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How to Tackle Reopening Choices as a Couple

By Amelia Nierenberg

Luci Gutiérrez

Around the world, couples are struggling to cope with the stress that comes with reopening cities and towns (and the pausing or rolling back that, in some places, has ensued). For some, tension has run high for months: As Eric Spiegelman, a podcasting executive based in Los Angeles, tweeted in April, “My wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, it’s called ‘Why Are You Doing It That Way?’ and there are no winners.”

That might’ve been in jest, but with the possibility of resuming certain pre-lockdown activities — going to restaurants, seeing friends, working out at gyms — couples are in the process of addressing differing comfort levels.

One partner might have parents who are older and at higher risk of complications from the coronavirus; the other might be an extrovert who thrives on being around other people and is, emotionally, at a breaking point. And, together, they could face questions like: Should we go to a friend’s barbecue, even though it probably won’t be rigidly socially distant? Who do we invite to our daughter’s birthday party, if we even have it at all?

“The traditional marriage vows are ‘for better or for worse,’” said Jean Fitzpatrick, a relationship therapist based in Manhattan. “This is for worse. And so how do we navigate a time like this? Our relationships will either grow as a result, or they will be harmed.”

Below, some strategies you can use to find a path forward that works for both of you.

Soujanya Sridharan, a recent graduate of a master’s program in Bangalore, India, had started to plan her wedding before the lockdown; she and her fiancé expected 300 people to celebrate with them. Then, the coronavirus hit India, now one of the worst affected countries. She wanted to go forward with fewer guests, but her fiancé was more reluctant: Some of his family members wouldn’t be able to come, and he is more worried about contracting the virus himself.

“When he resisted the idea of going ahead with the wedding, it made me wonder if the lockdown had actually changed his mind about going ahead at all, as opposed to getting married at that time,” said Ms. Sridharan, 23.

They talked through it and worked together to find solutions — whittling down their guest list, showing outfits to each other over Zoom and developing safety measures. He wanted to wear masks in the wedding photos, but saw how much it meant to his bride-to-be to have keepsakes that didn’t reference the pandemic, so he took off his mask for a few pictures.

“Once you feel respected and heard, you usually can negotiate anything,” said Deb Owens, a licensed therapist specialising in relationships who is based in the Philadelphia area. She has been regularly speaking with couples struggling during the lockdown.

In difficult situations, therapists often recommend thinking not just of “you” and “me,” but talking about your relationship as a third entity.

“It’s not, ‘My needs versus your needs, and let’s negotiate,’ but asking the question and having the posture of: ‘What is best for our relationship?’” said Jennifer Bullock, a psychotherapist based in Philadelphia.

Important, too, several psychologists and counsellors recommended presenting a united front when explaining shared decisions to friends and family. Any sort of “I would, but he’s afraid” seeds resentment and can amplify the problem far past the boundaries of your own home.

It’s always tempting to drop some knowledge when you’re in the middle of an argument. But some therapists think appealing to data, in lieu of listening to the emotions and concerns of your partner, is a losing strategy.

“People just need to consistently ask themselves: ‘Would you rather be right, or would you rather be in a loving, connected relationship?’” said Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a licensed mental health therapist and certified clinical trauma professional based in Kennewick, Wash.

David Woodsfellow, a licensed psychologist and the director of the Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy in Atlanta, agreed. He said that thinking about things in terms of “right” and “wrong” is often less helpful than trying to understand how and what the other person feels.

“Try to understand what they are saying and why they are saying it,” Dr. Woodsfellow said. “It is totally possible to understand things you don’t agree with.”

Of course, facts and concrete information are helpful and often necessary when considering joint decisions, like how safe it is to send children to camp or how long another family would have to quarantine before you became a pod. But when you’re offering data, make sure you’re doing it in the spirit of educating and working with your partner, rather than hammering your own point home.