Balancing Act: How Families And Friends Can Navigate Conflicts Over Reopening With Compassion: ‘The Problem Is Now The Consequences Are So Huge.’

By Heidi Stevens Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As we begin to reopen, Heidi Stevens asks questions many of us are thinking as we tiptoe back to normal. For example... "Can your teenager attend a sleepover now? How about a sleepover with eight other friends? Does date night suddenly include an outdoor cafe? Do you get a pedicure with your girlfriends even if your spouse thinks it's a terrible idea?"

Chicago

Resa Alb wants to host Father's Day brunch. She and her husband, plus their two kids and the grandkids, would make 10 people, the exact number allowed to gather under phase three of the state's reopening plan.

But her children aren't sure. Her son rides public transportation to work, and her daughter's child care provider is married to a nurse. They worry about inadvertently bringing the coronavirus into their parents' home.

"Our daughter was real frank with us," Alb said. "She said, 'You guys are in that age group that really needs to be careful.'"

Heather Black Alexander wasn't happy when her husband, Brian Alexander, left the house to get his hair braided recently, the first time he had his braids done since early March, but, to her mind, an unnecessary risk.

Adrian Rosales isn't the least bit interested in standing around a sunny backyard drinking beers with friends, but his wife, Beth Dugan, is sort of dying to.

"I'll be like, 'Hey, do you want to have couple X over next weekend, and I get the look like, 'No, girl. I don't want to have anyone over,'" Dugan said.

"There's a lot of me saying, 'The state's reopening! Let's go visit your mom!' and him giving me the blank stare."

Illinois has eased into reopening under a complicated set of phase three guidelines and restrictions, the same week the country surpassed the grim milestone of 100,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19. State officials announced 1,622 new known cases on the same day suburban restaurants, hair salons and retailers previously deemed nonessential reopened for business. Chicago enters phase three on Wednesday.

Which leaves families grappling with some incredibly tricky decisions, and not always agreeing on the outcomes.

How quickly do we tiptoe back to normal? Can your teenager attend a sleepover now? How about a sleepover with eight other friends? Does date night suddenly include an outdoor cafe? Do you get a pedicure with your girlfriends even if your spouse thinks it's a terrible idea?

"We all have our own unique social contracts we abide by, but the stakes are high right now," Rosales said. "My behavior affects hers and vice versa."

"It feels kind of parochial to need him to agree with me going out," Dugan said. "At the same time it's understandable. And frustrating. It's very weird."

At some point, we will not be living under the fog of the coronavirus. (Right? At some point?) At some point our daily outings and purchases and invitations, accepted or declined, will not take place in the shadow of a pandemic. And we need our relationships, with our partners, with our kids, with our dear friends, with our in-laws, to have weathered this storm.

The coronavirus is a beast. It has robbed us of plenty. Feeding it the relationships that sustain us, that bring us joy and purpose, that remind us we're part of something bigger than ourselves, would add insult to injury.

And yet. Disagreements over what to shut down, whether to wear a mask, how to balance very real economic concerns next to the sanctity of life have, in the last few months, devolved into shouts of "grandma killer" and protest signs scrawled with Nazi slogans.

Families may be handling disagreements with slightly more nuance decorum, but they aren't immune to the inherent tensions over what's overly cautious and what's overly risky. That's especially true now that health experts and elected officials are sanctioning activities and gatherings that were, a few days ago, off-limits.

"I'm very satisfied with staying in the house," Black Alexander said. "I bought a bird feeder. I'm fine. I'm managing. My husband is taking calculated risks for things that are important to him."

Then again, he doesn't tease her when she sanitizes all the groceries before putting them away, she said, even though she read the NPR article saying it's not necessary.

"He's been very gracious with me during this time," she said. "I took our 8-year-old to fly a kite where there was no one around and I woke up and took my temperature every morning after that."

Gracious is good. Gracious is, as it turns out, just what the doctor orders.

"It's so important to have compassion for the other person and not attribute motives to them that don't exist," said Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist and author of "Maybe You Should Talk to Someone." "The problem is now the consequences are so huge, and that ups the ante."

Gottlieb writes the "Dear Therapist" column for The Atlantic and counsels couples in her private practice. I called her to ask if the coronavirus conflicts are finding their way into her inbox and onto her couch.

"Oh, yeah," she said. "Of course."

She asks couples to listen to the other person's position and, more important, the feelings under that position. ("I'm afraid we'll go broke and lose our house if things don't open up soon." "I feel hopeless against how easily this virus is spread." "I don't feel human anymore without outside contact.") Then she asks each partner to adopt and defend the other person's position.

"What I'm noticing is couples talking around the emotional side," she said.

"They're not saying, until they're in therapy, 'What has this brought up for you?' Sometimes a crisis can bring up other crises. And some people want to hunker down in a crisis and some people really want to externalize in a crisis."

And some people just really want a hint of normalcy.

"I'm not saying I would endanger anyone's life to get a pedicure," Dugan said. "But I could really use a pedicure."

Dugan, 46, is not ignorant to the risks of COVID-19. She thinks, in fact, she had the virus in March. She suffered from a high fever, severe body aches and other flu-like symptoms for several days. She took an antibody test recently and tested positive. Her husband, Rosales, also 46, took the same antibody test and tested negative.

"It's difficult," Rosales said. "You're getting conflicting advice from state and federal and city authorities. It's hard to navigate those waters. And I know we're running into a situation where people need to earn a living and reconnect with friends and family and it's unreasonable to wait for a vaccine."

Still, hosting friends for a barbecue strikes him as a nonstarter. Even though his wife would love it.

Families with kids in the house face another layer of pressure and decisions, as invitations start to trickle in for gatherings and outings that are now acceptable by official standards, even if they still make individual parents nervous.

"Parents need to remember that for kids, several months is a bigger percentage of their life they're missing," Gottlieb said. "For us, three months is three months in the course of our lives. For them, it's three months in that particular grade, and they will never get it back. Or it's the summer before this grade that they will never get back. It's a very different timeline."

Kids' social lives are a crucial part of their development. It's important, Gottlieb said, to keep that in mind during our conversations.

"So much of what kids are doing, developmentally is experimenting with their relationships at school, even in the casual between classes joking around in the halls, or running into someone and deciding do you say hi or do you not say hi," she said. "They don't get to practice the normal developmental skills they would be doing at this time. Those spontaneous, organic interactions just don't happen on Zoom."

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