How to self-isolate with wife who really can't handle the isolation?
March 25, 2020 12:07 AM   Subscribe

My wife is in a couple of higher-risk populations, so we've been self-isolating since last week. She finds the isolation extremely unpleasant, and cannot bear even to discuss the possibility of continuing more than a couple of weeks. We may need to self-isolate until she gets vaccinated. How do I handle her increasingly erratic behavior? This is mostly a relationship-filter question.

Some concrete examples of what I mean when I say "increasingly erratic behavior":

- I tried to discuss with her some plans we might have to cancel soon. She became extremely upset and ran away, shouting that she couldn't bear to think of that. After she calmed down, she told me never again to speculate on how long this might last, because she just couldn't handle that. This is hard because most of our decisions nowadays depend on how long this lasts, and we usually operate by consensus. Or, at least, informed non-veto.

- She became determined to do a minor home improvement project that we didn't have the tools to do. I managed to talk her out of it before she did more than cosmetic damage to our plumbing, but not without another screaming meltdown during which she asked me to let her have some semblance of control over this, as she clearly had none over the rest of the world. We've been doing other cleaning and redecorating, in case that would scratch the same itch, but I can't tell how much it has helped.

- She keeps talking about flying cross-country to visit her parents, or inviting them to come visit her. I don't think either is a good idea. Her parents are even higher-risk than she. Even though this seems like an idle fantasy so far, I'm concerned by how persistent this fantasy has been. I've been trying to arrange video calls with mutual friends, and encouraging her to call her parents, but she says it's not the same.

It's getting to the point where I feel like I'm mostly trying to save her from herself. Our material situation is fantastic: we are stably and now remotely employed, well supplied, comfortably housed, and in good health. We could have an enviably easy time of this, if only we avoid unforced errors like breaking our own plumbing.

The "unforced errors" phrasing above is probably an example of how I am contributing to the problem. I have no intuition for her distress.

And not for lack of experience with living in close quarters. For a while when I was younger my family of four shared a studio. I thought it was pleasantly cozy. Before that, we were three in one bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment, with another family in the other bedroom. I also once injured myself far from friends and family, and convalesced a couple months mostly alone in a room slightly larger than my bed. That was not pleasant like the other two, but you could pay me to do it again.

So at first when she told me of her various frustrations I'd make what seemed to me like reasonable suggestions based on what had been helpful to me or others in my family. These have mostly not been helpful to her because...I don't know, she grew up in East Nowhere where people have hiking trails in their back yards? I've never seen anyone react this badly, and it really worries me.

I think the difference here, and the reason I'm so out of my depth, is that my experience has all been with the physical constraints. For example, in the studio we had to coordinate our bedtimes. We didn't have to have a row about whether it was really a good idea to go to bed at all. We didn't suffer our privation, in the way she does now.

I apologize for the length and breadth of this question. I had not the insight to shorten or focus it. I'd be grateful for any advice.
posted by meaty shoe puppet to Human Relations (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
To your first point: no-one knows how long this will last. You write that most of your decisions these days depend on how long this lasts. You need to rethink your decision-making framework, because we cannot know. You are overriding your wife’s need to not think about how long this will last, which does not sound like joint decision-making.

As a compromise you could consider taking it in chunks perhaps based on local guidance. It is reasonable to put a minimum estimate in, your government might be making such noises. I have my own estimates (am a scientist albeit not an epidemiologist nor virologist) and am hesitant to put a figure on it here on AskMeFi beyond saying that we are in this for the long haul, it is worth putting the work in in the coming days and weeks to define a new normal.

How long have you been effectively locked down? This makes a difference. My sibling is in a different country and ahead of my country by about ten days or two weeks, and when I was in pieces as my country shut down she advised me that things do settle. Hang in there and you and your wife will build a new normal.

Are cross-country planes still operating in your country? That might end soon. I would not worry too much about persistent fantasies, it might be easier to be non-commitall than to fight them.

You cannot save your wife from herself, you can only save yourself and play a role in protecting your marriage. Seek support for yourself in all of this, by doing things like posting questions like this one, reaching out to your own support networks, and lots and lots of self care. It would be easy to focus on a caring role to distract yourself from your own needs but I do not think that is a helpful longer term strategy.

Lastly no need to apologise for length and breadth of this question, your concerns are real. My favourite quote of the moment is “We are all learning ‘pandemic’ together” and this is as true for marriages as it is for medics, nurses, sufferers, everyone. All of us. I’ve little experience of living in close quarters with someone else (I live alone which brings its own set of challenges) so maybe others can suggest what works for them for that.

Wishing you all the best.
posted by Erinaceus europaeus at 12:40 AM on March 25 [8 favorites]

Would it help to focus on the immediate and concrete? You know this will go on for an indefinite time and it doesn't help her to think about that. Help her focus on each little activity right in front of her. Now getting up. Now making a meal. Now working remotely.

What would give her some relief? What would help her relax into right now? Would video calls with family and friends meet a need for outside communication? Would walks outside (if that's possible) help connect to the wider world? Would inventorying supplies and planning for basic needs give her a sense of control?

This whole thing is revealing what has always been true... we're not in control. That can be really hard to handle. What can help her feel in control while also being not harmful?

Can you communicate with her in a way that she feels heard (which doesn't mean going along with... just hearing the underlying and deeper emotional drivers)? What would help her be with those emotions?
posted by kokaku at 12:50 AM on March 25 [7 favorites]

While I'm probably a bit more like you, OP, in terms of isolating socially, I'm more like your wife in terms of how I react to stress. So I really empathise with both of you.

"Communicate with her in a way that she feels heard" as Kokaku says, that is the most important bit.

You can't fix her, only she can do that for herself. It will be easier for her to do that if she feels that you are not judging her, she knows that you understand that her feelings are valid, even if they are also painful. (separate her actions from her feelings. Her feelings are always valid).
She's feeling lonely and trapped. Validate that first of all. She IS lonely and trapped. Don't try to push through to "but we can do stuff about that" too quickly because at the moment she needs to know you understand how she feels, and that this situation is real and scary. Allow her the space to find her balance. Be her calm place. She might be scared you are angry with her, or judging her. Show her you are not.
posted by Zumbador at 1:42 AM on March 25 [19 favorites]

By my read of the situation, she is terrified out of her mind and it’s manifesting about these other issues. It’s not about the plumbing or seeing her parents, it’s mortal fear.

I understand that it’s important that house systems don’t get broken as she struggles to cope, but negotiations about, conflicts about, the plumbing or flight plans isn’t going to fix this. The anger and outbursts that she’s having are a way of trying to protect some unbelievably tender vulnerability. Yes, it’s shitty to be on the receiving end and in a perfect world adults would be able to cope better and more maturely. However oftentimes we don’t know where the end of our rope is until we’ve slid right off it, and from your puzzlement at this new behavior, that sounds like what’s going on.

The best possible thing to do is find a way to be her safe harbor. Be extremely tender, recognize her terror, and validate it. Fears of she herself getting ill, fear of her parents getting ill, fear of them dying, fear of never seeing them in person again, lack of control over any of it. If it helps to put it in terms of the five stages of grief it sounds like she’s past denial and into anger and bargaining. The next phase is sadness, and people will do a lot to resist entering into such vast overwhelming sadness. Moving through it gets you to acceptance eventually, and that’s where you want her to be, where she needs to get eventually. Help her ride it out.

Handle the manifestations of her struggle with grace and firmness. It’s ok to set limits and not accept poor treatment, of course. But if you’re trying to navigate your wife seemingly going haywire: root yourself in compassion.

Last thought—she obviously needs to learn how to cope better when she’s completely fried. When I was going through the worst parts of the end of my marriage and it was incredibly hard to regulate, Steven Stosny’s HEALS method was invaluable for giving me an effective way to ground when I was at a complete loss for other resources. She’s no doubt aware of how off kilter she’s been, and is probably ashamed of it. If you get to a place where she’s open about her struggle to cope and she’s open to suggestions, that may be a place to start.

Good luck, this is such an awful time in so many ways.
posted by Sublimity at 2:49 AM on March 25 [22 favorites]

Is therapy an option? I had my first remote session today and it worked really well. It might help take some pressure off your relationship if she has another person who can validate her feelings and help her adjust to the situation we all find ourselves in.
posted by crocomancer at 2:51 AM on March 25 [18 favorites]

It's harder, weirdly, when you think you have control. We've had four tickets to Paula Poundstone since, I dunno, August 2019 or something, for a show that was scheduled for last Friday, 3/20. My recollection of dates is hazy, but sometime early in March or end of February I realized that it would be very dangerous to go to this show, and the theater wasn't cancelling or postponing the show, but how could we not go to a show for which we had tickets was there some way we could go to the show--ruminating endlessly. I spent the first couple of weeks of March just freaking out about this Paula Poundstone show and how was I going to tell everybody that we were going to have to skip it. I wrote the box office, I wrote Paula Poundstone, I checked every day to see whether they were cancelling it or postponing it, I keened to my boyfriend who began monitoring Paula Poundstone's twitter and updating me whenever she posted anything about her travel schedule. Paula Poundstone, thank god, acted as a handy stand-in so that I didn't get wild and attack my infrastructure. But then (way way too DAMN late in my opinion, since their audience is all like 900 years of age and had been going to other shows the whole time) the theater cancelled everything. The BLISS!

So for stuff that feels like maybe you have the option of making a really bad choice, like flying her parents around the globe during a pandemic, I recommend adopting the position that in fact you do not have any options and saying, "I know. But we can't help it. It's out of our hands." Because it really really is. If I'd just realized earlier that I don't have to make decisions anymore: the choices are all pre-made for me, handily, by the pandemic, I'd've saved myself some stress.

This is hard because most of our decisions nowadays depend on how long this lasts, and we usually operate by consensus. Or, at least, informed non-veto.
Can you make a rule that you are solely in charge of handling all disappointing cancellations of all plans for the duration of the crisis to spare her having to examine each disappointment?

(I didn't say anything about Paula Poundstone to my mother during my weeks of freaking out because the worst part about it for me was going to be having to break it to my mom. She forgot all about the thing and only asked about it this week, when I was able to give her the great news that it's been postponed 'til July. Obviously it's not happening in July, either, but the Gainesville, Florida, Paula Poundstone show has paled in importance for all ticketholders and Paula Poundstone herself at this point.)

Do you have a yard? Can you grow food? Order some seeds. Even if you just grow herbs on the windowsill.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:45 AM on March 25 [13 favorites]

You're talking a lot about what you've tried here that hasn't worked; have you asked her, at a moment when she's not spiralling, what support she would like from you to make isolation easier? If not, that would be a good start. Maybe she wants reassurance without you trying to problem-solve for her; maybe she wants an agreement that at dinnertime you will discuss non-pandemic things, or to schedule the planning discussions so she knows when to be emotionally prepared for them; maybe she wants some domain that is hers that she can control, like starting a little container garden or meal planning; maybe she wants more or less structure to your current isolated lives. No way to know without asking when emotions aren't running high.
posted by Stacey at 4:42 AM on March 25 [22 favorites]

As you say yourself, this is not about practical solutions. She’s upset and this is upsetting stuff and we all deal differently. By all means stop her from getting to work on the plumbing or structural fabric of the house. But other than that just acknowledge how upsetting this is and that it’s ok to be upset.

I am an introvert and live alone. And I am extremely fortunate to have a job that is fairly solid and a good healthcare system and excellent supply chains keeping things going here. And normally I absolutely relish my weekends or days where I can work from home because they help with my need to be alone some. But ever since remote working and social distancing became mandatory I’ve been getting more and more antsy to speak to people, stay in touch or reconnect with people, be it colleagues or friends and family. So even I, who should feel fairly at home in this set-up, am unsettled. I can’t even try to imagine how distressed people who thrive on proximity must be or people who are used to being out and about all the time, even if it is solitary hiking. And even I feel the need to step outside so I am allowing myself to go for walks up to once a day and to do in person food shopping once a week (both of which is allowed where I am).
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:56 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]

I think management begins with treating the underlying issue rather than the symptoms. Rather than following your wife around the house removing hammers from her hands, you need to help your wife get set up to manage anxiety and claustrophobia.

Is there a way for her to get some strenuous physical activity?

Is there a way for her to do something to help in the pandemic, like hooking your family computers up to those research number crunching link ups? Or sewing the gowns that hospitals need? Home reno is a displacement activity that keeps her busy but does not actually address the situation she needs to have improve. However if she can reduce the research time line or provide the gowns she may save some lives or something like that it will give her a better sense of control than ripping the wall apart.

Anger is almost certainly one of the things she is manifesting as well as fear, so if there is something she can safely attack and devastate that is another approach.

But the main thing is that she needs mental health support. Even if meltdowns are normal for her, she needs that support. She's like ninety-some percent of us. Mental health situations happen to us. Those who can figure out that they are going on and find the good ways to get support do better than those who feel that we are just upset for good reasons. It's like saying we are just dazed and week because we are bleeding out - good reasons for being upset are also good reasons for doing the self-care, and getting help from other people.

Talk to her parents. They need to reassure there they are fine, sheltering in place and much happier under lock down than if they break social isolation to have her visit or go to her. If possible enlist them to provide her with the familiar mummy-and-daddy-are-still-there security. They may not be able to do that - make sure the situation is not that a role reversal has happened and her frightened and desperate parents are not triggering some of the emotional storm.

All this is very difficult if she is not capable of working on and structuring things with you. So look after your own mental health, make sure you do your best to get some down time from Covid19 and your own spouse.

There is a not small chance that your wife needs to spend anywhere from two hours to three days crying and rocking herself, possibly while being held some of the time by you, possibly with you periodically crying too. The situation is big and real and crying and rocking is a something that can lower cortisol levels. Think catharsis.

Make sure she is not in withdrawal from something or expecting to be in withdrawal and if she is, treat that. If your wife is an alcoholic this kind of reaction could be the result of realising that her Friday night and Saturday night bottles of wine habit is going to be interrupted. Also make sure she has eaten reasonably. Over reactions can be a sign of not having eaten, and since your normal meal patterns have changed she could be skipping breakfast due to not being able to grabbing her usual latte and a croissant or limiting calories to ensure food supplies don't run out.

If you live in a crowded area where she can see people from the windows but daren't go down the elevator to get out of the building, see if you guys can connect with the community like the Italians did, singing or banging pot bottoms with a spoon. there will be a lot of other people near you also desperate to connect with the community right now. You can find them. If you live in an area where you can get outside and still be safely quarantined (> 20 feet at least(?)) get her outside breathing and doing jumping jacks.

I'd suggest fostering a dog or cat from a shelter going on shut down, but she is probably too volatile for that. Hugging, deep pressure and textures that comfort could help. Hot showers might also help. Ask her to come and take a hot shower with you, rather than telling her to go take one.

Make sure you have adequate ventilation and that she has puffers if she needs those hypoxia can easily produce panic symptoms. Start with the paper bag to reduce hyperventilating, and move to deep breathing. Tell her you think you are starting to hyperventilate and use one yourself. When she is freaking out talk slower and breath deeper to mirror calming down and avoid getting caught and ending up in a screaming match while you struggle for the hammer.

Figure out if clutter is a problem. Many people start to overload in an environment which is too busy and detailed. She maybe quite happy with your bedroom ordinarily because she only needs to be in there long enough to dress and head out of the house.

Try to enlist her into helping and comforting you. "I need you now..." often will help people. But "I need you to stop..." is just a request for them to stop doing instead of requesting them to start doing.
posted by Jane the Brown at 5:11 AM on March 25 [9 favorites]

This is the same wife you refuse to believe when she tells you she has trouble lifting heavy objects, even though she's dangerously underweight with heart disease? Yeah, she's got a lot on her plate. Maybe just don't keep bringing up subjects you know will add stress to her, until and unless it becomes absolutely necessary?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:14 AM on March 25 [32 favorites]

Have you tried saying, "Your behavior is unacceptable. Wake the fuck up."

She is a grown adult, and yet you seem to be treating her like a child who is incapable of understanding adult logic and living up to adult expectations. You are not her babysitter. Stop patronizing her and start expecting her to behave in a responsible manner.

This might mean that you're angry with her. Let her deal with you being mad at her! It will very likely mean you set some very firm boundaries with her, including isolating yourself from her if she breaks quarantine. Take responsibility for yourself, not for her.
posted by MiraK at 6:16 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]

And if it's she who keeps bringing up the future plans, it's OK to just say something kind like, "Well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it; let's just worry about right now," instead of hashing the whole thing out yet again.

If you need someone to talk about the bad stuff with, do you have a friend or sibling or someone you can call, to get it off your chest?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:17 AM on March 25

We have all seen images of the marks that prisoners make on their walls to track their confinement; maybe we have even made them ourselves at one time. Note that the unit of contemplation is the day and that the point where it is contemplated is when it is over. There is never a forward looking grid of upcoming weeks or months because that would be overwhelming . The prisoners outlook might for people who are finding it hard to adjust.
posted by rongorongo at 6:35 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]

As an addendum to my comment above: you need to stop trying to solve her problems for her. Your "helpful" suggestions are not as helpful as you may think, and solving her problems is her job, not yours. If you can stop moving into her side of the court and concentrate on your own, you will be removing your contribution to the frustrating dynamic between the both of you.

When she complains, listen and make sympathetic noises. Don't offer suggestions. Let her come up with her own solutions. If her solutions are all about breaking quarantine, let her know that you will isolate yourself from her if she breaks quarantine.

She is free to do what she likes and she is free to solve her own problems. You will no longer try to persuade, cajole, entertain, finesse, pressure, or control her in any way. You are a sympathetic partner whose support for her will manifest as "being a listening ear". You will protect yourself from her destructive actions. THE END.
posted by MiraK at 6:38 AM on March 25 [16 favorites]

I had a panic attack when I learned that my apartment complex was going to close the pool and courtyard area. We have a small apartment and I thrive on being able to sit outside and read a book.

My partner helped me brainstorm ideas of where I might be able to sit and then we came up with the idea of the parking deck patio where I keep my own lawn chair in the back of my car and sit in the parking deck. Is it ideal? No, but it's something.

Think of things that will help her relieve this claustrophobia. Be willing to cede every grocery trip so she can have a few extra opportunities to go out.

I'm also very grateful for the therapy I started this year which also helps.
posted by raccoon409 at 8:23 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]

Is it the isolation that's upsetting her or the fact that it's possible that millions of people may die/ are dying soon, including her? And that's what the isolation represents for her?

Because that's what's really upsetting me, to the point of anxiety attacks (that don't sound unlike your wife's). So I just had a telemedicine visit set up with my doctor to get pharmaceutical help. If that's a possibility for your wife she should talk to her doctor.

Isolation can be hard and tolerated differently by different people. You maybe can tolerate it that doesn't mean it is universally tolerable. Fear and anxiety are hard and will pften be expressed non-rationally. Have sympathy and give her the comfort she asks for, not what you think will help/fix it. This will involve a lot of communicating and negotiating and re-communicating and re-negotiating. Oh well! That's what relationships are about!

Solidarity to you both in this tough time.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:47 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]

Make sure she is not in withdrawal from something or expecting to be in withdrawal
That was the first thing I thought of, too. Is she going without something she's used to having?
posted by tomboko at 8:48 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]

This makes me think of an approach for dealing with toddlers where you sympathize with their wishes and deemphasize the part about how they are impossible. Toddler example: “It would be so much fun to go to the playground! We love the slide! It’s so fun to dig in the sand! I’m sad we can’t go right now because we have to get groceries and then make dinner, but it’s going to be so great when we go there in a few days.” Grownup example: “It would be so great to see your parents! You could relax and catch up, and it’d be reassuring to see they’re doing fine. I can hardly wait until it’s safe enough to go.”
posted by lakeroon at 8:52 AM on March 25 [4 favorites]

1. Get some teletherapy lined up for your wife and for yourself.
2. If you can go for drives or walks to low-density areas, do it - regularly.
3. A lot of people are using virtual social activities like Zoom conferences, Netflix party and Facetime - so if you aren't already doing that, give it a shot.
4. When she talks about her frustrations, hold off on offering solutions. Listen, hold space for her to express her fears. Validate that it sucks. After she's had time to cool down, ask her how you can help - she may very well say that you can't - that's ok. If so, just let her know that you're in it together and you love her.
5. What's her love language? When no one can say the right thing, sometimes a hug or a touch does the trick for me.
6. It may not be practical for your situation but my friends and I have talked about social-distancing picnics - very small group, bring own blanket and food, sit several feet apart.
posted by bunderful at 10:21 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]

I sympathize with both of you.

Two ideas:

For the need to modify and cancel upcoming plans (and the desire to maintain the consensus and lower stress for her) - at a time when she is not upset, why not meet and decide to make an agreed-upon list of criteria to use to make these decisions. So for example, let's say you have an upcoming vacation: Is there a deadline that the airlines will respect cancellation (economic costs + deadline), etc. can you both agree that it should be canceled or postponed? When you both agree on the list, then you will temporarily use it to make decisions a month in advance or whatever is feasible and agreed upon. In addition, agree that you will both add these trips/vacations/whatever these events are to a queue to do when the all-clear signal is given and this comes to an end. So it is not a "we will never do this" but we will do this a few months from now, a year from now, etc.

Re: renovation/decoration changes. The displacement behavior is something that most people at times like these but what I wonder is: Is there something that you both enjoy along these lines that you could do together? My concern is that ... she is doing this for control over the world and trying to manage anxiety - but it could still happen (redecoration) but also something exciting and rewarding between both of you? Since you are both discussing it, then things like rearranging the plumbing are less likely to happen.

Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 10:24 AM on March 25

A couple of thoughts:

1. To me, what you are describing does not sound erratic or egregious for someone under an extreme amount of stress, which she is. I believe you based on your prior Asks that you are in NYC and that your wife has a preexisting condition that requires a pacemaker. That’d be freaking terrifying right now, and different people are going to respond in different ways. Your wife clearly wants and needs to take things day by day right now to survive, and that’s OK. You don’t need to press back on that beyond making sure issues like potential plumbing damage are handled given that you are materially comfortable and safe.

TBH, if she’s had a few yelling meltdowns and is fantasizing about some understandable but impossible ways to see her family but is getting on OK with work from home, cleaning/decorating projects and the like...that’s not bad at all. The way you set up the prelude and from some of your wording I thought you were going to describe someone unable to leave bed or hallucinating. I am wondering if there is ordinarily a discrepancy between you in how you respond to and present stress that is being ratcheted up here. If you are describing your wife’s behavior to her in any of the terms you used in this post...I’d reconsider. I do think remote therapy could be good for both of you, but please do not propose it to your wife in any manner that would suggest she is presenting a problem or reacting problematically. The problem is a very real public health threat and quarantine, which are utterly outside either of your control.

2. So at first when she told me of her various frustrations I'd make what seemed to me like reasonable suggestions based on what had been helpful to me or others in my family. These have mostly not been helpful to her because...I don't know, she grew up in East Nowhere where people have hiking trails in their back yards? I've never seen anyone react this badly, and it really worries me.

Are you doing the “one partner is trying to share emotional information and look for emotional support and the other responds with practical problem-solving” thing? Have you asked her how you can best offer support, given the constraints, when she does express these frustrations?
posted by LadyInWaiting at 10:48 AM on March 25 [12 favorites]

The only example of the three you gave that really seems to be any real problem is the plumbing.

Having to decide about canceling a future plan? You don't have to decide now. You can simply just not go do the thing when it comes, if it's a public event it's likely the decision will be made for you, or if it's plans with friends they will surely understand it might not be possible. Talking about flying and visiting? Nothing wrong with that, you don't mention that she is running out and buying tickets -- and if she invites her parents that doesn't mean they will even think it's a good idea to come! Lots of people are coping with this by "won't it be nice when" and imagining how nice their future conference for their hobby or their planned vacation trip will be, and not thinking about how those things probably won't happen. Those are future things, not things people are actually going out and doing. It's not so different from planning out the fantasy trip to somewhere exotic that many people never take, lots of people discuss how someday they will visit Easter Island or Antarctica, many more people than ever go to those places.

It seems like you might be very future-oriented, not everyone is like that. You know how when people say "let's get lunch sometime" it does not literally mean that you will ever get lunch together? Do you argue and insist that they must admit the truth and that it is very unlikely the two of you will ever lunch together? No! You realize it is just a nice thing to think about. Look at future plans that way right now.

What if you were to try to meet her where she is? Make some fantasy plans together, discuss what you want to see some day in Iceland or Ireland or Irkutsk.
posted by yohko at 11:38 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]

When I am stressed and feeling overwhelmed, I have a really hard time talking about the situation. It just ramps things up exponentially for me. But I can read about it, and in fact seek out thorough information that I can read about a thing, no matter how dark.

There's a real immediacy to talking about things, like it has to be faced and resolved all at once. Whereas reading about a thing gives you context, a way to indirectly think through different scenarios, and time to absorb it all, all in a bubble of quiet solitude.

So I suggest agreeing on a few ground rules that you decide on together:

1. Both commit to staying reasonably current on agreed-on websites/writers/social pages etc. That way you are assured that she doesn't have her head in the sand, and she is able to take things in at her own pace. It doesn't have to be reading; maybe it's podcasts, maybe it's video. Whatever works for her and are sources you like too.

2. Put all the things that must be addressed in a shared calendar or notebook, and leave each other updates in them. Agree that when one of you says "I updated the notebook & need your thoughts" the other one will look at it and respond within 24 hours or whatever you decide on.

3. No matter what, no matter who, if either of you say something is too much/are overwhelmed, stop. Stop talking, stop reasoning, stop taking the pipes apart, whatever. Respect each other's limits and take it up again the next day.

There are probably others but I'm tired. Good luck.
posted by headnsouth at 3:31 PM on March 25

Please try to work on the huge, glaring class resentment-based contempt you have for your wife, which is laced through all of your questions about her and which is a real danger of poisoning your marriage. Cross-class marriages are hard, class migration is hard, but you are on metafilter unselfconsciously framing this question as, "my irrational wife is upset about being confined to an apartment, and it's so unfair that she's stressed out, because when I was a kid we had to share an apartment with other families and I was fine, I'm going to write paragraphs about my childhood experiences with a bunch of people sharing space in poverty for internet strangers to validate." Commenters had to point out the extremely important context that your wife has a pacemaker and will probably die if she is exposed to this disease that's burning through our city right now... do you see why this is a problem, in both your question and your relationship? Dude I know bumping up against privilege is difficult but the contempt you have for your wife has been really hard to read, and you seem completely oblivious to it. A few months ago you were posting back to back questions-- the first about how she was always doing irrational things like waiting for less crowded train cars, followed by a question about you escalating petty subway grievances into physical and verbal altercations, zero awareness that maybe this behavior of yours had anything to do with why your wife didn't want to be on a crowded subway car with you. This is going to hit a boiling point in a quarantine, please seek help, find someone to talk to, or otherwise get your head on straight about this, because it isn't, and hasn't been for a very long time.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 5:01 PM on March 25 [27 favorites]

Gently, because I know you are concerned for your wife's health and for your relationship—this question, and a few of your previous questions about your marriage, comes across as "My wife does not think/feel the same way about this circumstance as I do, what is wrong with my wife?" That is not a constructive way to approach this.

I understand it's frustrating to see someone struggle with or complain about circumstances that seem perfectly tolerable to you. But really, nothing of what you describe sounds like erratic or out-of-control behavior with the possible exception of the ill-considered plumbing project—this is definitely not a good time to be messing up the plumbing, and you were right to intervene there. Otherwise, talking about visiting family or having them come visit you isn't harming anyone and maybe gives an idea of something to look forward to. Feeling distressed when talking about canceling plans or speculating about how long this situation might last—yes, ideally everyone can talk that through with perfect equanimity at any time, but unless it's truly urgent to make a decision about the plans now maybe you can pause and then figure out together how you want to approach those decisions in these changed circumstances.

Your wife is entitled to her own process and feelings here. This is a difficult situation for everyone because there are so many unknowns and sudden changes in circumstances, and so many people are feeling a loss of control and agency. All the more so for someone with a serious health condition (as I understand your wife has) and who is no doubt worried about their elderly parents' health as well. It's a difficult situation even if you are conscious of being in a relatively fortunate position, as you and your wife are.

It's great that you are able to draw on your experience of living in close quarters to help you cope with this but your wife doesn't have any fond memories of feeling cozy with family in the studio apartment, you know? Her experience of "[growing] up in East Nowhere where people have hiking trails in their back yards" is just as valid as yours and it's unfair to expect that she adapt instantaneously and without complaint. Your "helpful" suggestions are not helpful at this point so I strongly suggest you back off. It sounds like part of what she needs from you right now is to feel heard and validated by her partner, and then she can make peace with the situation in her own way and figure out what adjustments and adaptations work best for her.
posted by 4rtemis at 6:51 PM on March 25 [12 favorites]

I think the way the NZ government handled this was quite impressive. They announced a “levels” system, 1/2/3/4, and announced that we were going to level 2. Some restrictions on what we should do, borders closed etc. and clarified what level 3 (schools closed) and 4 (total lockdown) were. Then, two days later, when people were used to that, they announced we were in level 3, going to level 4 in a couple of days. For four weeks.

Doing it this way they got people used to things gradually (although obviously level 4 was always the plan from day 1). Many people know that this lockdown could easily be 3-6 months or longer (perhaps with occasional drops down to level 3 region by region to increase herd immunity and calm people down).

But doing it for four weeks seems manageable for most people. At the end of four weeks, it’s almost certain that the world will be as different then as it was four weeks ago. And we will all be able to see the best thing to do from there...

Would that kind of staged progress help?
posted by tillsbury at 12:35 AM on March 26

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