Negotiating Coronavirus Risk With Ex-Spouses, Stepchildren And Roommates

A family wearing masks in downtown Los Angeles. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

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Two months ago, we hugged freely, touched everything in the grocery store, and paid little attention to whether our partner washed their hands when they walked in the front door.

Today we live in "bubbles" — small groups of people, typically those we live with.

Deciding who is in your bubble and what the rules are for being there is a relatively straightforward decision for those living alone, with a romantic partner, or with just their nuclear family.

But beyond that, it requires careful negotiation.

Roommates have to agree on everything from grocery shopping habits to visitation for romantic partners. For two divorced parents sharing custody of a child, the bubble has to include an ex-spouse's new partner and, if the new partner also shares custody of children from a previous partnership, that person's ex-partner.

It becomes particularly complicated if someone is an essential worker or immunocompromised.

How do you have these difficult conversations? How can you navigate people's differing risk assessments and needs?

We talked to marriage and family therapist Lance Tango and and family law mediator Bill Ferguson, both of who practice in Pasadena, and asked them to give us some pointers.

They'll also be live online at 2:30 p.m. today, Wednesday, May 6, answering your questions as part of our No-Panic Guide Live virtual event series. You can get more info at KPCC.org/inperson. And you can watch online at laist.com/latest or on LAist's Facebook page.


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HIGH STAKES

What makes disagreements on social distancing protocol particularly hard is how high the stakes are. The risks of being lackadaisical are real, particularly if someone has a pre-existing health condition.

"At the root of this is oftentimes a difference in people's relationship to risk, and... it rarely gets named in that way," Tango said.

Instead, "one person is hearing that the other person is making accusations that I'm being irresponsible, and the conversation devolves from there."

There needs to be an explicit conversation about the individuals' different relationships to risk and what they stem from, Tango advised.

One of Bill Ferguson's clients is a set of divorced parents with a young son. The father is a health care worker who works at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients. The mother wanted temporary full custody of the child because her own mother lived with her and her mother's age put her in the high-risk category. The mother was concerned about the son going back and forth and potentially exposing his grandmother to coronavirus.

By the time the family brought their disagreement to Ferguson, they had been screaming at each other for weeks, he said. It took an outside person to remind the father how he would feel if it was his own mother who was at risk.

"In all that is going on, they feel like something is being taken away from them. Everyone feels like someone is telling them what to do. No one was going to tell him when he could see his son," Ferguson said.

Negotiating with your roommate can be a difficult conversation (Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash)

ROOMMATE RELATIONSHIPS

Brentwood resident Jan Abell is caught between her roommate, who is working from home like her, and her fiancé, a nurse who works at a private hospital with hospice patients (and doesn't treat any COVID-19 patients).

She and her roommate have a great relationship, she said, but her roommate is uncomfortable with her fiancé visiting them because he is a health care worker.

Abell and she respects the fact that her fiancé's job makes her roommate nervous, but she doesn't want to wait until the city emerges from lockdown to see him again. They haven't seen each other since mid-March.

"I don't know how to bring it up," Abell said. "Because she's paying rent, she has every right to tell me."

FEELING HEARD

The key to coming to a respectful agreement is, first and foremost, making sure the person feeling greater fear feels heard, Tango said.

"Feeling heard often helps to soothe a person's nervous system. ... When the fear is reduced, then somehow the conversation often finds space to move forward in a different way," he said.

"Once that person expresses all the things they're worried about, say, 'When you put it that way, I can really understand why you're taking the position that you're taking. When things line up in the way that you explained it, that does feel really scary. I didn't know this is how you felt. But now that I understand how you feel, it makes sense to me why you want to take all these precautions.'

"We can't reduce [fear] by saying, 'You're just worried about something and you shouldn't'... that's dismissive."

Ferguson said that most custodial agreements he has worked on include an emergency clause. Typically it overrides the normal custody arrangement and keeps the child with whichever parent they were with when the emergency began.

Of course, that clause was designed with emergencies such as earthquakes or fires in mind, when the emergency "moment" lasts, at most, a couple weeks.

Many families are choosing to keep the child with one parent for now — particularly if one of the parents is an essential worker coming into regular contact with sick individuals.

"As hard as it is to not see a child, maybe there's a way to make up for it later. When all this clears, they'll get that parenting time back," Ferguson said.

SAY WHAT YOU NEED

Those who are still moving the children back and forth between the homes have come to some arrangements that might have felt impossible two months ago.

Ferguson works with one family in which one of the ex-spouses is doing all the grocery shopping for both families so that only one person has to "break the seal."

Karen Wilson and her husband, who live in Charlotte, N.C., asked her 19-year-old stepson to stop coming to see them unless he could adhere to their strict social distancing protocol. Although he lives primarily with his mother while attending school locally, he frequently stayed with Wilson and his father before the pandemic.

Wilson has an autoimmune disease. Her husband and her mother are also immunocompromised.

Asking him to stop visiting wasn't a tense conversation, Wilson says, because she was clear with her stepson that it had everything to do with her health considerations and nothing to do with his behavior. They said they would be happy to have him with them full-time, but that he would have to adhere to their stricter protocol for their safety.

"It's a very simple conversation if you're high risk. You just need to say what you need," Wilson said, adding that as someone with an autoimmune disease, she has spent many years educating people about the precautions she has to take to stay healthy.

If the disagreement feels intractable, Tango recommends asking yourself and the other person, "What's the ultimatum here?" Sometimes taking a step back and looking at the implications of having an absolutist stance can break the stalemate, particularly if the choice is between following stricter social distancing guidelines or not seeing your child for two months.

EXPANDING THE BUBBLE

The goalposts are shifting rapidly in this environment, and families and others will have to continually renegotiate their protocol.

"Be flexible with what you've agreed upon today because we could all get new information tomorrow that will change this decision," Ferguson advised. "What may be a good decision today may be a bad decision tomorrow from a health or safety perspective."

Those living alone might not have anyone in their bubble right now, but with social distancing expected to continue at least through the summer, they might consider establishing a bubble with a few close friends so that they don't have to go another three months without a hug or an in-person dinner companion. Neighboring families might decide to join their bubbles so their children can have playmates once school is out.

"Ultimately all of this is about communication, respect for each other's feelings and, most of all how to be as safe as possible... We just don't know what's going to change tomorrow. We're all getting tired of wiping our groceries," Ferguson said.

"Even with roommates, families, extended families, neighbors like family, we have to create our own guidelines like we're all protecting each other."