The Biggest Risk is the One That Someone Else is Taking

Posted on October 14, 2020


There is an old joke in Christian circles which went something to the effect of, “What’s the worst sin?”  The answer is, “The one that someone else is doing?”

As a former banker, I often think about things in terms of risk management.  You can’t run a bank and not take risk.  The point is to manage risk so that you mitigate your risk.  You can apply this to almost any area of life.  You can’t eliminate risk, you can only manage it.  If you want to make sure you are never hurt in close relationships, the only way to do that is to not have relationships (that would be the risk avoidant approach).  If you want to manage that risk, you seek to have relationships with safe people who are generally trust worthy and usually respond in healthy ways in relationships.  If you want your children to never get injured, completely control their environment, never let them do anything, and never let them be apart from you.  To manage risk, allow them freedoms that are age and developmentally appropriate. 

You and your partner will not be in complete agreement on how to manage risk in your lives.  That is situation normal.

So in 2020, along comes this COVID thing[1].  We have all had seven or eight months of figuring out how to risk manage in order to carry on our lives while this worldwide pandemic rages.  For the first few weeks, we all just stayed home and hoped we didn’t run out of toilet paper.  As the pandemic wore on, we started trying to figure out what it would look like to try to live our lives with this thing for the long haul.  At least within my circle of friends and family, I really don’t know anyone who has not left the house in seven months.  So everyone is taking some risk[2]

The questions are myriad.  Do you go to the grocery store or have your groceries delivered?  If you do have your groceries delivered, do you disinfect whatever packaging they came in?  (After all, somebody touched that packaging.)  Are you willing to risk being around family who don’t live in your home?  How comfortable are you eating in a restaurant?  Going to the beach?  Getting a haircut?  Playing pickleball?  What are we going to do about Thanksgiving and Christmas? 

Here’s a tough one.  What do you do when your three year old granddaughter or niece (who flew on an airplane a few days ago) wants a hug?

Einstein had observed that time is relative.  I am not Einstein, but I would offer that the way you manage risk is relative depending upon how important something is to you.  As far as I have been able to observe, we are all inconsistent.  Further, the biggest risks are always the one that someone else (particularly your mate) is taking.    

For a number of months, I have back in the office seeing clients with all of us wearing masks.  Some therapists are limiting their work to Zoom and phone.  When the decision was made, I made sure that my wife (who is in a high risk group, which I am not) was comfortable with the decision.  (I do need to manage risk based upon her risk factors rather than just my own since if I get this thing, she might be in trouble.)  But from time to time she reads an article in the paper about somebody getting COVID and being on a ventilator for 52 days and then starts worrying about how I manage distancing.  Meanwhile, I look at activities of hers (which I won’t out her about) which I view as riskier than whatever I am doing.  This risk management business has been (and will continue to be for the foreseeable future) an ongoing dialogue. 

When I was getting my MBA, one of the most useful things a professor taught me was to approach every situation with the question, “What do I know that applies here?”  In answering that question, here are some thoughts.  First, the research has found that 69% of the things couples argue about are not solvable problems.  Differences in how we risk-manage can fall into this category.  What separates the masters of relationship from the disasters is how they dialogue around these problems.  Perpetual problems are fine.  Everybody has them.  Gridlocked problems are problematic.  These occur when we become locked in our positions on our perpetual problems to the point that these are only points of pain and not problems to be negotiated together.

The second point brings to mind a situation when my daughter was a toddler.  My daughter would not stay in her own bed, but would move into the hall and sleep on the floor outside our door.  This was scary for us as parents as our door was right at the top of the stairs.  We couldn’t manage to keep the child in her bed and we started talking about punishments for non-compliance with our instructions.  My mother, who happens to have a masters in psychology said, “You can’t punish her for her fears.”  That applies to this situation as well.  You can’t punish your mate for his/her fears.  If your partner is concerned about how you are managing the risk associated with this pandemic, that is not intended as criticism of you and your decision making ability.  It is coming from a place of fear which deserves your compassion. 

Third, for all of us, there is a certain disparity between how we tell ourselves we handle things in life and how we really do.  We all have aspects where we could be viewed as hypocritical.  Hopefully the gap between how I think I do things and how I really do is not huge.  We strive for congruency, but we never quite achieve it.  It takes a certain amount of grace to build a life with another flawed human being. 

Fourth, we are all doing the best we can to try to live our lives with this new reality which is entirely foreign to anything we experienced before.  When marriage works well, there is an assumption of good will between the partners.  There is also an us-ness to the relationship in which we are trying to make decisions for the benefit of the team and not just one individual.  When we are under stress, we tend to focus more on our individual needs.  And let’s face it, we have all had enough of living with a pandemic. 

Fifth, when in doubt, let love be your guide.  We are not talking about a warm feeling, but about choosing to act loving toward your mate.  Love is not just something you feel, it is something you choose to do.  However, we are coping with the stressors of this pandemic, remember that this is the person you promised to love for better or for worse.  Love. 

[1] Remember when Corona was just a brand of beer, only robbers wore masks into the bank, and we had never heard of social distancing or sheltering in place?  If you coughed in public, people didn’t flee from you.  You could hug your friends and family. 

[2] As Bilbo Baggins had observed (and I don’t feel like stopping to look up the quote), there is a risk in stepping out one’s front door. 

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