It was one of those corny marriage memes that make the rounds every couple weeks. This one said something like, “in every relationship there’s one person who turns the lights off and another who always leaves them on.” I can’t find it now. But maybe you’ve seen its like. They’re all over the place, usually good for a chuckle, further evidence of our current typology obsession.

This meme came to mind when I read Jennifer Senior’s NY Times column from earlier this week, “Welcome to Marriage During the Coronavirus.” She basically contends that, no matter who you’re married to, he or she will invariably cope with high-stress situations the opposite way you do. At least it will feel that way. Typically one person is the worrier, the other the rock. Or one person catastrophizes, the other buries their head in the sand.

The difference of approach and/or disposition causes conflict and even polarization: Why aren’t you more afraid? Don’t you even care?! Why am I doing all the “emotional labor”? … Well, why can’t you turn off the news for once and be present? Worrying helps no one! And so on. Pretty soon each feels their panic or indifference is justified because they’re somehow making up for their spouse (“I’ve got to worry for both of us!” “We can’t both be freaking out!”). On top of everything else happening, you’ve got relational strain.

I’d be lying if I didn’t see her diagnosis play out in my own relationship and nearly all of the ones around me. I wish we weren’t all so predictable, but alas, years of moonlighting as a pre-marriage counselor confirms the same. Not that it’s 100% cut-and-dry. The hats can switch depending on the area of concern. The person who almost never sweats health stuff may easily get anxious over finances, and vice versa. But while the particulars shift, the opposition seldom seems to.

And so you have weeks like this past one where you’re confronted by the uncomfortable divergence in how you and your spouse process emergencies. Senior believes, and I tend to agree, that these differences are generally a good thing, even when the discord is painful. She writes:

The coronavirus may turn out to be the ultimate stress test for couples. There’s some literature we can rely on as a guide. In 2002, for instance, The Journal of Family Psychology published an extraordinary paper that looked at couples in the aftermath of a 1989 storm, Hurricane Hugo, comparing those who’d lived in the afflicted counties in South Carolina to those who hadn’t. The results? More people in the devastated counties divorced the following year. But more people also married. And there was an increase in births. The hurricane spurred a great deal of emotional movement, in all directions.

Partners, even those in long-term relationships, have very different coping styles when it comes to uncertainty. I called Esther Perel, the noted therapist and host of the podcast “Where Should We Begin.” She described several stylistic differences that might be relevant right now. Among them:

How partners approach information in moments of crisis. One may binge; the other has a defined sense of when enough is enough, and turns off the tube.

How consumed partners become by an emergency. One may be preoccupied with risk; the other may focus more on maintaining the rhythms of a normal life.

How partners move through the world when disaster strikes. One takes a structured, purposeful, proactive approach; the other is more passive and fatalistic.

“If you polarize and you think that there’s only one way to do things,” she said, “it’s fake certainty. The whole point is that you’re discovering it along the way.” Which means that when couples clash over strategies and coping styles, it’s important to remember that both parties — within reason, of course — are right. Or potentially right.

A more #lowanthropology way to phrase that last sentiment would be that, when it comes to how you’re handling current events, both of you are probably going about it wrong. And that’s not the end of the world.

I remember something my own therapist, Dorothy Martyn, said to my wife and I when we were going through pre-marriage counseling. In her 40 years of clinical experience, she told us, 95% of resentment in a marriage boils down to one person feeling like the irresponsible child and the other like the nagging parent. Both parties usually believe they were thrust into their role, even trapped in it. As a result they feel alone and type-cast–which is another word for judged. Pretty soon ‘the law increases the trespass’ and the behavior gets more pronounced rather than less.

Some form of this dynamic lies at the bottom of too many conflicts to count, and the corona panic responses that Senior categorizes certainly fit this mold. In both cases, the message you send your spouse is, “I wish you were more like me.” I’ll love you… then. Little of this is conscious, especially when anxiety is heightening everyone’s reactivity. No doubt we cling to the notion of a single “correct” or righteous response to a near-unprecedented global pandemic because it gives us the illusion of control in a chaotic situation.

My father talks about this in Grace in Practice in terms of the mythologies we bring into a relationship. For example, he’s the responsible one, she’s the fun one. Your family is warm but overbearing, mine is distant and passive-aggressive, and so on. What start out as descriptions with some basis in reality harden into cages, until the subtext becomes I do things the right way, you do them the wrong way. Then all it takes is a crisis to tighten the screws and you’ve defaulted to “I am the right one, and you are the wrong one.” You’re now doling out what St Paul calls the “ministry of condemnation”–a pestilence disguised as a balm where love is concerned.

What’s the hope, then, for all of those quarantined couples judging the bejeesus out of one another’s reactions to the pandemic? (Instead of, say, leaning on one another for comfort and help, in acknowledgement that maybe God brought you together because you need one another?) Here’s what Grace in Practice has to say:

From the point of view of grace, the law of marital mythology can be parried only by the complete and undiscriminating acceptance of the human givens of the other person. Grace knows that human nature is evenly distributed. Grace also understands that Kennebunkport, Maine is more heavily laden with certain associations than Warren, Ohio. But the details of each person’s archaeology are unimportant so far as the readiness to be loved is concerned. Everyone needs the same amount of love, which is 100 percent unconditional love, the one-way love of God.

Married couples are faced with big odds in the form of myths and mythology. But the point of origin of their love, the grace that made the first magic happen, is bigger.

So let’s add another entry to our list of people we’re praying for: Couples negotiating the pandemic together, attempting in vain to control one another (now that that world has proven beyond their sway), for an increase of sanity, patience, humility, acceptance, and grace–and when their own resources falter, the reassurance that, come what may, there is one light that never goes out. It burns at 100% in and out of season, casting its forgiving glow on failed husbands and wives of all stripes.

The bill may be steep, yes, but it’s not ours–or our significant other’s–to pay.