Dear Prudence

The Coronavirus Is Straining My Marriage

Slate’s Susan Matthews takes over for a special coronavirus-themed Dear Prudence.

Woman looking annoyed and man looking worried
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by sam thomas/iStock/Getty Images Plus and fizkes/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

For a special edition of Dear Prudence, features editor Susan Matthews, who’s leading Slate’s coronavirus coverage, takes over the Prudie mailbag to tackle all your virus-related questions and dilemmas.

Dear Prudence,

My husband is a bit of a hypochondriac. The irony is he takes very little care of his health—I can’t tell you the last time he ate a vegetable or drank a bottle of water, and he has a multitude of health issues he won’t see a doctor about. He has seen a therapist and psychiatrist in the past for anxiety but stopped seeing the therapist and is not taking the anti-anxiety meds the doctor prescribed. Now, he is very stressed about the coronavirus. We have a cabinet he has loaded down with canned goods and masks, he is refusing to take public transportation (we only have one car, so this is a logistical concern), and we recently got into a fight because he asked me to stop touching my face. I have some nervous tics that involve touching my face without really realizing that I am doing it. I also have glasses that I routinely push up. I told him I would do my best but asked him to please try not to be overbearing about it. The conversation deteriorated into an argument with both of us being assholes to one extent or another. What is the right balance of compassion for him and polite indifference in order to preserve my own sanity?

—Coronavirus Is Hurting My Marriage

We are all trying, and failing, to not touch our faces. As long as you are washing your hands regularly and not chewing on your fingernails after shaking strangers’ hands, you are being a good coronavirus citizen. (Please stop hoarding masks, though.)

In terms of how to interact with your husband, I would apologize for whatever “being an asshole to one extent or another” means and tell him you want to revisit the coronavirus conversation. You can talk through public health experts’ recommendations, which basically amount to regularly washing your hands and staying home as much as you can (that should help on the car front). Then let him talk about why he believes he needs more than that and what he thinks about how he is coping. It’s possible to be compassionate about his anxiety without rearranging your life to accommodate it, particularly when he has not shown a willingness to adjust his own life to better manage it. I don’t think this conversation will resolve everything, nor do I think your husband is likely to be able to do much right now about what you seem to think is a broader issue. But I hope you can make some progress while keeping in mind that tensions could linger, given how much time we might all be spending cooped up with our loved ones. So I’d also recommend coming to an understanding about what you can both do if you are getting on each other’s nerves—like taking time out to go be in separate spaces for a few hours. Good luck!

Dear Prudence,

I live with my mother, who has always had a certain degree of contempt for Asians, despite the fact that my father is of half-Japanese heritage. Her xenophobia has been amplified by the outbreak of the coronavirus. She and my dad had a conversation where they said the virus wouldn’t have happened if the Chinese didn’t eat “creepy” things. They were worried about me being around Chinese exchange students on my campus. Now, my sister and I are planning a day trip to New York City later this month, and my mom made a point to forbid us from going to Chinatown.

My mom and I are close and are usually able to have constructive conversations about prejudice, and she has made leaps and bounds in her understanding of other types of racism, but this subject has always been hard for me to approach. When I pushed back on her statement about New York, she told me not to force her to be “politically correct.” How could I best broach this topic with her in a neutral way? Or is this a lost cause because my father buys into her attitudes? If so, how can I cope with my mother’s contempt for my own racial heritage and those who share it?

—Mother’s Xenophobia

First, perhaps reconsider your day trip to New York City, particularly if it’s easy to reschedule. A lot of things are changing very rapidly, but nonessential travel is something we should all be cutting out of our lives, even if things feel normal where you are right now.

When it comes to your mother, you can tell her that her views are both misguided and hurtful, though I’m afraid that there isn’t a neutral way to do this. Perhaps helping her see how her words have affected you—explaining how they make you feel and why—might help her realize the depth of harm she is causing. Your other option is to shut down conversations that veer into racism and refuse to engage further with your parents once they go there. I don’t think either will be easy, so in terms of coping, my other advice is to minimize your exposure to this contempt, which means limiting your exposure to your mother. This is sad, but drawing this boundary with her will be important for your mental health and might provide her with the incentive to reconsider her own views.

Read more of Slate’s coronavirus coverage, including Slate’s Coronavirus Diaries series:

I’m a Priest. Should I Stop Giving Communion?
What Italy Is Like Now
My Husband Is One of the High-Risk People You Keep Hearing About
I’m Trying to Make Team USA for the Tokyo Olympics
I May Have to Shut Down My Chinese Restaurant

Dear Prudence,

My partner is a germaphobe, so we have actually wondered this for years about the common cold, but the coronavirus heightens our concern of unknowingly exposing each other to illness. Germs in saliva are contagious when they make their way into other people’s noses and mouths. Can saliva transit germs to a female recipient of oral sex? Dr. Google has no clear answer on this one.

—Love in the Time of Corona

I am impressed with any couple who manages to not swap germs via any other means but still engages in oral sex! I do not know the answer either, so I asked a real doctor. She told me that vaginas have mucous membranes, much like what you find inside of your mouth or nose, and that some germs probably can pass through, while others cannot. When it comes to where the coronavirus falls in that spectrum, she said, “This is almost definitely one of the zillion questions we have no answer to yet about coronavirus.” If you’re worried, maybe think of it as an opportunity to creatively expand your horizons beyond direct contact. Rewatch 40 Days and 40 Nights for inspiration.

Dear Prudence,

I live in a U.S. region already hit by the coronavirus, and I picked a bad time to get a cold. I know it’s not coronavirus (no fever or other issues), and I feel fine—I’m just sniffly. What’s getting to me is the public reaction to my sneezing. Although I’m taking appropriate precautions—sneeze into elbow, wash hands, etc.—people are treating me like I have the plague. They’ll refuse to sit in an enclosed space with me or sit near me in all-staff meetings. They constantly ask me if I have the coronavirus or if I should be wearing a mask. Honestly, it just sucks. I get that it’s nothing personal and that people are just acting out of anxiety, but my colds last up to two weeks, and I don’t know how much more of this I can take. Should I just resign myself to working from home until the sneezing has blown over? Is there a script I can use for these well-intentioned but rude germaphobes?

—Viral Anxiety

If your company allows it, you should work from home, not only because you have a cold, but because everyone who can work remotely should start doing so in order to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. If you still go out in public and cough around people, I think the best approach is to proactively reassure people, after you are done coughing, that you don’t have the coronavirus. Then wash your hands (or use hand sanitizer if you’re not near soap and water)! People who are asking and are nervous are very possibly just worried about their loved ones who are immunosuppressed or high-risk, so please be generous to them and the general heightened state of anxiety at the moment.

Are You Ready to Be With Your Kids All Day, Every Day?

Dan Kois and Jamilah Lemieux are joined by Carvell Wallace on this week’s episode of Slate’s parenting podcast, Mom and Dad Are Fighting.

Dear Prudence,

I was scheduled to go on a weekend girls trip. Before I could pay the person organizing the trip my share of the Airbnb rental, the coronavirus outbreak began. All confirmed cases in my region have been travel-related. My significant other is immunocompromised, and I just don’t want to take that risk with their health. Is it proper etiquette to still pay my share? The rest of the girls are still planning on taking the trip but cannot afford to pay more.

—COVID Traveling

Yes, it’s proper etiquette to still pay your share. You could ask them if they might want to find someone else who can replace you who still wants to travel, but given that the most prudent thing for everyone to do is stopping nonessential travel, it’s possible that this trip is going to be one of many financial harms left in the wake of the coronavirus. It stinks.

Dear Prudence,

I have sometimes been in public bathrooms at restaurants, theaters, etc., and seen people come out of the stall and walk out without washing their hands. I find this disgusting at the best of times, but with the heightened attention during the coronavirus outbreak, I am more concerned than offended. What can be done in a situation like this?

—Please Just Wash Your Hands

If there was ever a time to be that person, it’s now. You can try offering a bright “Excuse me, I know it seems bizarre that a little thing like soap can really kill the coronavirus, but it does, and it’s very important that you wash your hands right now.” If you do not want to be this person (I know I would have an enormously difficult time uttering these words to a stranger), you can go with the classic dirty look, sigh, or slight shake of the head. Also, avoid these people.

Dear Prudence,

My friend is totally freaking out about the coronavirus. She’s sending me a constant barrage of texts and emails filled with news stories and panic. I love her and sympathize with her. We’re both parents, and I understand her fear, but I’m just not nearly as concerned, and I’m getting irritated. There’s really nothing we can do except take precautions, and obsessing doesn’t help. Do you have suggestions for being compassionate but shutting (or at least slowing) this down?

—PANIC!?!?!

Understanding and empathizing with an anxiety doesn’t mean that you need to indulge it all the time. I would suggest a script along the lines of: “I realize this is a really stressful time. What I’m finding works best for me right now is to check in with the news in small doses. I’d really appreciate it if we could keep our conversations to non-coronavirus topics. Thanks for understanding.” If she continues to only focus on the coronavirus, you can follow up with an acknowledgment that it seems like she’s really struggling with this and ask her what resources and support she’s getting. Then feel free to auto-archive her emails or ignore her texts.

Dear Prudence,

My mom often assumes the worst will happen. The coronavirus hasn’t reached our state, but when it does, she says she and my stepdad will self-quarantine, essentially isolating themselves from the world until the threat has passed. They’re both in good health, but they are in their 60s, so they are at higher risk. But social isolation for people their age can affect cognitive function, and I’m worried isolation is a greater danger. I’d like to help her find less extreme strategies to cope.

But my stepbrother, “Jim,” doesn’t care. Normally, he thinks my mom’s fear-the-worst attitude is crazy and doesn’t mind saying so. This time, he’s totally apathetic. He acknowledged to me that self-quarantine could be harmful but said we (my sister, my stepfather, and I) have enabled this behavior for years and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s come to this. Jim’s kids usually spend an afternoon at their house once a week. When my mom emailed us with her coronavirus plans, he sent a one-sentence reply saying he and his wife will make alternative child care plans. He also decided his son’s birthday dinner (in April) will take place at his house rather than our parents’ house like we normally do. He said he doesn’t want the celebration affected by my mom’s potential quarantine. Jim’s actions have reinforced my mom’s belief that she’s doing the right thing. I know my stepdad is worried that he won’t regularly see the grandkids. I wonder if Jim is trying to create a wedge between my mom and stepdad. How can I get Jim to step up?

—Mom’s Overwhelming Fears

You don’t need to spend your time getting Jim to step up! Instead, you should follow Jim’s lead. People who can self-quarantine should be doing so right now, particularly people who are older, as your mom and stepdad are. Being socially isolated for a few weeks does not carry the same harms as the reckless spread of the virus, and we are lucky to live in a time where staying in our homes does not mean we can only interact with the people in our homes. (Plus, your mom and stepdad still have each other.) Call or FaceTime them regularly, and be thankful you’re not in the position of trying to convince them to cancel a vacation instead.

More Coronavirus Advice From How to Do It

My husband and I have an open marriage. My mother is immunocompromised. Is it unreasonable to ask my husband not to swap fluids with his girlfriend until the coronavirus blows over?