This story is part of the In-Between, Slate’s series on how life is slowly getting back to normal.
Last month, Jesse Dutton-Kenny bought her first cup of coffee in nearly a year. The Oakland resident, 29, had been a volunteer in the Moderna vaccine trial. She found out about it through her partner of eight years, John Maidens, who couldn’t participate because he’s not a U.S. citizen. When the company unblinded the study in January and revealed that Dutton-Kenny had gotten the placebo, it also gave her a first dose of the actual vaccine. She dutifully waited another month for her second dose, plus two more weeks for the shot to fully kick in. Then, Dutton-Kenny went to a coffee shop, ordered a latte and a croissant, and sat outside to enjoy them both. “It was the most liberating feeling,” she said.
Maidens waited in the car.
More than 11 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated already. There are ambitious plans afoot to get the rest by summer’s end. This in-between stage of pandemic recovery—when some people are protected from the worst of COVID-19 and others are still waiting—will someday seem like a blip in time. But for the moment, with the vaccine chiefly available to seniors, essential workers, and people with certain medical conditions, asymmetrically immunized households are the norm, at least outside of retirement communities. Couples who’ve settled into a COVID-safety routine under the assumption of equal risk and responsibility to one another are having to rethink—and, in some cases, renegotiate—their practices for the first time in a year.
Throughout the pandemic, Dutton-Kenny and Maidens have taken extreme precautions to stave off the coronavirus. They’re not at particularly high risk for severe complications from COVID-19, but they’d heard some scary stories and wanted to keep themselves as safe as possible. “We’ve barely gone anywhere in the last year,” Dutton-Kenny said. “We were the strictest people I knew.” Many of the couple’s most rigorous practices, like washing their groceries, were adopted at Maidens’ request, but Dutton-Kenny always came around. “I got used to it—like, this is our life now,” she said.
That ended two weeks after Dutton-Kenny’s second shot. “My response lately has been like, ‘Well, I’m fully vaccinated and I don’t want to wash the groceries anymore, so I’m not going to help with that—and if you’d like to continue, feel free. I want my time back,’ ” she said, in a voice so gentle and kind, you’d never know she was begging off an arduous task she’d faithfully completed for her partner’s comfort for a year. Her post-vaccine life won’t change too much before Maidens gets his vaccine, mostly because she hasn’t seen a lot of solid data on whether vaccinated people can still transmit the coronavirus to others. But Dutton-Kenny is beginning to ease back into a more natural state of being, albeit alone. “We’ve started to shift our mindset into doing whatever we want to do instead of only what we absolutely have to do—with the big asterisk being that I can do that,” she said. “He doesn’t feel ready.”
According to Los Angeles Times columnist Nicholas Goldberg, this liminal phase of the pandemic has created “a recipe for a two-tiered society, in which some people are officially permitted a return to a normality that remains forbidden to the rest of us.” Goldberg’s fully vaccinated wife, he wrote in February, may now “traipse off to a restaurant or a rave or an orgy” without him. “Am I envious? Of course I am. Resentful? Yeah, some of that too.” BuzzFeed reporter Joe Bernstein pronounced on Twitter that languishing at home while his vaccinated wife resumes her social life will make him “a new kind of man: a vaxcuck.” In many parts of the country, the menu of options for large-scale socializing remains slim. But the prospect of nights spent alone on the couch while a spouse ecstatically reembraces public life—or of jumping back into the excitement of the world while also worrying about infecting one’s left-behind partner—still hangs heavy over some couples. The FOMO is a lot stronger when it’s coming from inside the house.
Almost to a person, the members of mixed-vaxxed couples I spoke to hastened to emphasize that whatever envy (for the unvaxxed) or guilt (for the vaxxed) they felt was minor, and that they were grateful that one of them had qualified for a relatively early vaccine. Even so, the discrepancy between vaxxed and unvaxxed life can upset the lockstep many couples have fallen into over the course of the pandemic. A couple of weeks ago, journalist Jessica Pressler was spending time outdoors with her husband and another couple when she realized that, due to their respective professions and health conditions, she was the only member of the group with no vaccine on the horizon.
None of the three have gotten their second shot yet, but Pressler’s husband, who has asthma, has already scheduled an April trip to California with two friends: a health care worker and a guy with sickle cell anemia. Hearing her husband plan his getaway has intensified Pressler’s cabin fever. Reading triumphant headlines that apply only to her husband and friends (“Vaccinated Americans, Let the Unmasked Gatherings Begin”) hasn’t helped either. “He’s like, ‘Flights are so cheap, and I’m gonna rent a cool car’—and I’m like, ‘I hate you a little bit right now. I don’t want to hear about it,’ ” Pressler said. She was laughing as she recalled the moment on our phone call, but as she assured me, “I was actually serious. I was like, ‘Don’t talk to me about this. I can’t deal with it.’ ”
Margie Scherschligt, a 50-year-old private educator who works in schools, had only a day’s notice before getting her first dose in Minneapolis last month. Her husband, Jason, was so excited for her that he insisted on driving her to the vaccine appointment himself. Still, she didn’t fully process what her vaccination meant for her life until after it happened. “All of a sudden my mind just kind of started spinning, like all the ideas of things that were now going to be possible,” Scherschligt said. “It was like a door had been opened that had been shut for so long.” Before she was vaccinated, Scherschligt had deliberately stopped herself from imagining all the fun things she’d do after the pandemic. As soon as she got the jab, though, she started daydreaming about renting an Airbnb. Watching Stanley Tucci’s new food series got her thinking about booking a flight to Italy.
When I spoke to the couple on the phone, Jason said he smiles at the thought of his wife beginning to reengage with the world, even as he sticks to a more protracted timeline. “Just knowing Margie, who’s maybe a little more social than I am—I suspect you’re going to be itching to see people,” he said. “Without me.”
Scherschligt does plan to seek out other vaccinated people for coffee dates and such, but the Italy trip will have to wait, and she’s turned down an invitation to a “girls’ weekend” in Florida with friends. She wants to save her first post-pandemic trip for Jason. “We’ve had so many things canceled,” she told him during our phone conversation. “For me to go off on an airplane without you would be sad.”
The majority of the dozen or so vaccinated people I spoke to said that absent more guidance from public health officials on their potential ability to transmit the virus to their partners, they don’t intend to change their locked-down lives all that much until their relationships achieve vax equality. This is a complicating factor for a nation inducing a return to a baseline of economic activity: People just don’t want to do that much if their main squeeze can’t come along, especially if they think their fun could get that squeeze sick. Asymmetrically vaccinated households can foul up states’ and cities’ reopening plans, too. One New York woman, Fabiana, told me she’d “basically been keeping a triangle between house-supermarket-laundromat” when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 several weeks after her wife, an educator who teaches in person, got vaccinated. “It’s not at all clear how I got sick, but it goes to show that if the spouses of essential workers don’t get vaccinated too, it can still lead to problems for the essential workers themselves,” Fabiana said in an email. At first, her wife was told she’d have to quarantine for twice as long: One spate of 10 days while Fabiana recovered, then another 10 days in case she caught the virus at the end of Fabiana’s recovery. But during her quarantine, New York City adopted the new CDC guidelines that allow vaccinated people to skip the quarantine period after exposure. She went back to work a little over a week after Fabiana’s diagnosis.
Nina W., 52, of Pennsylvania, thinks it’s preposterous that her husband was classified as an essential worker even though he’s been able to work from home for the entire pandemic. (He oversees service for medical equipment in large health networks and would normally be traveling to hospitals around the country.) He got the shot while she hasn’t, even though she’s been working in person as a school aide since the end of last summer. “First I was mad at him, then realized IT’S THE SYSTEM, STUPID,” she told me. “We all need the shot. I was not mad with my [working-from-home] friends for getting them; that’s the endgame. I was mad that there was no national plan.”
Nina got angry again when her husband came home from his shot and told her that had she come with him, she might have qualified for one of the leftover doses that had other people waiting in a standby line. By the time he got around to telling her, the vaccine site was closed for the day. Now, she’s just trying to remind herself that “this too shall pass,” and until it does, she’s sticking to her pandemic hobby of making pizza at home. Her husband, meanwhile, has moved on to more active pursuits. “He had his second shot on March 2, and on March 3, he went to Florida to play golf,” Nina wrote me in an email. “We know, he wasn’t fully protected, but for someone used to being on the road 30 to 35 percent of the time, he needed to go.”
Some couples have found that their pandemic lives have gotten easier since one of them has been vaccinated. There’s a general lifting of a mental load, a tangible piece of evidence that post-pandemic life is nearing. And if there was ever any squabbling over whose turn it was to visit the grocery store and post office, the vaccine has put that open question to rest. Elina Galperin, a 34-year-old teacher in Brooklyn, said she and her husband have had differing takes on pandemic safety that caused tension “a million times” over the past year. “Two months ago I was trying to get him to double mask, and he’s like, ‘You’re out of your freaking mind, I’m not doing that,’ ” she said. Now that she’s fully vaccinated, Galperin is easing up on her precautions—she’s pared back her phone-cleaning regimen from several times per day to just once—which has brought her closer to her husband’s unvaccinated comfort zone.
Galperin is still more concerned about possibly bringing the virus home to her husband than he is about getting it from her. “I think he wishes I would take advantage of it even more,” she said. “He’s all like, ‘Go! Go do indoor dining, go have fun!’ And I’m the one going, ‘Eh, I don’t know about that.’ ” She’s considering a trip to New Orleans to visit a vaccinated doctor friend and has already had to deny her husband’s request to tag along.
While vaccination can smooth over some pandemic couple conflicts, it can exacerbate others. Marti Sato, 38, of Oceanside, California, has clashed regularly with her husband on pandemic safety issues, particularly after her stepfather died of COVID-19 last summer. Many of their close friends have continued to hang out together, hire babysitters, and dine at restaurants while Sato and her husband have stayed home, at Sato’s urging. “There have been those types of arguments where I’m like, ‘It has to be my way, otherwise I get really bad anxiety.’ And he’s generally OK with that,” she said. Still, their regular rehashing of the same conversations—he asks if they can do something, she demurs—can get exhausting. “I’m like, ‘Why are you asking? You know my answer. Why is it on me to always have to say no?’ ”
Sato is worried that this looping debate will only recur more frequently after she receives her second vaccine dose later this month. She doesn’t want to change their routine too much, because her husband and their kids won’t be immunized, but she worries that once she’s fully vaccinated, her husband will see her as having even less of a reason to insist they stay isolated to ease her trepidation. “He’s already been like, ‘You’re vaccinated, yay!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I guess technically, but I’m not fully protected yet,’ ” she said. “We’re probably going to argue more, because it’ll be case by case.” In some ways, Sato said, it was easier for the couple to disagree on the specifics of their pandemic social life when her answer was a blanket no.
Sato has been with her husband for two decades, so she’s not surprised by this dynamic, which mirrors their decision-making and attempts to compromise in pre-pandemic life. “It follows that same pattern,” she said. “I know what to expect from him. I know he’s going to ask, and I know it will be up to me to create very strong boundaries and make them very clear. It’s still going to be me putting on the brakes for our family.”
I’ve seen our current transitional vaccine period compared to the end of junior year of college, when students who weren’t 21 yet had to find ways to fill their weekends while their friends went out to bars. But in some ways, that minor social life dilemma was easier to stomach than our current one, because its restrictions were absolute: Either you were 21 or had a great fake ID, or you weren’t going to bars. But with new vaccines whose protective capacity against transmission hasn’t been fully studied, there’s no settled-upon way for mixed-vaxxed couples to stage their grand reentry into normal life. As with much of pandemic life, the virus-related questions facing the lopsidedly vaccinated boil down to familiar ones about communication and respect. The exact answers any couple reaches matter less than their ability to live with the same ones.
Pressler, for one, has figured out the boundaries that work for her: She’s fine with her husband traveling to California without her. But if he went out with their local friends, the couple they were hanging out with when the realization of their asymmetry first hit her? “Oh my gosh, that would be so crazy. No. I’d be so mad,” she said. “I haven’t even entertained that as a possibility, because no one’s gotten their second shot yet. Check back in two weeks, when people have gotten their second shot, and then they’re all at the bar.”