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Couple Therapy, Covid and Conspiracy Theory

Things are not always as they appear...

Today around the globe we find ourselves in the midst of a health crisis and in my practice, community and social network I come across a significant number of couples struggling with polarized opinions around the Covid/Corona pandemic, vaccination and lockdown policies. The COVID-19 pandemic is an external stressor that impacts families, adding to the everyday vulnerabilities and crises inherent in family relationships. It is complex and multifaceted, involving not simply the threat of illness or death but encompassing financial worries, job losses, caregiving burdens, and reduced social contacts, and restrictions to their civil liberties and rights.  The stress of diametrically opposed views on what’s best for the healthcare and individual wellbeing and that of their children is eating away at the very foundation of some relationships.;

These differing views and approaches to the current health care crisis are often referred to as ‘Conspiracy Theories beliefs’ (Douglas et al., 2019; van Prooijen & 672 Douglas, 2017; Van Prooijen & van Vugt, 2018). These beliefs can lead to complex and damaging behaviours in relationships e.g. one partner believes that we are in the process of the largest genocide the world has seen or threatens to divorce the other if they vaccinate the children. Or one partner reveals after the event that they have been vaccinated or have already had the children vaccinated without the knowledge or consent of the other.

So how does a therapist deal with these situations? I take the view that ‘conspiracy theory’ is a term that is inherently unhelpful in the therapy space and is in fact counter productive to assisting relationships in distress. In society currently the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has extremely negative associations- ‘stupid, paranoid, non-sensical’ – these notions are not going to help the therapist or the frustrated partner communicate on a level that will reach the other.

My role as therapist is to help the individual to find clarity and function more effectively and not to necessarily convert them to seeing the world as I do or as society suggests we do. Each of us are vulnerable to ‘conspiracy’ – it is an innate risk living in an uncertain world – we are naturally afraid and suspicious of things we cannot easily explain. Most of us have believed in one conspiracy theory or other at some point in time. So it is of no consequence to me, the therapist whether the person sitting in front of me is a science-denier, an anti-vaccer, a Trump loyalist, a flat earther, a QAanon supporter, or a far left liberal. As a therapist determining what is true and what is false is a very fine line to walk – and quite frankly not my role. My focus is less on what the client believes and more on the personal and behavioral implications of his or her beliefs. Is believing these theories affecting their marriage or friendship? If so, does that bother him/her? Do these beliefs help him to cope with a fear of change or feeling out of control? If so, are there ways I can help him develop more effective strategies for addressing those concerns?

There are a number of understandable reasons why an individual might be drawn to a particular belief. Research provides us with several:

In relation to the Covid/corona issue partners have differing views on the origin of the virus, the dangerousness of the virus; the vaccine, its efficacy and effect on health; growing frustrations with the strict health-preventive measures and lockdowns; and the reluctance to follow regulations. The differences in opinion and points of view are hard to bridge when they are so polarized. If you add the already existing pressures facing a couple and the constant reminders of these issues every time they turn on the radio or watch the 6 and 8 o’clock news bulletins is it little wonder the problems have become so pervasive. This combined with the fact that many of us are living and working in the same space twenty four hours seven days a week. The conflicts that arise produce changes in frequency of intimate and sexual behaviors and over time, the everyday stressors spill into the relationship and lead to significant dissatisfaction with, or even dissolution of, romantic and/or sexual relationships. 

Not to mention the difficulties children must now navigate! One partner genuinely believing in the need to protect their family members. But in so doing they are forcing their children to have to choose. Choose which parent is right, choose which parent do I trust the most and which parent should I believe. If children are not old enough to reason for themselves then these decisions are painful and damaging. Guided conversations with children are required. High conflict between parents is not good for anyone, especially children.

It is worth remembering that conspiracy theorists are not afraid to express their minds nor are they afraid to express things that will get them ridiculed because they believe we need to hear it or that we need to ‘wake up’. Even if just a fraction of what they are saying has any truth to it you may want to know about it because it will change your world view.

I am reminded of the story of a group of blind people who are grouped around an elephant and each is touching a different part of the elephant getting a different impression of what the elephant is. The person standing at the elephant’s leg describes the elephant as a tree.  The person standing touching the elephant’s tusk describes the elephant as a spear, the person feeling the elephant’s ear describes the elephant as a fan, the individual touching the side of the elephant is adamant that the elephant is like a wall. The problem is that we touch our piece of the elephant and we believe that our experience is the only truth. We don’t acknowledge or appreciate that each person’s experience is a different facet of the same animal. So I invite you to change positions for a moment and see if you can discover another aspect of the elephant.

Douglas, K.M., Uscinski, J.E., Sutton, R.M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, C.S. and Deravi, F., 2019. Understanding conspiracy theories. Political Psychology40, pp.3-35.

Lantian, A., Muller, D., Nurra, C. and Douglas, K.M., 2017. I know things they don’t know!. Social Psychology.

van Prooijen, J.W. and Van Vugt, M., 2018. Conspiracy theories: Evolved functions and psychological mechanisms. Perspectives on psychological science13(6), pp.770-788.

Maya Luetke, Devon Hensel, Debby Herbenick & Molly Rosenberg (2020) Romantic Relationship Conflict Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and Changes in Intimate and Sexual Behaviors in a Nationally Representative Sample of American Adults, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 46:8, 747-762, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2020.1810185

Sutton, R.M. and Douglas, K.M., 2020. Conspiracy theories and the conspiracy mindset: Implications for political ideology. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences34, pp.118-122.

Van Prooijen, J.W. and Douglas, K.M., 2017. Conspiracy theories as part of history: The role of societal crisis situations. Memory studies10(3), pp.323-333.

Van Prooijen, J.W., Krouwel, A.P. and Pollet, T.V., 2015. Political extremism predicts belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science6(5), pp.570-578.

Shahsavari, S., Holur, P., Wang, T. et al. Conspiracy in the time of corona: automatic detection of emerging COVID-19 conspiracy theories in social media and the news. J Comput Soc Sc 3, 279–317 (2020).

Ricky Green, Karen M. Douglas, Anxious attachment and belief in conspiracy theories, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 125, 2018, Pages 30-37.

Marchlewska, M., Cichocka, A. and Kossowska, M., 2018. Addicted to answers: Need for cognitive closure and the endorsement of conspiracy beliefs. European journal of social psychology48(2), pp.109-117.

Goldberg, A. E., Allen, K. R., & Smith, J. Z. (2021). Divorced and separated parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Family Process, 60, 866– 887.

Khubchandani, J., Sharma, S., Price, J.H. et al. COVID-19 Vaccination Hesitancy in the United States: A Rapid National Assessment. J Community Health 46, 270–277 (2021).

Byford, J., 2011. Conspiracy theories: A critical introduction. Springer.

Douglas, K.M., Sutton, R.M. and Cichocka, A., 2017. The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current directions in psychological science26(6), pp.538-542.

Galliford, N. and Furnham, A., 2017. Individual difference factors and beliefs in medical and political conspiracy theories. Scandinavian journal of psychology58(5), pp.422-428.

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