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Illustration by Dorothy Leung

Before hosting a Hanukkah dinner at her home late last month, Elana felt obligated to text her guests that the man she’s dating would be joining – and that he’s unvaccinated.

“I recognize that not everybody’s comfortable with it,” said Elana, a 46-year-old Vancouver business owner who is vaccinated.

Elana met the man in August through the dating app Hinge. They’d spoken for weeks and been on two dates before she learned he is a vaccine skeptic. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ ” Elana said. (To protect sources’ privacy, The Globe and Mail is not using their last names.)

The two slowed things down. Eventually, she settled into the perspective that this pandemic is temporary and that his vaccine beliefs would not be a deal breaker. She still liked him, his approach to life and his emotional intelligence.

Even so, vaccination remains an elephant in the room, she said: “It’s hard when someone’s perspective is directly in opposition to the way you’re living your life. It’s been a challenge in our relationship.”

With most Canadians immunized against COVID-19 and vaccine passports in effect at many public indoor spaces across the country this winter, life is shrinking for those who continue to refuse the shot – but also for their vaccinated partners. Nearly two years into the crisis, the world is getting ever smaller for these half-vaccinated pairs: no restaurants, no movies out, no galleries, no sporting events, plus limits on travel together. For some, the vaccine divide fuels tension and resentment. Others are experiencing censure from the outside world. Their social lives are narrowing, with holidays complicated for a second year in a row.

Several of Elana’s friends refuse to meet her guy indoors, and a few of his friends no longer speak to him. “I have encountered a stigma that the person I’m dating is not vaccinated,” she said. “People won’t come to my house. Some people are judging me.”

Elana, who was hesitant but got both her shots this summer, feels some friends are being inconsistent. They refuse to see her boyfriend indoors but will hang out with her inside, even though she’s constantly exposed to him. “It feels ideological instead of actually practical. It feels like a little bit of a punishment.”

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Her boyfriend’s decision to forgo the shot has drastically limited their options as a new couple in British Columbia, where vaccine passports are in place. Instead of taking in the outside world together, their dating life has been relegated to their homes. It means their relationship is evolving in a way it might not have under normal circumstances. “We’re playing house on our third date. It pushes it in a different direction,” Elana said.

She added, “I’m in a little bit of forced lockdown that isn’t even my lockdown.”

Asked what winter will look like for them, Elana said she gets overwhelmed thinking past the next few days or weeks – never mind if vaccine passports become the new normal long-term.

“I do worry about life becoming unnecessarily small. … It’s buffered currently by the fact that it is a new relationship. It makes it easier. But over time, if we keep this system and I’m vaccinated and [unvaccinated] people are not really welcome to participate in society, I can’t see it not being a problem long-term.”

In Hamilton, Taylor, a 29-year-old communications manager, remains unvaccinated. She said that while she understands the importance of COVID-19 vaccines, she’s still wrestling with her own decision because of her upbringing. Her parents raised their kids with a naturopathic mindset. Though her older sister has all her childhood vaccinations, Taylor has only some, and her younger brother has none.

Her fiancé, Morgan, a 26-year-old program manager, was hesitant but eventually got fully immunized this fall ahead of a vaccine mandate at his workplace in November.

“We both came to different opinions based on what we individually value and what we individually hold as a risk,” Morgan said.

Taylor sees it this way: “We used to be a unit, with both of us unvaccinated. Now it’s like one of us is on one side of the fence and one of us is on the other.”

Every day she sifts through the latest COVID-19 case counts, public-health bulletins and news stories, discussing variants, vaccines, boosters and passports regularly with her fiancé. He is not trying to sway her into getting the shot, she said. Rather, he’s being “inquisitive” about where she’s at in her decision-making process.

“We’re having super honest conversations with each other. I’ve had days where I’ve broken down and cried,” Taylor said.

In those moments, her fiancé said he reminds her, “from a spot of caring,” that with most Canadian adults now fully immunized, “it’s the norm to get it.”

Taylor says she’s getting little sympathy from her friends, many of whom work in health care and already have their booster shots. The two are also experiencing alienation in the public sphere: Whenever they venture out, they check the rules for the venue or event to avoid being turned away.

“We can’t go for a date night or anything like that. In a sense, that is essentially acting as if I’m not vaccinated either,” Morgan said.

“There’s been a little bit of frustration and maybe resentment” around restaurant restrictions, Taylor acknowledged.

Occasionally Morgan eats out with vaccinated friends and family. On Halloween, Taylor stayed home when he went to a house party with friends: “I had a night in with the dog,” she said. Still, she insists time alone is welcome; the two have worked from home for nearly two years.

The biggest question mark is their wedding, which was postponed from this summer to next June because gathering restrictions had limited them to just 10 people. Now, some venue operators aren’t permitting unvaccinated brides, grooms and guests. “When you can’t go to your own wedding, things get put in perspective,” Taylor said.

Their two-week honeymoon to Italy, Portugal and Spain is also up in the air. Travel may prove to be Taylor’s breaking point with the vaccine. “We’re a young couple. We don’t want to limit ourselves,” Morgan said.

Throughout the 21-month-long crisis, they have tried to understand each other’s thought processes and avoid making assumptions. Taylor said she is grateful that her partner looks for ways to get through the crisis together. “I consider myself lucky,” she said.

Hamilton marriage therapist Christina Walton is working with two half-vaccinated couples struggling with this divide.

“It’s a shock. We’ve never experienced a pandemic before. Couples have no previous experience to draw on,” Ms. Walton said.

She’s seen resentment brew on both sides in half-vaxxed homes. The immunized begrudge their unvaccinated spouses for limiting what their families can do. “The vaccinated person says, ‘I got my vaccine to keep people safe. What are you doing to keep me safe?’ ” the therapist said.

On the other side, unvaccinated spouses feel misunderstood and disenfranchised.

“The hard part is to not lose respect for a partner when they have such a different viewpoint,” Ms. Walton said.

She asks her couples to consider whether this issue is a deal breaker. If it isn’t, she works to draw them out of combat mode. She slows down the conversation and tries to normalize the situation: “This is a new learning curve for everybody,” she tells spouses. They discuss other conflicts the partners overcame and how to negotiate needs and compromise. Ms. Walton urges them to spend more time independently.

“You want the relationship to outlast COVID,” the therapist said.

In half-vaccinated homes, the reverberations often go beyond the couple. Alexander’s parents are in their 70s but only his mother is immunized. His father suffers from severe lung degradation but refuses the vaccine, seeing it as a hindrance to his personal freedom.

“If he gets sick, he’s a goner,” said Alexander, who is 45 and lives in Toronto with his husband and son.

Alexander fears that his unvaccinated father will get his mother sick, or that she will bring the virus home from her health care job. He said his mother bites her tongue when her husband shares COVID-19 misinformation – this despite her lifetime of experience as a critical-care nurse working in hospitals, long-term care and hospices.

“She keeps that inside. You can tell that she doesn’t agree but she knows she’s not going to get anywhere with it,” Alexander said.

His parents live in a rural community several hours drive outside Toronto. His mother is distraught that she can’t come into the city to see Alexander and her grandson. Though the boy received his first shot last month, his school has had COVID-19 cases. “The chance of bringing something that will kill my dad is just too big,” Alexander said.

He’s frustrated that while other families are fully vaccinated and slowly regaining choice and flexibility in their lives, his family time remains limited and loaded with worry. “It’s very hard to have my young son’s relationship with his grandparents have this big gap in it,” Alexander said.

Thinking of the risk his father has taken, he worries an undercurrent of tension may linger in the family after the pandemic passes.

“It’s a choice that impacts others. You don’t get to pretend you’re not affecting others.”

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