How to navigate relationship boundaries during COVID

Or, how not to kill each other when you're both at home

With the COVID-19 pandemic having changed life’s difficulty level to “hard”, I wanted to address a topic I’ve seen come up in many articles, social media posts, and conversations with friends. Specifically, the impact of COVID and shelter in place (SIP), and specifically the breakdown of boundaries, on our personal relationships.

To that end I recently met with Dan Mulhern, an organizational leadership consultant and professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Dan and his team work with startup founders to address fundamental conflicts that arise in a relationship between two different personalities who spend hours together each day in a hyper-competitive environment (check out his Ted Talk for an overview of this work). Dan is covering this primarily from his experience both as a consultant, me from my perspective as a husband and co-worker to my wife. 

Getting baggage

In 2013 I started seeing a therapist. It wasn’t an easy decision – something about talking about your problems and feelings to a stranger made me feel weak. Despite being a generally rational and level-headed person, I had held onto that incorrect belief for the majority of my adult life. A comment from a friend changed my perspective: “It’s just like going to the gym. You start out weak, and it feels uncomfortable and intimidating, but eventually you build strength and resilience and your life is better as a result. Therapy is the gym for your mind”. 

Challenges in my first long-term adult romantic relationship were what finally spurred me to speak with someone. My girlfriend (now wife) and I had been dating for about 18 months, and I loved her immensely. I knew that with the right pieces in place, we would create and live an amazing life for ourselves. There was just one problem: we were constantly arguing. A lot. 

Something you learn in long-term relationships is that although the triggers for arguments are diverse, the issues that underlie them are not. More colloquially, you have the same fight again and again. 

Sometimes, our fights originate from baggage: something bad happened in our past, so we’re hyper-vigilant about keeping it from happening again. I used to assume that baggage fights were the most common and most intractable. After all, how can one partner take ownership of a problem that preceded them? What I discovered in therapy, however, and have confirmed in subsequent scrutiny of my own relationship, is that much of our “baggage” is a second order effect of something that’s more fundamental: a conflict of values. 

Fundamental and Relative Values

Imagine you’re on a road trip: you and your partner up front, your kids in the back, driving 75mph on the freeway. Your kid, who’s been playing with a tennis ball in the back seat, has a mischievous bend and chucks the ball forward at 25mph. How fast is the ball traveling?

From the perspective of an observer on the ground, the ball is going 100mph: the speeds of the car at 75mph and the ball at 25mph are added together. From your perspective in the driver’s seat, however, everything in the car is moving at the same speed except for the ball, which is only going 25pmh relative to you (fortunately so since a 100mph tennis ball to head might cause you to crash the car). 

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity was founded on this same question, but applied to a beam of light instead of a tennis ball. The question he asked was: if your child shined a beam of light towards the front of the car, how fast would that beam of light be moving to you vs that stationary observer on the ground. 

The answer to Einstein’s question was groundbreaking: its speed would appear the same to both of you. Whereas a ball thrown from a moving car would appear to be going faster to the observer on the ground, a beam of light looks exactly the same to all observers, everywhere, all the time. Using the single foundational principle of speed equivalence, Einstein derived one of the most successful and well-tested scientific theories in history, and one that both gave us both critical technologies (e.g. GPS) and a revolutionary understanding of the universe. 

In our day-to-day lives we function analogously to the observers in Einstein’s thought experiment, except instead of different people experiencing different realities due to traveling at different speeds we experience different realities due to having different values. Our values, much like the speed of light in Einstein’s theory, are fundamental to who we are, how we experience the world, and how we interpret the events in our lives. 

Differing values are why two people can interpret the same event in conflicting ways, and why one person’s interpretation of events can seem so strange – even wrong – to others. It’s why one person sees CNN as “news” while another sees it as “liberal propaganda”; it’s why a fan of baseball Team A fan believes “they’re obviously safe” while a fan of Team B thinks “no way, they were out”; it’s why one partner sees “I’m trying to be helpful” and the other sees “they’re not listening to me”. 

What are Values

When we talk about values, it’s helpful to define what we mean. Value has many meanings in English, and for disambiguation I want to be clear that we’re not referring to the monetary value of an object or the value that we place on some outcome. I value my family’s health, but someone else’s health cannot be a core value of mine. Examples of core values include:

  • Security – the value of feeling safe

  • Harmony – the value of being at peace w/others

  • Autonomy – the value of being self-sufficient 

  • Community – the value of being part of a group

Research shows that our values are somewhat malleable in our youth but are largely unchangeable by the time we’re in our 30’s. As with most complex human traits, they are at least in part genetically determined and they aren’t binary – we have multiple values, some of which are significantly more influential to us than others. 

Values are the lens through which we interpret the events in our lives. No one is a neutral observer in their lives – how we experience the world around us is determined by (and relative to) our values. As a result, they are also a primary vehicle for interpersonal conflict.

The conflict

Imagine a married couple. One partner has a primary value of autonomy, the other has a primary value of community. That couple is invited by mutual friends to an uninteresting movie. How might a conflict arise from this situation?

The autonomy-first partner values control over their lives and is likely to prioritize what is personally interesting to them. They may not want to go, or suggest another movie they’d rather see. The community-first partner values the bonds with others, and would prefer to spend time with the group even if it means seeing a subpar flick. 

In this situation, it’s easy for a conflict to arise. The community partner may see the autonomy partner as being selfish. The autonomy partner may see the community partner as trying to strong arm them into doing something against their will. Either way, if a fight does occur, you can be sure that it’s about something much deeper than whether to go to the movies.

The solution

Boundaries are one of the most effective tools to navigate conflicts in values. That boundaries matter for our personal well-being goes without saying. Why boundaries matter, and how we can cultivate effective ones, does not. 

Healthy boundaries are a critical component of healthy living, but in practice they’re difficult to maintain. Personal boundaries require constant vigilance, substantial foresight, and a willingness and ability to analyze oneself retrospectively and honestly. 

Even in the pre-COVID world we’ve seen a dissolution of several core boundaries in our lives:

  • Smartphones eroded the boundaries between work time and personal time

  • Social media eroded the boundaries between our inner thoughts and public communication 

  • Helicopter parenting eroded the boundaries between kids’ independence and the lives of their parents

COVID has now eroded the one boundary that we could usually rely on in a pinch: physical space. Between working from home, schools being closed, social gatherings stopped, and being generally stuck inside most of the day, it’s more important than ever that we manage our virtual boundaries as our physical ones are erased.

Work-life-work balance

Setting boundaries at home requires three things: knowing your boundaries, being able to communicate them to your partner, and being able to work with your partner to develop them in a way that also respects your partner’s needs. I’ve spent years working with my therapist and on myself to learn how to create boundaries with my wife that serve our joint goal of living a successful, enjoyable life together. 

My wife and I don’t have children yet, but we both have demanding careers. She’s the CEO of a tech startup, I run an advisory firm for startup companies. Complicating matters over the past few years was that we worked together at her company. I joined in 2016 to lead sales, marketing, and business development but left to start my own thing in late 2019. We still do work together, though now in an advisory capacity through my firm.

Working alongside your spouse has benefits, but natural boundaries are not one of them. Twice as many problems to solve means twice as many places where our values can come into conflict. Whereas work-life boundaries can be reasonably maintained when you work in different places, it’s all too easy for the work and the personal to bleed together when working at the same company (and especially in related areas of the business). In this environment, it’s even more critical to create physical and emotional boundaries to maintain each other’s sanity.

How to set boundaries

The COVID shelter in place presents similar challenges around the erosion of work-life boundaries due to physical confinement. In his April 6 blog post, Dan outlined a few approaches that have enabled him to communicate to resolve conflict during the COVID shelter in place. Ironically, my wife and I had already tried several of these techniques over the years as a way to resolve the challenges of working and living together. While COVID has presented unique challenges, learning to work better together was excellent preparation for COVID. 

Communication is part of the puzzle; knowing where it’s important to set boundaries is another. Here’s how my wife and I have approached a few of them:

Engagement boundaries – I’m an introvert, my wife is an extrovert. As a result, our working styles are significantly different. I like to work alone for hours, undisturbed, with small breaks throughout the day. She likes to work together, or with others, and frequently wants to come to me to discuss ideas. To make that work, it’s been important for me to set and communicate clear boundaries around when I’m not to be disturbed. Video meetings with others go without saying, but if I want to write a newsletter, crank through a project, or just take a mental break, I’ll let her know what I need and walk through the logistics of how to make that happen (e.g. do not disturb for the next two hours). Since her schedule less flexible than mine, I do my best to take long periods of solitude when I know she has several meetings back-to-back.

Safety boundaries – My wife places more value on security than I do, and it manifests in higher concerns about physical safety.. When COVID hit and after the initial panic subsided, we discussed specific behaviors that we were (un)comfortable with and and discussed guidelines for how many “risky” behaviors we were ok with. We also agreed to re-evaluate regularly as the crisis unfolded. This gave us a common framework by which we could coordinate our activities and find creative ways to do the things we enjoy in a way that ensure we both feel safe doing them (e.g. social distancing walks).

Personal-professional boundaries – Since my wife and I still work together part time, we have no shortage of overlap between our work and personal lives. I’ll be writing future posts about how we navigate this in more detail, but for now what’s most important is creating clear space between personal and professional time. While my wife’s job only allows for limited periods of disconnection, it’s important that we both align on and stick to those points of demarcation. Even though we’re isolated we plan at-home date nights, walks outside, and virtual evenings with friends where work and work phone are not allowed. Though this frustrates my technophile wife at times, those breaks are critical for our mental acuity. We also find that our best work ideas typically come from periods of work disconnection. 

Conflict boundaries – At the end of the day, and especially in a stressful time like this, some conflict is inevitable. For us, it’s important that our conflict be successful (i.e. resolves the issue) without being hurtful. In his blog post, Dan describes “recommitting to each other and your shared purpose”, and this is a boundary trigger we pull when a conflict becomes unhealthy. Specifically, we are both responsible for stopping a conflict that’s veering towards unhealthy, reaffirming that “we’re a team” and that “we’re going to keep this conversation on the issue at hand without personal attacks”. If one person cannot do that due to heightened emotions, we take a short break and regroup. While it’s not perfect, it creates a shared commitment that has helped us reset our emotional centers during arguments and have enabled us to resolve them more quickly.

COVID is testing our collective relationships like nothing in modern history. In order to get through it, we need to rethink and reprioritize how we think about ourselves and our relationships. Considering our values, setting boundaries, and communicating our needs effectively is the only way we can make this work, together.

I wanted to thank Dan Mulhern and his team for lending his expertise to this week’s post. Check out his blog for additional resources about how to manage your relationships during the COVID crisis.

Stay safe out there,