
You can also tell them that you do not know what to say, that you are there for them, and that they are not going through this alone. At the end of the day, that is all true, and you and your partner are both looking for support.
If you or your partner need extra support, The Relationship Place can help. We are offering video therapy (tele-therapy) options during this time, schedule with us today!
A special thanks to Fatherly for quoting me in their article. To read more on how you can resolve social distancing conflicts, view the whole article here.