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I have cried. I have begged. I have yelled: Couples clash over COVID – USA TODAY

Patricia Rust is doing everything she can to stay safe during the pandemic. Her husband, however, is not.

Rust, 68, a retired attorney in Clarksville, Tennessee, is militant about mask-wearing and social distancing. But she says her 71-year-old husband believes COVID is no worse than the flu, often refuses to wear a mask and frequently socializes in large groups.

“We just had a fight the other night where I said, ‘That’s it, we’re going to get divorced. I need to stay safe and you refuse to allow me to be safe or feel safe in my own home,'” Rust said. “I have pleaded. I have cried. I have begged. I have yelled. And he refuses to listen to anything I say.”

"What happens if one of us dies?" asked Pat Rust, who says her husband is ignoring many public health guidelines around COVID.

Rust’s husband declined to be interviewed for this story.

The coronavirus has taken a devastating toll, with more than 425,000 Americans dead and infections continuing to mount despite the introduction of vaccines late in 2020. Men do not take COVID as seriously as women and are less likely to follow safety measures, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For older couples with underlying conditions, like the Rusts, these marital conflicts are fraught with life or death consequences. For younger couples with children, these clashes pose health risks as well as create additional work for mothers who feel they must take on the burden of keeping their families safe. 

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Jessica Calarco, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, surveyed Indiana mothers as part of a Pandemic Parenting Study and found nearly 40% of respondents report increases in pandemic-related frustrations with their partners. Those frustrations were twice as common among mothers with partners who were less supportive of steps they took to reduce COVID-19 risks.

“Women are being gaslit in some cases by their partners, with women being the ones who are reading the science and listening to the experts, taking in this information, making informed decisions for their family’s health, and then having those decisions undermined by partners who refuse to wear masks or who tell women that they are crazy, or that they are being driven by emotion and overly fearful about the pandemic,” she said. 

Experts say while COVID’s political divisions have dominated headlines, the pandemic’s gender divide is just as significant, with consequences for public health – CDC data shows more men have died from COVID than women as the virus spreads – as well as for relationships.

As the nation wages war against the deadly virus, many women are fighting their own private battles at home. 

COVID conflicts exacerbated by politics, gender

Republicans and Democrats often disagree over the steps necessary to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This has created tensions in many heterosexual relationships, since women, on average, tend to lean liberal, and more men identify as Republican.

Experts say these tensions are exacerbated by the pressures some men feel to demonstrate their masculinity, which can include showing strength, downplaying fear and taking risks. CDC data shows men are less likely than women to wear seatbelts or get flu shots. 

Rust identifies as a Democrat and her husband as a Republican. She says her husband, who rides motorcycles, has always been a risk-taker. But now she fears when it comes to COVID, he thinks he’s “invincible.” 

Many Republican leaders have also explicitly characterized behaviors such as mask-wearing as unmanly, leading some men to eschew the behavior, which is proven to limit transmission, for fear of appearing feminine or weak.

A study from New York University in October found women wore masks about 15% more often than men.

Socially, men are also often pressured to be their family’s primary providers. Psychiatrist Lea Lis noted some men who continue to go into work, for example, may feel, “COVID risk is acceptable as I must provide financially for the family at all costs.”

When anxiety is gender coded

In this era of unprecedented uncertainty, anxiety is common. But Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor at UCLA, says the way we view anxiety often depends on who is expressing it. When men are anxious about something, they’re called “protective.” When women are anxious about something, they’re called “fearful.” 

Women dismissed by their partners on COVID are finding they aren’t safe to express justifiable anxieties at home. 

Rust, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said she’s been most hurt by what she views as her husband’s indifference. 

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“If I tell him to pull up his mask I get the death stare and he will throw a tantrum by being rude the remainder of the day,” she said. “We have been together since 1986. The part that hurts me the most is the lack of respect or concern he has for me.”

Older men have made the fewest behavior changes in response to COVID-19, according to the CDC. 

Rachel Sussman, a licensed psychotherapist, said she’s counseled many couples who’ve experienced relationship stress during COVID, including those who don’t see eye-to-eye on the threat.

“In this iteration, someone in the family, usually the woman, is very concerned about COVID, very concerned about catching it, very concerned about the children catching it, and the man has been less so, and that caused terrible rifts between the couples where one person is called controlling, and the other person’s called irresponsible and even dangerous,” she said.

Sussman said she’s seen these conflicts even in relationships where partners share political beliefs, because the mothers’ concern for the health of the children eventually outweighs fealty to political party. 

“When it comes to caring for her children, she becomes a mama bear,” she said.

Women take on additional work

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women are often the primary health care decision makers for their families, and Calarco’s study found mothers are typically the ones shouldering the additional health burdens associated with COVID.

Calarco said women either had to do a tremendous amount of work to persuade their partners to take COVID seriously, or they had to take on the additional work of keeping their families safe, including teaching children to properly wash their hands and wear masks.

Sometimes, however, Calarco said a partner’s repeated dismissals would cause women to reconsider their views.

[Some] moms ended up doubting themselves and really questioning their own beliefs about the seriousness of the virus as a way to avoid conflicts,” Calarco said. “For some of these moms, it was just easier to say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not as serious as I thought it was.'”

Even in a health crisis, compromise is more productive than conflict

Psychologists say if you and your partner don’t see eye-to-eye on COVID, compromise is key.

“You might say, ‘How could there be a compromise or how could we meet in the middle with a disease that can kill people?’ But yet, there has to be,” Sussman said.

Lis says it’s important to avoid “you” statements, such as “You are not taking COVID seriously” or “You want to put our health in jeopardy.”  “You” statements almost always result in conflict, she said. Instead, try to create a list of things important to both of you as a starting point for discussion. 

“Where you can bend, then bend. Where you can’t, create hard boundaries, and then say no firmly,” she said.  

Some couples will never agree on COVID, which is why Sussman says rather than trying to get your partner to believe what you believe, it may be more productive to hone in on behavior changes. 

“Focus on one change, one change at a time,” she said. “Even a small change could ease some of the tension and create a bit more safety for the family.”

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