Not all advice need be professional. Sometimes your problems merit a bit of unvarnished honesty from a dude equipped with nothing more than a computer and a conscience. Luckily for you, I’m that guy. Welcome back to Tough Love.
Today we’re discussing what it’s like to have a seemingly irreconcilable impasse with your partner when one person doesn’t want to be vaccinated for COVID-19. And, in this case, how do you approach the dilemma when the one pro-COVID vaccine partner is an ICU doctor?
Note: I’m a columnist, not a therapist or certified healthcare professional. My advice should be interpreted with that in mind. If you have a problem with anything I say, file a complaint here. Now, let us begin.
My fiancé and I have been together for three years now, and we’ve been engaged since early 2020 right as COVID hit. It feels like the pandemic has only made our relationship stronger and made us appreciate all the more what we previously took for granted. I work as a doctor in an ICU, and I’ve seen first hand how devastating getting sick and dying from COVID can be. So when the vaccine came out, I was rushing to get mine and felt so lucky to be protected early on. The rest of my family and friends are all vaccinated too, so I’m grateful that we’ve been able to have access.
My fiancé, on the other hand, doesn’t work in healthcare; he works in tech, has mostly stayed isolated working from home, and amazingly hasn’t had anyone in his personal life become really sick with COVID. He doesn’t want to get the vaccine because he thinks the trials were done too quickly, and he wants to wait at least another few years before getting it, if at all, to allow for more data to come out. He’s not anti-vaccination as he’s received all other vaccines. But when it comes to the COVID vaccines, he’s read a lot online about potential side effects that’s made him fearful, even as I’ve tried to explain to him the science using my background as a medical professional. This is the first time we’ve disagreed on anything important like this. We keep fighting about it, because I can’t understand why he wouldn’t want to protect himself and people around him. And the more I bring it up, the more he digs his heels in.
Ultimately I understand that it’s his body and I can’t force him to get it. However, because he’s not getting vaccinated, it’s affecting our plans for our wedding, whether we can travel in the next few years, etc. He’s also not sure if he’d allow me to vaccinate our kids if it comes to it down the line, and there’s no way in hell I’m not vaccinating my children to protect them from COVID after everything I’ve seen. It almost feels like this is a deal breaker for our relationship, and it’s making me question if we even have a future if we disagree so fundamentally on such an important health decision.
Any thoughts on how to bridge this gap?
A Vaccinated Valentine
Dear Vaccinated Valentine,
I can only imagine what it’s like to be in your position. After all, you’re an ICU doctor who’s witnessed the horrors of COVID in ways that most people could only imagine. So, to have a partner at home questioning the efficacy of the world’s best escape route from this marathon plague must feel like a direct challenge to your worldview as a physician.
In my initial reading of your note, an image of your fiancé appeared in my mind, and to be honest, it wasn’t a pleasant one: A dude who works in tech who wants to see more data on the COVID vaccines and is conceivably okay potentially spreading the virus to others in the meantime, prolonging our collective horror. And for what? Personally, when I think of that kind of dude, I think of an asshole. Who is he to assume that he might know better than the global coalition of scientists who developed mRNA vaccines? Has he studied epidemiology? Does he actually understand peer-reviewed studies? Being smart at one thing—his job in tech—doesn’t mean you know shit about anything else, let alone something as complex as global epidemics.
But the truth is, I don’t know this man. You want to marry him, so there’s obviously plenty of things redeeming about him, and it’s incumbent upon me to provide possible solutions.
You mention that the topic causes arguments, and while I can see how this can get you both riled, you might ask yourself if you could have a more casual stance when talking about the COVID vaccine. If the whole idea of discussing this is like some kind of trigger that instantly pits you two against each other, try taking the emotion out of it, if possible. I mean, the facts are on your side—the vaccine wasn’t “too fast,” for example, like he assumes—so maybe a more detached presentation of them will appeal to his interest in being logical.
I understand that might be a challenge for you, but try asking yourself a few questions and then maybe proceeding from there: Can you have casual discussions about the vaccination program and its success so far? Are you able to bring up positive bits of news in a neutral, non-confrontational way? Trying it that way might get him more accustomed to the topic without feeling the need to dig his heels in, as you put it.
Given that he’s not some avowed anti-vaxxer, there remains the possibility that he might be convinced that this particular vaccine is safe and effective. Will he get the vaccine in a year if all remains calm on the side-effect front, and millions of people don’t get sick as a result of their jabs? If there’s anyone who can convince him of the other side, it should be you, given that you’re a doctor and have no interest in lying to your fiancé about his health.
Now, for a moment, consider the broader context that we’re living in today. The vaccines are really a triumph of scientific ingenuity and collective societal effort, but they were, at least in some capacity, the product of a highly-politicized efforts with a lot of fear mongering involved. Of course, data is data and the vaccines are still safe and effective, but it helps to understand the climate that informs some of our thinking.
On another note—and I’m not going to hold back here—you’re in a bind. To be blunt, you’ve known this dude three years, which is kind of a long time, but it also isn’t. Could there be another hill he’s willing to die on that could prove intractable for your relationship? Also, when it comes to vaccinating your kids against COVID, that’s a whole other mountain you might have to climb when the time comes. (I’m assuming that he’s pro-vaccination for kids when it comes to all the standard ones, but if he isn’t—that would probably be a dealbreaker for me).
You don’t want this to foreshadow more arguments where he doubles down because of pride or whatever else it is that keeps him from listening to scientific consensus. Luckily, that’s not an inevitability, and you won’t have to put up with it if you don’t want to. But I hope he comes to his senses. If not, you face a tough path.
That’s it for this week, but there’s plenty more Tough Love to go around. If you’d like to be featured, please get in touch by describing your dilemmas in an email to me (please include “ADVICE” or “TOUGH LOVE” in the subject line). Or, tweet at me with the hashtag #ToughLove. Serious inquiries only: Don’t email or message me if you don’t want to be featured in the column. Disclaimer: I can’t respond to everyone, so please make sure you outline a specific problem in your note. I won’t respond to generalizations, like someone “being mean” or vague descriptions of “relationship problems” without any concrete examples of what’s ailing you. Until next time, take care of yourselves!