The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She wants to socially distance. He doesn’t. Can their relationship survive?

(Alla Dreyvitser/The Washington Post/iStock images)

When Isabelle found out that her boyfriend had taken a friend grocery-shopping, she was livid.

“You did what?” she recalls exclaiming at the time. “In your Mini Cooper?”

It’s impossible to be socially distant in a compact car. Oh, and by the way, he’d been to another friend’s place, where he’d used the restroom.

Throughout the spring, Isabelle, a 42-year-old woman in Detroit who asked that The Post use only her first name to protect her personal privacy, was constantly having to talk to her boyfriend about the importance of social distancing. They live alone in separate homes, which they both own, and didn’t want to quarantine together.

“I was asking him to meet my standards,” Isabelle says, which meant maintaining 6 feet of distance, wearing a mask and not hanging out with other people indoors.

Long weekends of only seeing one another allowed minor irritations to escalate, Isabelle says, leading them to break up for two weeks, before they got back together in April. She now wishes she’d written her social distancing expectations into a temporary contract.

A recent survey found that the pandemic is more likely to strengthen couples’ relationships than weaken it. But not everyone who went into self-quarantine as a duo will emerge as one. A common argument: Partners are differing so strongly on how strictly to socially distance that it’s threatening to break them apart. Couples and experts say that fight is usually a sign of a larger schism: a mismatch in values, unwillingness to compromise, lack of trust. For those issues, unfortunately, there is no vaccine under development.

While the pandemic is a unique challenge, the problems cropping up these days are familiar. “The couples I am working with . . . we’re not seeing anything new. It’s old stuff,” says Stacy Notaras Murphy, a psychotherapist in Washington.

“When we perceive that we are under threat, our brains often launch us into a survival reaction of fight, flight or freeze,” Notaras Murphy adds, “which often looks like one partner getting anxious, becoming loud or angry, while the other one pulls away, shuts down, or tunes out the conversation.”

In couples therapy, Notaras Murphys works with clients to reduce those fight, flight or freeze responses and build new ways of responding to one another. But “when we’re perceiving threat, we go back to those old ways,” she says.

If you’re an unmarried couple, these past few months might be the first crisis you’re weathering together. And if you’re on wildly different pages about how to handle that crisis, it just might break you.

Early on, Jessica Goldberg, a 44-year-old woman in Emeryville, Calif., says she was hopeful that even though she and her boyfriend couldn’t be together physically, the pandemic “might bring us closer together emotionally.” She lives alone, while her boyfriend lives with his son and his elderly father. They started off by talking on the phone every day, she says. But that quickly devolved into arguments. “I was trying to convince him that [covid-19] was real and that he should be social distancing,” she says. “He was trying to convince me it was a government conspiracy.”

At first she thought they could agree to disagree, but the breaking point was the fact that he wouldn’t isolate. He works in construction, which was allowed to continue under California’s shelter-in-place order, and was continuing to socialize outside his home. “I’m a rule-follower. I’m a teacher. I’m a Virgo, and I’m very intentional and methodical. I do my research,” Goldberg says, adding: “I really can’t be with someone that doesn’t follow the rules.”

After three weeks of nightly phone calls, Goldberg cut ties. “I told him that it seemed that we . . . believe in fundamentally such different things, that there was no way our relationship could continue.” She’s “oddly grateful to the virus,” she says, because it helped her realize she was “trying to force some thing that really wasn’t meant to be.”

Before the pandemic, Holly, a 47-year-old woman in Ohio, says she and her boyfriend of over a year — plus their kids — were like one big, extended family. But as soon as the stay-at-home order hit, he deemed them two separate family units and wouldn’t let Holly (who spoke on condition of first name only for personal privacy) come to his home and wouldn’t come to hers.

Both Holly and her boyfriend are divorced, and their children were going back and forth to their exes’ homes as well. His ex-wife works as a nurse in a coronavirus unit.

Early on in the stay-at-home order, Holly, who identifies as a “very social extrovert,” and her boyfriend, who’s more of an introvert, went for a walk. He said they could hold hands if they used Purell, which they did. When she went in for a hug, he recoiled.

Holly spent the next month arguing with him about social distancing and trying to figure out if she wanted to stay in this relationship. Her boyfriend told her that he felt he had to choose seeing his kids or her, that he didn’t feel he could do both and keep everyone safe.

“I didn’t leave my home unless I needed to,” Holly says, “but that wasn’t good enough for him.”

“I just got tired of it and seeing that it was more about him saying ‘I, I, I,’ and it wasn’t ‘we’ anymore,” she adds.

Holly sees their argument as a new version of a preexisting dynamic: Her boyfriend makes the rules, no compromises.

“I’m not looking for that. I want to be in a partnership. I want to work through problems together,” Holly says. As time passed, “we fell deeper and deeper apart.”

When they met for another walk a month after the first one, she asked him: “If I got sick, would you help take care of me?” He said no. “I said: ‘Well that is too bad, because I would have come to help take care of you,’ ” Holly says. After that conversation, she broke things off.

“If there were do-overs,” he wrote to her in a letter after their split, he’d have hugged her. Now that Ohio is reopening, he has tried to restart their romance. But she’s moving on.

‘I would pay $50 for a 2-minute hug’: True stories of sex starvation during self-quarantine

Even well-established couples with similar values have disagreed over social distancing. Frances Kendall and Leon Louw, a couple in their 70s in South Africa, once connected over their shared beliefs in libertarianism. “We became soul mates as fellow believers in liberty,” Louw says of those early days; they’ve written books together on the subject.

But during the pandemic, Louw’s libertarian streak meant he wanted to get the economy going, preferring Sweden’s light-touch approach, while Kendall supported the government’s self-quarantine measures. “Now that one area where we always had a strong relationship, that area’s got a crack down the middle,” Kendall says. In early May, Louw referred to their arguments as a “pandemic of disagreement.”

“I thought a couple of times about Kellyanne and George Conway,” Kendall says. “How on Earth do they live in the same house together?” How have Kendall and Louw managed? For starters, by staying in their large country home. And “by not talking about covid,” Kendall says. Granted, “there isn’t a whole lot” else to talk about. They did watch “Tiger King” together. They go cycling together. They both dislike President Trump, so they can talk about that.

Louw says the independence they established in their relationship long ago helped prevent this fight from consuming them. “We have a very solid marriage, even if it’s not what most people would regard as a good marriage,” he says. “We’ve always been free to do our thing.”

And even though Louw thought the lockdown was an overreaction, he wasn’t breaking it by socializing unnecessarily. So their disagreement has been more ideological than practical. “He was angry with me for listening to CNN and muttering rude comments about me being brainwashed,” Kendall says.

Now that South Africa is opening back up, the tension over the coronavirus has largely passed.

“I think the only reason we’ve weathered it is because we’ve been married for so long,” Kendall says. “You sort of learn to withdraw, keep quiet, don’t fight.”

They got married in the middle of the friendliest street in town — and the neighbors all came to help

Meanwhile, last month, Isabelle and her boyfriend’s dispute over social distancing erupted once again. On a solo afternoon walk in her neighborhood, Isabelle bumped into him and that female friend he’d taken grocery shopping. This time, they were holding hands.

“I felt so unsafe. I actually felt violated,” Isabelle says of the run-in. Seeing her partner being intimate with someone else is shocking on its own; the possibility that they were spreading germs that could endanger her made the encounter even more painful.

Michigan was still under stay-at-home orders. “I had not touched another person besides him in 6 weeks,” Isabelle says.

Isabelle later learned the two were not just friends but exes. “I can’t trust you anymore,” she told him. “We’re done.”


How to navigate race while dating: 5 bits of advice from experts

This bride and groom joined protesters to say: ‘Black love matters’

Our romantic relationships are actually doing well during the pandemic, study finds