This Couple Kept Arguing About Germs. Here’s How They Stopped.

I might not be a marriage expert, but I will say this: the second “that was only 17 seconds” leaves your mouth, you’ll realize it’s not just coronavirus germs being flushed down the sink drain. No, that whooshing sound is your partner’s last shard of goodwill sliding out via the plumbing.

Here’s the deal: I am wound tighter than a tourniquet. While my innate anxiety makes me great at investigative reporting—I check and recheck and then wake up in the middle of the night to triple check facts, it’s probably a less-desirable trait in a partner. I foster no illusions of being a total picnic to live with.

My husband, on the other hand, could maybe benefit from a touch more anxiety—especially when it comes to microbes. His food-safety practices are so lax, I won’t even hang out in the kitchen if he’s cooking. I’d rather not know he just put the dish towel he used to mop up raw chicken juice BACK on the towel rack.

While I’ve survived his questionable food hygiene for more than 10 years (mostly because I do 90 percent of the cooking), COVID-19 has made the last two weeks, um, tense. A pandemic is about fighting an enemy we can’t see. That’s an anxious person’s nightmare. Compounding the problem is my asthma. If I get COVID-19, there’s a significantly higher chance I’ll have complications, a fact I remind myself of, oh, 13,000 times a day. And, then, of course, we’re spending a lot more time together as we social distance from the rest of the world.

Marriage counselors of the world, I’m glad you’re getting set up on telemedicine platforms, because this is your moment to shine. (Divorce lawyers, you’re on deck.)

There are the facts, and then there’s the delivery

As a health reporter, I’ve done enough germ stories that I know I’m not totally crazy for feeling like my husband needs to lather up more often and with more vigor—real research in 2004and 2017 found that men just aren’t as likely to wash their hands as women are.

Yelling “it’s the sudsing action that kills the germs, you need more soap!” over his shoulder isn’t going to get me anywhere, though. “An analogy I bring up with couples in my practice is your mom or dad shaking their finger and saying don’t do that? It just brings up a lot of defensiveness,” says Julie Lundy, a South Carolina-based licensed professional counselor who works with many couples. The second you start scolding, your partner is going to feel at least a bit infantilized. There’s no worse feeling than that.

Cleanliness is especially tricky, because hygiene is so wrapped up in class and moral values. Think of the insults we sling around—so often “dirty” is the adjective before a slur. Maybe you really just don’t want to die—that’s fair. However, telling your partner they’re unclean will most likely trigger a visceral response.

And so I’m trying a new tactic: I’m making the conversation about us.

If you’ve spent any time in couples counseling, you’ve probably learned about “I statements.” With an “I statement” you start by owning your feelings. For example, instead of saying you need to wash your hands more often, you would say, I feel worried about how my body will react to COVID-19, and I would like to do everything we can together to try and minimize our risk.

Yes, this method feels weirdly robotic the first 20,000 times you use it. And it does not always work, especially if your partner isn’t willing to play along. In counseling, you’ll learn the proper response to an I statement is: I hear what you’re saying. I feel [insert viewpoint here]. It’s hard to do when you’re quietly seething about some long-held grudge. I know. I’ve been married for a long time and seen my share of raw chicken juice in places it doesn’t belong.

If you can stick to the script, though, the result is a conversation that avoids personal attacks. “Furthermore, it allows you to get his perspective,” says Lundy. That’s important, because we’re going to have to deal with coronavirus as a team. And: You often end up discovering something interesting about your partner if you can keep emotions cool and talk things out. My health anxieties likely stem from a childhood spent in and out of doctor’s offices, trying to figure out why my lungs were so weak. I’ve internalized that feeling of weakness, and now I feel like a ticking time bomb.

Taking the edge off

I’m also trying to remind myself that I am a part of this problem. “Anytime we’re under stress or duress, that can affect our mood and our ability to relate to others,” says Lundy. Last weekend, when the news turned from bad to worse to holy shit let’s build a bunker, my fuse got incrementally shorter. That’s on me. Since realizing my anxiety worsens my temper, I’ve been trying to find ways to self-soothe. Gardening is my go-to, and it takes me out into the yard and away from my favorite target: My husband.

While Chris may not be great at washing his hands and the coroner will someday have to pry his face out of his cold, dead hands, he loves touching it that much, he is great at other things. Last summer, when Corona was still just a mediocre beer, he had the foresight to restock our first aid kit and emergency food supply. He’s also a terrific organizer. All of our supplies are neatly arranged and inventoried. That’s something my ADD brain would never have accomplished. If you can find something your partner is good at and force yourself to appreciate it, it may make your fuse just that much longer. Trust me: It won’t cure your critical tongue completely, but it will give you a beat where you can decide whether you really need to say this unkind thing or not.

And that’s what, in the end, these next few months are going to come down to: Choosing grace whenever we can. We’re all going to be stuck in close quarters. Some of us are now co-parenting full time. That’s a lot. Our collective anxiety feels so overwhelming, and there will probably be some grief and loss in the weeks to come. To get through this, we’re going to need to practice extreme compassion—both for ourselves and for our loved ones, germs and all. (But also, wash your hands. Come on, do it. At least 20 seconds.)

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