As the world continues to shelter in place and try and find ways to cope with the ever-changing circumstances of our new reality, unexpected challenges continue to surface. One such challenge is when couples fight about social distancing.
The social distance argument takes on various forms. Maybe one parent wants to follow guidelines as strictly as possible while the other does too but wants to takes a few liberties to feel “normal”. Maybe one parent takes social distancing to what the other sees is a militant extreme. Maybe one parent doesn’t think social distancing is necessary at all.
Now, before we go further: Social distancing is a necessary measure to keep us safe during the coronavirus pandemic. People can spread the disease before they know they are sick — or even show any symptoms. Maintaining a distance of six feet or more, while certainly not ideal, is one of the best ways to stop the spread and prevent at-risk individuals in particular from falling ill. The directive should be followed and if someone is disregarding it completely, they are putting everyone in harm’s way — including their family.
That said, even if people are following it properly, arguments will arise because stress is high. Parents argue all the time about how to raise kids. This is that, amplified to the Nth degree. And unlike, say, fights about discipline styles or why one spouse’s parents always seem to take priority over the others, disagreements about social distancing can easily turn into all out warfare. Everything is heightened because kids are involved.
“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,” says Dana McNeil, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the founder of The Relationship Place. “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.”
Experts agree that stress and anxiety are the root cause of most of these disagreements. People are worried that their kids or loved ones are going to get sick. They’re worried that they’re going to find themselves out of a job or in the midst of a depression as a result of a crashed economy. All of these fears are natural. The problems arise when parents let those fears dictate their actions, to the exclusion of the other parent’s feelings.
When couples disagree, Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC a nationally certified counselor and founder of Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh. says they should attempt to have compassionate arguments and make sure that any concerns they have are rational and well-founded.
Fair enough. But when tempers are flaring, what does this look like? Well, in order to have a compassionate discussions about social distancing, psychotherapist Dr. Dana Dorfman, PhD, says parents need to, first and foremost, separate facts from emotion, as well as interpretation.
“Anxieties are high and are likely to intrude on our judgments. As a result, parents should try their best to disentangle emotions and facts,” she says. “Citing objective evidence rather than ‘interpretations’ of information can be useful.” In other words: facts are not feelings. We hear and interpret information through our unique lenses and experiences. It’s essential that information someone is basing their decisions on is rooted in fact and objective science.
Marital arguments, of course, do not exist in a bubble. And some of the issues around social distancing and the inherent disagreements will likely stem from underlying issues.
“Couples may be susceptible to perceiving or misperceiving the other’s perspective based on previous conflicts or unresolved issues,” Dorfman says. “If a couple has been fighting about issues of control, this current conflict may become a manifestation of that preexisting disagreement.”
To avoid this, couples need to focus on having healthy arguments. This means avoiding words like ‘always’ and ‘never’ especially when they’re in such statements as ‘You always believe everything that you hear on TV” and “You never trust my perspective.” such statements are often triggering, as they are about the collective relationship instead of the current situation.
Tone is crucial, too. As much as they can, couples should adhere to that old therapy standard of “I” statements instead of “You” statements to reduce finger pointing and defensiveness. Open-ended questions like “Can you tell me why you feel like this?” should also be prioritized. They express a willingness to understand the other’s perspective better.
Also important to note: an argument is not something to win. “Viewing the conversation as a power struggle is likely to lead to a ‘lose/lose,’” says Dorfman. Instead, it’s about looking at and responding to both sides. Explicitly expressing interest in the other’s perspective and mutually acknowledging that there may not be as clear a right/wrong, she notes, lays the groundwork for collaboration and joint decision making.
Lastly, the debate over social distancing can easily extend to outside influences, with parents finding themselves inundated with opinions from everyone from grandparents to neighbors. It can be easy for one partner to use the opinions of an outside party as a means of bolstering their case. But limiting the noise is essential.
“That kind of behavior is about power, control, and manipulation,” says McNeil. “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.”
As with everything right now, this is all easier said than done. Parents are learning every day that there are no right answers and no easy solutions. The goal posts keep moving and the rules continue to change. However, even the most trying situation can be mitigated by the same tools that have guided marriages through rough patches. As Dorfman puts it, “Mutually respectful communication with explicit efforts to hear and understand the other’s perspective often proves to be most effective.”