Happy belated Valentine’s Day everyone.
I’ve written before about my preference for personal celebrations like birthdays and anniversaries over dates that have little significance to my individual life story. I’m also a cynical bugger who recoils at the sight of almost anything pink. For these reasons, and many others, Valentine’s Day passes Husband and me by, unmarked, uncelebrated, and typically unacknowledged.
However, this is my first Valentine’s Day as part of a relationship between a blogger and a small fan base. My understanding is that I, the up-to-date and opportunistic blogger, should throw my two penn’orth in regarding the matter of love, so my adoring readership can fulfill their role of agreeing with, disagreeing with or simply ignore it. This kind of post appears to be whatever the internet equivalent of ‘traditional’ is at this time of year. As many of us have spent more time with our partners than we ever expected to over the last twelve months, I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned about living in lockdown with your significant other.
I will insert a major caveat here and say that this is not marriage advice that I recommend for everyone. Husband and I are currently financially stable, don’t have children, and have (so far!) come through this pandemic reasonably unscathed. We’ve gotten off lightly in the grand scheme of things.
The lessons I’m going to share with you are most directly applicable to an ex-theatre professional and an academic enjoying a marriage based on mutual introversion, a common interest in climbing, and a shared appreciation for pointy dogs. Do with these lessons what you will. If you find something here that you can relate to or find a use for in your own relationships, that’s great. But I am a second-year psychology student and first-time wife. Not a relationship counsellor.
With that disclaimer out the way, here are my top 4 tips for tolerating, and maybe even continuing to love, the person/people you’ve been trapped in a home with for what seems like an eternity.
1. Be Apart Together
The importance of giving your partner space became very apparent to me a few short months into my relationship with Husband.
We may be haggard old thirty-somethings now, but Husband and I began our relationship at the age of eighteen, back in the days when the internet made a lot of noise and Boris Johnson was just some mayor of a big city in the southeast and of very little interest to two northern teenagers. We bonded over the most standard of adolescent pastimes. Listening to mildly aggressive rock music and drinking misjudged amounts of cheap alcohol.
Ah, young love.
I may place myself comfortably in the introvert camp now, but I was a little more outgoing and sociable as a teenager. Husband, on the other hand, has always been used to and content with keeping his own company. Probably something to do with being an only child who was introduced to the joys of a good book at a young age.
As an insecure teenage girl, I assumed that if he didn’t want to spend every waking second with me, he’d clearly decided that I wasn’t interesting/attractive/insert-suitably-paranoid-adjective-here enough and was about to send me packing. Luckily this wasn’t the case. He’d just had enough of people in general. As a teenage girl with thin skin, I didn’t always take kindly to sitting awkwardly in silence trying to work out what I’d done that had prompted Husband to clam up so suddenly. And as an awkward teenage boy, he didn’t know how to tell me everything was fine but he’d rather I went away now without making me cry. Thankfully, Husband and I are now comfortable enough to (reasonably) politely tell each other to go away when we need some alone time. But this has taken time, candid communication, and the odd hissy fit.
We all land somewhere between introvert and extrovert on life’s great sliding scale. Those of us that sit nearer to the introverted end of the see-saw can only take pleasure in the company of our fellow humans for a finite (and sometimes paltry) amount of time before we need to escape into solitude and recharge. Identifying when your partner has hit their company quota and removing yourself from their presence can go a long way to making your life together more harmonious.
If you want to learn more about introversion and extroversion, I’d recommend Susan Cain’s fantastic book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. If you’re an extrovert, it will help you to understand the introverts in your life while avoiding awkward conversations about why they’re dying to leave your house party by 10pm. If you’re an introvert, it will reassure you that you’re not a reclusive freak and that it’s OK to feel more comfortable around dogs than people.
2. Spend Quality Time Together
You may think this is a ridiculous suggestion. Quality time? We spend nothing but time with our partners at the moment. I can’t get away from the bastard! They’re. Always. Here.
I’m talking about quality, not quantity. When other people aren’t around to compete for your attention, it’s very easy to slip into routines and stop prioritising enjoying the company of the person you chose to live with.
About six months into this pandemic malarky, Husband and I realised that we didn’t do anything interesting together anymore. We ate meals together, watched TV together, and walked the dog around various combinations of the same few strips of tarmac together. In between these activities, we focused on our own projects and passions. With our favourite shared activities of going to the climbing gym and pub now off-limits, we’d lapsed into only sharing the most mundane parts of our combined existence. Eat. Sit. Stroll. Repeat.
We didn’t come up with anything exceptional or revolutionary. We didn’t opt to learn belly dancing from YouTube videos or train our dog, Amber, to tightrope walk so she could break the Guiness World Record for fastest tightrope crossing by a dog (currently held by Ozzy from Norwich, at 18.22 seconds*). We decided we’d revisit the boardgame Sherlock Homes: Consulting Detective and lift some weights together.
If you enjoy solving puzzles and don’t mind recording scores far into minus figures, I would highly recommend this series of games. Poor Husband is on a constant (and often thankless) lifelong quest to find boardgames that appeal to our remarkably different thematic tastes and attention spans. He struck absolute gold with this gem of a game. The lovely chaps over at Shut Up & Sit Down have a much more comprehensive review of this game than I could ever hope to put together so check that out if you’re a boardgame afficionado. It manages to appeal to my love of murder and gruesome stories, puzzles, spooky olde worlde things, and non-competitiveness while being complex enough to hold Husband’s attention and give his noggin the challenge it desires. Unsurprisingly, he’s not found a lot of other games that meet these very specific and largely incompatible needs.
We also both enjoy being strong, buff, hench, or whatever it is the cool kids are calling it these days (swoll?). We’d obviously prefer to work on our muscles at the climbing gym or on our own wall at home. Unfortunately, the pandemic and the weather have had other plans for us, so we’ve been reduced to lugging heavy weights around with fluctuating levels of success and finesse. Oddly enough, my competitive side actually does come out when we exercise together. This does not work in my favour when it comes to weightlifting as Husband has testosterone and being bigger than me on his side.
This competitive streak is also the reason we abandoned doubles badminton after one session, during which I yelled at Husband and called him a bitch for not taking it seriously enough. Nobody’s perfect.
My questionable taste in boardgames and racket-sports based anger management problems aside. It’s good to take some time to savour the things you actually enjoy doing together, in whatever limited capacity your living situation and restrictions allow. There must have been reasons why you chose this person to fill the role of predominant other human in your life. Try not to forget what they were because you now have no choice but to spend time with them and basically nobody else.
3. Laugh and Get It Right Together
It may seem like there’s not much to laugh about during a pandemic. And you’re right. Things are shit. People are dying, out of work, and justifiably downright miserable. At this point, anything you can do to add a little fun and frolics into each other’s lives is probably not only welcome but needed.
To keep things lighthearted and frivolous, I like to play tricks on my poor unsuspecting spouse.
For example, last week when Husband was in the bathroom, I propped our two bouldering pads in front of the door, so he’d have to fight his way out through a large pile of foam padding. I also like to jump out at him when he enters/exits rooms to keep him on his toes. In retaliation, he picks me up and puts me arse-first into the nearest sink.
If you go down this line of levity, I recommend picking your moment carefully. Don’t try scaring the crap out of your significant other after a stressful Zoom meeting or while they’re lifting a tray of roast potatoes out of the oven.
We also play a relaxed game of “Horse” on our daily dog walks. It’s not a complicated game. It simply involves shouting “horse” as soon as you see a horse, preferably before the other person can shout “horse” when they see a horse. I promise, it’s more fun than it sounds. Husband and I recently admitted that we also say “horse” when we see a horse even if we’re walking the dog on our own. Just with less urgency, enthusiasm, and volume. It’s the little things.
Whatever your version of “horse” or “spouse in the sink” may be, make time for it. Be stupid. Refuse to act your age. Anything you can do to tip the scales back in the direction of joy and happiness is worth celebrating and embracing.
4. Cry and Get It Wrong Together
All that being said, you are both entitled to feel like crap in the middle of a pandemic, and it's understandable if you don’t always handle each other’s moods perfectly. Having never lived through a global pandemic before, we’re all just doing our best to survive and not make things significantly worse.
In his book Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari discusses how people’s expectations of a long-term partner have changed drastically over the last half a century or so. In interviews with focus groups of different generations, Ansari found that the couples married in the 1950s and 60s anticipated being involved in what sociologist Andrew Cherlin refers to as a “companionate marriage”. The bloke earned the daily bread. The women squirted out the kids and tidied the house. Love was expected to grow over time.
Contrastingly, interviewees from younger generations marrying in the 21st century had loftier ambitions for their partners. They were looking for, and fully expecting to find, a soulmate. Ansari quotes psychotherapist and marriage counsellor Esther Perel, who highlights the fact our spouses are expected to wear many hats and play many characters in the pantomime of our lives. Stabilising presence yet exciting playmate. Mysterious and surprising yet predictable and constant. Provider of a sense of belonging yet encouraging of our own independence. They should know us better than we know ourselves and love us deeply in spite of our tendency to accidentally interrupt them on the way to the bathroom or put plastic bags in the washing machine (one of these is me and one is Husband, have fun guessing which is which!).
Not fucking likely. These are humans. Not idealised fictional characters.
It is my firm belief that these contemporary fairytale-like notions about the roles our romantic partners play in our lives are unrealistic bullshit.
Things were certainly not perfect in the olden days, no matter what certain right-wing nationalist politicians tell us. But I think it's worth remembering that the people we’ve chosen to share our lives with are just that. People. Complicated, imperfect, well-meaning people.
Sometimes we misjudge each other’s moods. I have a habit of looking for proactive solutions when all Husband requires is a day of sitting around in his comfy hoody and shooting aliens on the internet. Husband will occasionally respond to my bad moods with a cheery pep talk when all I want to do is relish in a good sulk and let my frustrations out in an incoherent and often incomprehensible rant.
The mere act of being alive is far more complicated than it used to be. You’re probably both struggling to fully comprehend your own feelings right now, let alone someone else’s. Remember that you’re both just doing your best. Support and console each other when you can. Be gentle with each other when you fail to live up to the daunting role of soulmate.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight into our locked-down married life and maybe even learned something useful. You’re very welcome to share your own suggestions and tips for maintaining wedded (or unwedded, for that matter) bliss in the comments section below. Alternatively, if you’d like to correct me on what the cool kids are actually saying these days, do feel free. It probably isn’t swoll anymore, if it ever was.
*Look out for the bloomin’ massive pig in the back of the video of Ozzy’s heroic world record attempt
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) by Susan Cain
Guiness World Records website for dog and non-dog related world records
Shut Up & Sit Down for all the boardgame reviews you could ever need
Urban Dictionary to help you understand the youth of today
Modern Romance (2015) by Aziz Ansari (I’d highly recommend checking this out. For me it’s the perfect combination of sarcastic dry humour sat on a supportive cushion of science)