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How Do Couples Navigate Their Safety When One Partner Returns to Work?

August 13, 2020

As we move into the fifth month of dealing with COVID-19, some are still not feeling ready to venture out. Alternatively, others have had it with the restrictions, and since they are feeling healthy, they are more than ready to head out to work, shop, or go to the beach. How do couples respect one another’s fears and boundaries about leaving the house, and more urgently, about their returning to the house after they’ve left?

Council for Relationships has several clinicians with partners who are on the front lines helping treat those infected with COVID-19. A few also have infants and/or children at home. Their stories are stark reminders that we are not in this alone, we are all very much connected, and how each of us behaves will affect the important people in our lives, as well as total strangers.

A recent personal story will help describe exactly what I’m trying to talk about. After six weeks of staying home and self-isolating, I made arrangements to see two close friends for lunch. We made plans to keep one another and ourselves safe: we were going to bring food to share and eat outside in my backyard. I laid out my offerings on the kitchen counter, set the table outside, and waited for my girlfriends to arrive. The first to arrive walked into the yard, but I suggested she come inside and put her food on the counter. I saw my husband’s eyes get huge, he clamped his mouth shut, and literally fled the house. No one touched anything in my house except for two doorknobs and a couple of serving utensils. We got our food and walked directly outside where we sat a safe distance apart. A few hours later my husband texted me, “Is it safe to come home?” I said, yes, that they’d gone, and I’d cleaned everything up. He then asked, “Is it disinfected?” I said I would do that, but it didn’t matter; he came home and did it all over again. This all happened on a Tuesday. It wasn’t until Friday that we were able to talk about it and he was able to explain why he’d had such a strong reaction, specifically why he felt he was at a much higher risk than most. I thought I knew his mind; we’ve been married over 33 years! I also thought he was completely aware of my plans. But our reactions to unseen terrors are not always accessible in advance, even to ourselves, let alone to others.

I tell this story to highlight something that this experience made very clear to me: we each have our own idiosyncratic “lines of safety” that we draw around ourselves and others. The problem is, we are not really even aware of our own lines, let alone anyone else’s. So, how do we avoid crossing our own lines, and our partners, when we are about to head out into the still-infected world?

As in all such situations, there are two options: permission and forgiveness. One – forgiveness – is more likely to get us what we want, but at the cost of straining, and perhaps even ripping, the fabric of our relationship. Permission is the option that has a lower success rate but brings with it a whole host of other positive effects. Gaining permission involves taking the time to have a calm, focused conversation with one’s partner about what he or she feels is required to stay safe, and to keep others safe. It is not trivial or something that can be accomplished quickly; it is not a “one and done.” The “idiosyncratic lines” move! They change each time we go out and have an experience that either frightens us or relieves us. Going to a grocery store that is well stocked, well monitored, and with all the safety protocols in place can be relieving. Whereas going to a grocery store where folks are not masked, where they are not keeping social distance, and are ungloved, can raise our anxiety levels and fuel our stress.

On a recent episode of the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC, Brian pointed out the vast array of terms we are using to describe our situation, ranging from Governor Cuomo’s preferred “pause,” to shelter in place, isolation, self-quarantine, and full on quarantine. How we describe our experience says something about how we are feeling about our safety. Cuomo is clear and direct in his use of “pause” because he doesn’t want any hint of coercion to enter his directives to New Yorkers. He worries that the use of any other term with further upset, stress, and dis-regulate his constituents, and he is not wrong!

Make It A Team Effort

Here are a couple of suggestions to help you and your partner or family begin to tease apart and locate these internal “idiosyncratic lines of safety.”

  1. Consider doing what healthcare professionals do: make a checklist to keep by the door, both for before you leave and for when you return, so all hygiene protocols are closely followed and maintained.
  2. Work through these questions together to help locate you and your partner’s “idiosyncratic lines of safety”:
    • Are you worried about my leaving the house? When do you feel safe leaving the house?
    • Who do you feel I can safely see or visit in-person? Who do you feel you can safely see or visit in-person?
    • Who do you feel can safely visit our home? Is family a special case?
    • What can I do when I get home so that you will feel safe?
    • Will you let me know if I inadvertently make you feel unsafe?

Take your time, revisit these issues often, and try to respect and honor your partner’s and family’s internal lines of safety as an ongoing act of kindness and respect.

Dr. Martha Rinehart, LMFT, works at our Oxford Valley, PA and Lawrenceville, NJ locations; she currently sees clients via online therapy anywhere in PA & NJ. To set up an appointment, you can reach her at 215-382-6680 ext. 4371 or