What Happens When Partners Disagree About COVID-19 Safety?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

You know how some couples claim they “never fight”? Yeah, they’re lying. Whether it’s at a hushed volume, through a fake smile and gritted teeth, or in the occasional knock-down drag-out yelling match, every pair does it. Could you take care of the laundry for once? Do we always have to go to your parents’ house for Christmas? Did you seriously watch Succession without me?!

Consider it a way for partners to, uh, brush up on their communication skills from time to time.

Now there’s something new for couples — particularly those with kids — to disagree about: the pandemic. Specifically, how cautious we really need to be right now.

“People can be differently anxious,” says Orna Guralnik, a New York–based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who has been seeing a lot of this particular brand of disagreement lately. “From their temperament to how they grew up to something they’ve read to their political affiliations, lots of things help people decide how they feel and what to do about it, whether it’s ‘The virus is not so dangerous’ or ‘We should do everything to be careful right now.”

Some couples are good at tolerating these differences and can communicate in a way that allows them to come to a place where no one feels uncomfortable, she says. Others are … well, not so good.

And as with so many pandemic-related dilemmas, the stakes get higher when kids are involved.

“With children, especially if they’re not vaccinated and going to school, there is a legitimate reason to have a heightened concern about COVID-19,” Guralnik says. “There’s way more risk. In some couples, kids are a beacon of sanity that forces them to get out of their own fort and negotiate for the sake of the children. Others weaponize the kids to strengthen their argument.”

The Cut spoke to parents around the country who disagree with their partners on mask wearing, vaccination, travel, and more to find out how they’re navigating these differences of opinion. Are they coming together or being driven apart?

“My husband is normal and sane. I’m the batshit one.” —Leila*, 45, Chicago, mother to a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old

I have a history of health-related anxiety — so clearly, the pandemic has not been good for me or my mental health. My background is in public health, and rationally I know I don’t need to sanitize everything, for instance. But I still want to sanitize everything.

My husband is more rational in general. I wish I had a couple more percentage points of what he has. He knows I’m anxious, and he’s eternally patient but there’s only so much he can take. I’m aware that it can be taxing. It’s definitely caused arguments. We were supposed to fly to a family get-together during the pandemic, but I couldn’t get myself or my kids on the plane. So my husband represented us.

We’re just starting to do indoor playdates with kids in my daughters’ classes; we don’t eat inside with other people. Our friends tend to be pretty cautious too, so I’m trying to use them as a gauge. My husband recently went on a guys’ trip for the first time since the pandemic started. I wasn’t thrilled. My inclination was to have him mask when he got home and then test for COVID-19. But then I thought, What are the other spouses doing? Are they going to have their husbands mask and test? So he didn’t mask. And it’s fine.

I’m sure our kids notice that my husband and I handle stress and the pandemic differently. I’m always the one telling them to wash their hands or put on their mask. I have a very equitable relationship, but on the whole, I think women are the ones having to freak out about testing and managing work and school and quarantining if a child gets sick. That’s a nightmare, and we want to do anything we can to avoid going through that hell.

*Name changed at subject’s request.

“I want to get back to a little bit of normalcy.” —Jaclyn, 38, Brooklyn, mother to a 3-year-old

For most of the pandemic, my husband and I were pretty much on the same page. But now that things have started to open up a bit more and events that weren’t happening are now happening, he has taken more of a cautious approach.

The biggest issue is that I would like to visit my family in Florida for a couple of weeks and go to a wedding there this winter. My husband is very hesitant about that, since he says Florida doesn’t think COVID-19 exists, and he doesn’t want to put himself and his family in the position of being there. And he’s not sure what we’ll be able to do with our son while we’re there because he’ll want to restrict where we go a lot more than I’ll want to. So it’s been a big debate.

To me, we’ll be following all the rules, and the people we’ll be seeing will be following all the rules, so I would like to go and do these things. But we’ve always been a little different in this regard. He’s more likely than I am to wear his mask outside, even when walking between places that are not crowded at all, because he thinks he should, whereas I think, Nobody’s around.

I went to a bridal shower that was indoors with 20 people in Manhattan recently — if he were invited, he would not have gone. And if the shower had been in Florida, I don’t know that he would have wanted me to go.

Part of the difference is that he has an autoimmune disease and just went back to work in an office, and we have an unvaccinated child. Since he’s interacting with more people indoors, he’s more cautious in some circumstances. That doesn’t bother me.

The reluctance to go to Florida, however, is very frustrating. We are living in an amazing bubble here in Brooklyn, so I get the hesitation given how Florida is handling the pandemic. But it makes me feel like he doesn’t trust the judgment of my family and friends — or my judgment. We’ve since compromised on going down for a shorter time, which has helped with the strain.

“Hearing his views on mask wearing was the biggest red flag.”—Jenna, 36, rural Maine, mother to an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old

My ex and I — we divorced last year — didn’t originally have very differing opinions politically, but that changed about four years ago.

One of the hardest things about being divorced is that I no longer have control over what happens in the other home, and I do have to worry about what this person is telling our kids.

I knew he did a lot of eye-rolling, but I thought we were aligned on what was expected in order to keep consistency between our homes. The other night, though, I overheard him on a video chat telling our 8-year-old that masks don’t do anything to protect us — and, in fact, that they actually can “increase” viral load and make us more sick. I try not to interfere in conversations between the two of them, but I cut in and said that’s not true and we could discuss it at a different time.

It was really hard because my ultimate goal is to not come across as bashing the other parent. Later I told my child that this was something Mommy and Daddy didn’t agree on. I tried to take it away from us to “This is what the scientists know and are telling us.”

The thing that upset me the most is that everyone at my children’s school is expected to wear a mask, and for a parent to speak out against that must be so uncomfortable for the kids. There’s so much potential distrust that it can put in a child’s mind about school and administrators.

My ex describes our children as a blank-slate computer that we have a responsibility of programming, and now I have to wonder, What’s the programming?

He is definitely not vaccinated — he’s on the ivermectin train — and has no idea that I got vaccinated. Last summer, he said to me that if the vaccine came out for kids, our kids would not be getting it. But honestly, I have mixed feelings about it myself. We delayed our children’s other vaccinations.  I feel there are a lot of other things we need to be doing in our society to protect people who are immunocompromised, like not sending kids out to school when they’re sick. If people are unwell, they shouldn’t be out and about. Even a cold could be detrimental to a kid who’s immunocompromised.

So I’m struggling a bit in my head about this, but I am leaning toward having the kids get the vaccine. And if there are school mandates around them getting it, that will impact my decision too.

What Happens When Partners Disagree About COVID-19 Safety?