Today is July 1, 2020. I don’t know about you, but I thought COVID-19 would be a distant memory by now. I thought we would stay at home for a couple of weeks and re-emerge with the virus gone, returning to normal life with ease. This is far from reality. The reality we are seeing now is required face masks in public places, more cases than ever before being recorded, and continued uncertainty about how long this virus will be present in our lives. It isn’t going away. Instead, we are figuring out how to live with it.
Now that we have entered this bizarre time of returning to normal life, most of us are struggling with the reality of normal not being normal at all. We are struggling with wearing facial coverings everywhere we go (a clear reminder that this virus is still upon us). I continue to check the numbers every day of how many new cases are emerging and they are grim. I sigh and feel defeated in some ways. Being a therapist who focuses on relationships, I have done a lot of reflecting over the past few months about how COVID-19 has impacted the relationships in our lives, romantic or otherwise. As I am personally coming to grips with the reality that this pandemic is nowhere near over, I think about how this can feel similar to perpetual problems in relationships.
John Gottman, a well-known relationship researcher in Seattle, WA, classifies couple problems into two categories: “solvable problems” and “perpetual problems.” In his book, “Eight Dates”, he describes solvable problems as those that are “situational and about the topic; there usually isn’t a deeper meaning to the conflict or a person’s position.” These could be problems such as scheduling your child’s activities, what to make for dinner that night, and how to budget for finances that month. Perpetual problems, on the other hand, are “fundamental differences in your personalities or lifestyle needs.” And guess what? ALL couples have perpetual problems. And furthermore, according to Gottman, 69% of conflict between couples is about perpetual problems. These could be things like religion, political views, how introverted or extroverted each of you are, and views on family. I don’t know about you, but sometimes that feels pretty discouraging.
So how does this relate to COVID-19 and living in the midst of a pandemic? Well, I’m realizing that this is much more of a perpetual problem than a solvable problem. It would be a solvable problem if there was already a vaccine. Ultimately, we’ve been treating it in some ways like a solvable problem when it isn’t. Stay home – that will solve the problem. Wash your hands – that will solve the problem. Wear a mask – that will solve the problem. It’s true – these things help, but despite all of these things, COVID-19 is not going away. Many couples believe that their perpetual problems can be solved by good communication skills, giving each other space, couples therapy. Do those things help? Absolutely! Do they solve perpetual problems? Most of the time, no. Instead, those things do something that may actually be far better than making your problems go away – they teach us how to live with them. Those things teach us how to love our partner and understand them for exactly who they are without believing that they are wrong and we are right. When we give up trying to change something, it can bring relief and acceptance instead of frustration.
Now that I am viewing COVID-19 as a perpetual problem that can’t be solved easily, I feel oddly better. I do what I can to mitigate risk by wearing a mask and washing my hands and I give up thinking that it will go away entirely. I am adjusting to this new normal, the same way that over time in a long-term relationship you learn to adjust and love who your partner is, including those things that are very different from you. Then, you can get somewhere.