How divided Kiwi couples are handling the vaccination debate in their homes

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2 March 2022

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine has caused a great divide; Michelle Robinson spoke to four couples coping with the side effects.

The rubber hit the road this summer as we discovered how loved ones really feel about the Covid-19 vaccine. Christmas Day gatherings with unvaccinated family members left off the guest list. Friends absents from routine holiday camping trips. But what becomes of couples who find themselves on opposite sides of the coin? Woman canvassed four couples where one spouse was pro-vaccine and the other anti, about the impact their difference in opinion has had on their daily lives.

Sneaking out of the house to get the jab was one woman’s response to her husband’s vehement disapproval of the Covid-19 vaccine. Taranaki mother of two, Holly, initially kept her decision to vaccinate under wraps in a bid to keep the peace at home.

“I was upset that she got vaccinated and didn’t tell me until a week later,” her husband Phil says. “But after some cooling off time I realised it was her own decision to make.”

The couple, in their 30s, say each other’s decision on whether to vaccinate or not, had no bearing on their own decision.

“I just don’t believe in the vaccine,” Phil says. “I believe the vaccine is ineffective. All the mandates are bad for society and have caused discrimination, division and hatred.”

Holly’s underlying medical conditions and a low immune system meant she saw the vaccine as her best protection against Covid-19. “After a lot of thought I came to that decision despite my husband being against it,” she says. “It was the right thing to do for me, given that I’m a mother and have to care for my two kids and husband. Also, it’s my body, my choice.”

The couple decided early on vaccine talk was off the table when they realised they could not agree. But when date night rolled around, the discussion about where to eat flared up the conversation up again.

“We used to dine out at cafes and restaurants together but now we can’t do that, which sucks,” Holly says. “It means there are a lot of family activities we can’t do all together now like go to the pools, museum and bowling.”

Camping was off the cards over summer as many campgrounds require a vaccine passport. “But at the end of the day those things aren’t important,” Holly says. “There are still lots of places we can go as a family like the beach or park. And we can always grab takeaways, so there are ways around it.”

It’s hard to find a more divisive topic in today’s culture. Where emails claiming scientific evidence fly back and forth between friends, relatives, and husband and wife. Both sides feel so intensely about convincing the other that they are missing the truth. Fear and emotions become involved. The consequences of one decision is to be almost left out of society.

“The emails and messages of links to evidence increased on both sides,” Rebecca, an Auckland mother in her forties, says. “The topic comes up all the time, we are surrounded by it. In the beginning we held our tongues more, now we let it out, discuss and move on. We still tell each other to ‘chill out’ if the volume starts to rise.”

Rebecca eventually bowed to what she calls “mandate pressure” so she could continue to work, go out, and see family and friends. She attended a march against mandates. Her vaccine hesitancy stems from a few health “quirks” which make her sceptical of medicine.

“My experience of exclusion and coercion still bothered me.”

Now the option of vaccinating children is causing a new wave of friction in covid-wary couples such as Rebecca and husband Tommy, who is pro-vax. While Tommy is happy for the couple’s 12-year-old daughter to be immunised, Rebecca has not booked her into the clinic.

“We appreciate that we are together and in the same country. We look for the positives,” she says. “But the conversation seems limited at times, a bit superficial, a reluctance to go too deep for fear of an argument.”

Lisa and Andrew, parents of two, have found a way to respectfully agree to disagree. Andrew could not contemplate a life without the opportunity of being able to see family and friends overseas again, and wanted a speedy return to life as normal, which prompted him to be double-vaccinated.

However, Lisa feels she has found evidence of coercion and censorship around the vaccine, so has declined the vaccine. While making their own choices, the couple’s opposing stances have had some sway on each other’s decision.

Lisa understands the mental toll of being excluded from events and venues, while Andrew is now hesitant to get any boosters after listening to his wife’s perspective. They say there have not been any challenges to their daily lives due to their difference in stance.

“We have managed to keep good solid ground. Identifying we aren’t each other’s enemies. And over time our view is becoming more united,” Lisa says. “We openly chat about it but try and keep it factual rather than let emotions lead discussions.”

Lilah, who is in her 60s, says living with an “aggressively anti-vax” person has put a lot of strain on their relationship.

Her husband did not wish to comment.

“We have actually reformatted our relationship,” Lilah says. “By mutually agreeing to disagree, we do not discuss these matters anymore.”

Under the traffic light system, which came into play after a 90 percent vaccination rate was achieved in the adult population, the couple have been enjoying a return to their social life. It’s something Lilah is incredibly grateful for. While their difference in stance has been a challenge, the couple has learned to love each other more deeply, Lilah says.

Once they had agreed to respect each other’s opinion and not try and change it, the relationship became more respectful, she says. Her husband is taking a form of Ribonucleic acid (RNA), a molecule with a similar structure to DNA, and which is used in the vaccine, as a treatment for melanoma.

“Despite the fact that he was advised to get vaccinated, I can understand why he chose otherwise.”

Couples can save themselves a lot of strife if they watch their language, says Auckland-based clinical psychologist and family, relationship and sex therapist Nic Beets. “There’s uncharitable language being used on both sides,” he says. If you are a vaccine sceptic, you don’t understand science and you’re deluded and foolish. If you believe in vaccine science, then you’ve been had by Big Pharma, and you’re deluded and foolish.

“It’s one thing to read information online that calls people deluded and foolish. If you then call your spouse that, well, that’s really unhelpful.”

Speaking and listening with empathy, and the idea that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and to make their own mistakes is key, Nic says. “The clients I have seen have felt really embattled, they have had everyone against them and felt really isolated.

“That actually makes people dig their toes in. It hasn’t helped at all. If people are being called things like ‘you’re dangerous’, it makes it really hard to think straight.”

What Nic is seeing in his own private practice, and with the social workers he supervises, is that vaccine disagreement is across the board, it’s polarising, and there are high levels of fear and anxiety at play.

“Anxiety makes it hard to think clearly, so you become reactive. Speak first and think later. When you are fearful, your primitive brain is being used, which is responsible for protection and self-preservation.

“It’s not good at maintaining relationships. You say and do things that are destructive to connective relationships. That’s happening a lot from what I’m seeing.”

What makes things more challenging is the situation keeps evolving, which is destabilising for people. From US elections to vaccines, people are becoming increasingly polarised. Nic, who is in his 50s, can remember when seatbelts were mandated in cars and the uproar that ensued about freedom of rights.

What’s changed is the presence of social media, which can amplify the voices of minorities by helping them find each other and band together, he says. “Vaccine mandates have been an issue every time they have happened in history. But this is not much different from other seemingly irreconcilable differences in couples, such as ‘can I have sex with someone else’.”

Nic has seen some success where couples have been open to compromise. If they don’t like one vaccine, they could try another. Or if they are hesitant about getting their kids vaccinated, they could put it off until a later date.

“But if you have really strong beliefs, then it is hard.”

The issue of whether to vaccinate children can be a major bone of contention for couples, Nic says. “It’s a binary situation. You can’t be a little bit vaccinated. It’s either yes or no. It’s going to be a very difficult conversation for some couples.”

Nic Beet’s tips for talking across the great vaccination divide

  • Know that it IS possible for people to have very different opinions about something important and still get along well in the rest of their lives.
  • You are on the same team, even if you disagree. You need to work together to try and prevent your disagreements destabilising your relationship. Remember that HOW you talk and treat each other is the essence of your relationship.
  • We are living in very anxious times, not just with the pandemic but with huge social changes going on. Don’t let your fear or frustration exaggerate the downsides of your partner’s choices. Try and talk vulnerably about your concerns for yourself, rather than about what your partner is or isn’t doing.
  • Show respect for your partner’s choices, even if you can’t understand them. They are allowed to be themselves, including making mistakes. Go SLOW and listen with empathy, showing interest in how they see things and care about their concerns.
  • If there is a joint decision to be made about something you know you disagree about, such as “are we going to get our kids vaccinated?” keep acknowledging common values like “we both want the best for our kids’ health” and keep looking for new options that might address both your concerns.

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