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Your Partner’s Done Social-Distancing. You’re Not. What Now?

The conflict over opening back up and seeing friends and family is bleeding into couples’ relationships, and it’s getting messy

Beneath overcast L.A. skies, Darius and Layla — having spent three weeks quarantined together in their 700-square-feet, one-bedroom apartment — were arguing for the fourth day in a row. At first, they disagreed over little things, like whether or not he should take his shoes off before entering their apartment, or whether they should use Instacart to order groceries instead of going to the grocery store themselves. “He didn’t want to wear a mask,” Layla tells me. Even if he had, “she didn’t want me to go [to the store],” Darius counters.

But those little conflicts, strung together, quickly gained momentum, evolving into sequestered, hour-long silences where the two of them would “basically live around each other.” “We were sitting on the same couch, but we didn’t talk,” says Darius. “We were both stir crazy, sad, and I was very resentful.” 

Soon enough, they realized that, for the first time in their three-year relationship, they were two people on opposite sides of this strange, new world. “I just wanted to at least go see some people in my family,” Darius says. “Layla didn’t want me to go anywhere.” And despite their lengthy, tempered conversations on what it means to socially distance, it only usually led to arguments, which then led to slammed doors, tears and “some pretty good makeup sex,” admits Layla. But, Darius tells me, the same debate about how to handle the quarantine kept coming up. “I just felt like, if I took precautions and maintained a six-foot distance, that I should be able to see other people who were in quarantine,” he says. “It didn’t seem that extreme.” 

In short, Darius is a proponent of so-called “pod life,” which, as my colleague Isabelle Kohn reports, has been “quietly creeping into the mainstream” for the past few weeks. Like Darius, pandemic-pod people believe that “small, exclusive and self-selecting groups who, despite the inherent and obvious risks of doing so, have chosen to forgo isolation in favor of quarantined togetherness,” are simply worth the risk.

By now, this exact argument is playing out everywhere, and the headlines are packed with people from all points on the social-distancing spectrum. At one end are the people who want their world to open back up and let the bodies fall where they may. On the other, emboldened by science, are those unwilling to risk any more lives lost in exchange for a return to some semblance of normalcy. Many, like Darius, find themselves teetering somewhere in between. There’s scolding on the internet. Protests in the streets. Amidst a pandemic that feels like a war against nature, this other, more private conflict grows amongst otherwise happy couples at odds about how to handle the uncertainty of the future, and what it means to physically distance from their people. 

As we’re all well aware by now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that “limiting face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease.” The actual stipulations of their guidance include “avoiding large and small gatherings in private places and public spaces, such as a friend’s house, parks, restaurants, shops or any other place.” “This advice applies to people of any age, including teens and younger adults,” per the CDC. And still, despite the clear language, there’s a collage of customized approaches as to how to actually achieve all this.

In that sense, Darius and Layla are just one picture of a couple navigating the limits of the CDC’s guidelines. Here’s another: Kristy and Aaron, who have been in a relationship for three years and living together for two of them, adopted a dog in the first week of the quarantine. She thought it would solidify their at-home life. “I figured we’d just be happier being at home together,” she says. “With a new puppy around, there’d be less reason to leave the house.” Aaron had different ideas, and after a week or so, he wanted to take their new pup to his friend’s house. “We got into so many blow-out fights because I was worried about him going to see his friends and taking the dog with him,” she says. She tells me that Aaron “was over the quarantine,” and there was nothing she could do to change his mind. “He ended up going [to his friend’s] but I didn’t let him take the dog,” she says.

Sarah English Wallace, an L.A.-based professional family mediator and the owner of her own practice, Modern Mediation, tells me that although she hasn’t mediated this particular brand of conflict firsthand, it’s reminiscent of the age-old clash between introverts and extroverts. “We both go out, one of us resents it,” she says. “We both stay home, the other one resents it. We haven’t come up with one solution where it’s going to work every single time.” As such, she thinks that the question — which in this case has the added moral caveat — oftentimes becomes much more about, “How much do you care about me and how much do you love me?” than it is about the actual guidelines. “It’s a much more vulnerable conversation to have,” she says. “When I hear that you want to go out and spend time in settings that could put me at risk, it makes me wonder how much I’m cared for, how much my needs and my interests are being seen as important as your own. Am I less important? Am I equally important? Are you more important? And is that always going to be the case?”

Wallace adds that in her experience as a mediator, most people in relationships are really trying to figure out where they stand. Whether it’s a new relationship or a 20-year marriage, she says that it goes back to the fundamental question of: Am I safe with you? 

Layla, for the first time in their relationship, tells me that every time the conversation of whether to go to see people came up, she “didn’t feel safe.” “It’s not like I’m the one who wanted to keep him from seeing his family,” she says. “The government and the CDC are literally telling us not to see people and to limit our trips to the grocery store.” She of course also wanted to see friends and loved ones, most of whom were many of the same people Darius wanted to see. The only difference was that, at the peak of the pandemic, she couldn’t see how it was “smart or worth it” to begin making personal adjustments to the social-distancing guidelines. “Thousands of people are dying because of this virus, not to mention I have a pre-existing condition, so I just couldn’t understand why he thought it would be okay to see his brother or go to his friend’s house.”

Again, Layla and Kristy’s concerns about their partners’ approach to social distancing are shared by many. In April, fearful of her boyfriend’s social-distancing habits, a woman wrote to Outside asking the publication what she should do when he decides to stop “by a friend’s house for a drink on his way home,” and his habit of going to the grocery store “almost every day.” Her boyfriend’s reasoning for living by his own social-distancing rules: “He says he believes that people are overreacting to the virus and he doesn’t think it’s necessary to be ‘extreme about it.’” More recently, a different woman wrote into Lori Gottlieb’s Dear Therapist column in The Atlantic, noting that her husband, who works in public safety, also “feels that these social-distancing measures are too extreme.” 

By now, you might be noticing a gendered pattern emerging in terms of who wants to stay safe and who wants to throw caution to the wind. Marriage and family therapist Allen Wagner tells me that, based on conversations he’s had with his patients, there seems to be a lot of variance between couples on the issue of social distancing because so much is unknown, and that, as a result, “I’ve seen it on the male side and the female side.” “They take this approach that if the person was to go out, that they’re jeopardizing their kids, they’re jeopardizing them, and it’s causing tremendous conflict,” he continues. 

But while there’s little doubt that there are men and women on both sides of the social-distancing spectrum, based on both my conversations with couples and the number of women airing their grievances about their boyfriend’s or husband’s social-distancing negligence, these arguments do seem to be skewed more along gender lines than not — even though it’s men who have so far been more likely to die from the coronavirus. 

Male death rates are higher not just for biological reasons, but because of behavioral causes that appear to confirm and uphold stereotypes surrounding masculinity’s more traditional and toxic expressions,” wrote my colleague Kohn recently. She cites one redditor’s comment in particular as a good summation of this thesis. “Males behave differently to females,” the redditor writes. “Generally speaking, males have poorer personal hygiene, less awareness of how their actions affect others, a lower sense of social responsibility, a greater inclination to think that rules don’t apply to them personally and more delusions of physical invincibility.” 

After a month of social distancing, Darius’ seeming callousness about Layla’s pre-existing condition and “it being okay to see a friend and then come back home” had reached a breaking point, so finally, she told him to leave. “We were arguing so much, I didn’t know what else to do,” she says. “We couldn’t agree on anything and I needed space.” And so, that’s exactly what Darius gave her. He packed a bag with a week’s worth of clothes and drove across the city to his brother’s apartment, stopping only to buy a pack of cigarettes on the way. “I was finally free,” he tells me. “But I felt like shit.” 

It shouldn’t need explaining who was in the right in this case: Wagner tells me that there’s no excuse for wanting to go see “a friend” if your partner feels at risk. “The social part of it is secondary, and it’s unnecessary, and it goes against pretty much every state government, up until recently,” he says. Wagner adds that, based on the people he’s spoken to, the divide between couples is commonly less about social guidelines and more about whether or not to go to work. “In that case, it’s about educating your partner on the fact that not going to work would impact their entire life in ways that would make everyone, including your partner, feel less safe,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that the other person is going to go and disregard the safety concerns. The question then becomes, whatever that job is — and I’ve seen it in numerous professions — how can that job be done in the safest possible way, to make your partner feel safe when you return home.”

There is also plenty of evidence to suggest, though, that for many couples, the issue of how to socially distance has everything to do with the dearth of social interactions during the quarantine. Knowing this, Wallace says that once a couple can acknowledge “what’s bringing heat to the conversation” — your partner’s sense of safety amidst the pandemic — you can actually move on to the real discussion. “I don’t want to give the impression this is all just touchy-feely,” she says. “It’s very strategic. If you want to negotiate with somebody and you want to get somewhere, you’ve got to start in the right place,” she says. 

This is why she thinks that hinging on who’s right and who’s wrong, per Wagner’s advice, is going to set up debate rather than a dialogue. “When you frame a disagreement and approach as oppositional, it’s difficult to be collaborative,” she says. “Because then you have to defend all of your assumptions.” Based on her experience of having worked with hundreds of couples, she suggests “suspending judgment” with regard to your partner’s set of beliefs. “Because there’s objective truth and subjective truth, and subjective reality is just as powerful as objective truth and reality,” she says. “So working with another person’s reality is, in fact, key to negotiating effectively and getting the best solution your circumstances will allow, which is all we really want.”

As a mediator, she says, she would start by floating the idea of seeing a friend but perhaps wearing a mask and gloves during your time together. This way, by willingly going through the hassle of wearing the proper safety attire, it shows that you’re mindful of your partner’s concerns and are actively approaching the issue in a way to make them less anxious. “It’s not ideal for either side,” she says. “But could both sides live with it? Then we push through that and see where it goes.” 

Ultimately, Wallace continues, in these conflicts, it’s not just about taking practical measures to help reduce risk. “Yes, you want to help make your partner feel less at risk, but you also want to make sure they feel like you’re willing to go through the extra trouble to make them feel safe,” she says. “You direct the strategies a little bit more at the things that show concern aside from sacrifice. Asking people to do more, or do extra, that’s usually a little more compatible.”

Three days after Darius left his and Layla’s apartment, he returned back home. “I thought she was being selfish,” he says. “But I realized I was being selfish, because I didn’t fully appreciate just how scary this whole situation has been for her.” For them, the space of a few days apart had seemingly served its purpose. “When he got home, I was just happy to see him,” she says. “I was still just as scared but I didn’t want to fight with him anymore. When he came back home, we had an unspoken agreement that he was staying here and we weren’t going to fight anymore.” 

According to Darius, that agreement has also meant occasionally bending the social-distancing rules, but doing so cautiously. “Just last week, she went to go see her mom,” he says. 

Layla laughs. “I just had this epiphany that everyone has been staying home for several weeks, and if I wasn’t sick and they weren’t sick, then seeing them for an hour was probably fine. We mostly stood outside. We wore masks. It was nice to feel a little normal again.”