Is Covid-19 Changing Your Marriage?

Em Unravelling

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After many years with my husband, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what my marriage looks like. Or at least I did, until last year.

Our marriage looked like this: early every morning, my husband and I would have breakfast together. Bleary and coffee-driven, we didn’t usually talk a lot. We would then put some breakfast out for the children, get into our separate cars, and drive to work where we would get on with our separate days.

In the early evening, one of us might go for a run, or go to the gym for a workout, or take the dog for a walk. One of us would cook. We’d have dinner with the kids or without them, depending on their after-school plans.

After eating we might go out, together or — more often — separately. I might go to a book club or yoga class. He might go for a pint with a friend, or off to watch football at the pub. At least once a week, we would generally go for a drink or a meal together with some friends. Most Tuesdays, we’d go to the cinema for their cut-price movie deal and jokingly call it “date night”. Every Sunday, we’d eat as a family with some family friends.

That was what our marriage looked like. I knew the shape of it.

Our only hard-and-fast marriage rule was that one night of each weekend had to be spent together. Whether we were at home, or out on a date as a couple, or socialising with friends, we would be together. We made this rule because we realised that if we did not, sometimes we’d go for weeks without ever really looking at each other.

Then it was March 2020 and overnight, everything changed.

Life now is very different. We live in the UK, so we have had various pandemic restrictions imposed and lifted and half-reinstated and lifted again and dropped hard once more for the best part of a year now, but the consistent theme, across all of the different tiers and regulations and whatever else we have been permitted to do, has remained the same: Stay At Home.

Sometimes the gyms have been open, so we have been able to go there. Sometimes restaurants have opened for heady, hedonistic weeks and we have been able to have al fresco dinners with friends. (During the summer, we went even weekly to the pub for a quiz). But in between those things, we’ve both been working entirely from home and spending more time in the house than we ever did.

As of this week we are back in another strict lockdown and the schools are closed, so apart from an hour’s permitted outdoor exercise, my whole family is now indoors 24/7. It doesn’t feel particularly weird any more. The days blend into each other, distinguished only by the contents of the Amazon boxes that hit the doorstep every so often and the fact that groceries arrive on Sundays.

After the latest lockdown was announced a few days ago, I felt bleak torpor drift down over me like ash from a bonfire. I looked at my husband, and I could see that he felt the same. “But we’re ok, aren’t we?” he asked. “We’re getting on as well as we ever did?”

I agreed that we are. Because we are. We don’t argue, except about little things like on Sunday when I disconnected the pipe under the sink and water went everywhere and he just looked at me and at the water, making no move to reach for either a bucket or towels and I looked at the water and the bucket and the towels and at him and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. (I yelled).

But are we ok? Is our marriage still something we can both view as a good one? I thought about this more as I got into bed and wondered why the question was troubling me. What I realised was that I don’t know how my relationship is, because I don’t know how to examine it within the vacuum that forms life as we all currently know it.

I realised that a huge part of our marriage is, has always been, our shared joy in planning and the anticipation of a future together. When we met, one of the first things my husband’s mother said to me was “You want the same things. You dream of them together. It’s a good start.” And she was right.

We dreamed together as twenty-somethings of the trips we would take with the children we hadn’t had yet. Later, we took our children on various semblances of those trips and smiled across their heads and remembered the long-ago plans. In our thirties, we planned trips and parties and booked concerts and meals with a reckless abandon we both shared. We agreed that we would rather have too many plans than not enough.

And now, not only has planning things become a hollow exercise in inevitable disappointment, but because we can’t see any of our friends or family there is a strange emptiness in that part of our lives, too. We can’t see each other through anyone else’s eyes. I didn’t even know that we did that, until we couldn’t. We — and our children — have to be everything to each other, for the moment. There are no external props. It’s a strange, naked, untethered sensation. It’s hard not to feel stifled by it.

This is the same for everyone, of course. Nobody’s life has remained the same since Covid-19 hit. Even homebirds — those cosy, enviable couples who lived and worked in the same space and seemed entirely content with that — still live in a world that’s spun completely off its axis, deprived as they now are of whatever external forces previously supported them.

“The New Normal” is an over-used phrase, but that’s what we are all, slowly and painfully, having to get used to right now. Even with most of us vaccinated, it’ll be a long and tortuous grind back to the world we still cling on to in memory as “life as we know it”. Most experts agree that our work/life balance will be skewed in favour of home working for many years to come, if not permanently.

Perhaps the secret, then, is to change our definition of “ok”. To not try to focus on the sort of things we would once have focused on, such as what we might do together in one year, or five years, or ten. Living in the moment, and living together in that moment as harmoniously as we can, must be the goal — not the pursuit of an ideal, or better, relationship.

Where once we might have taken time (on an actual out-of-the-house date, maybe!) to take the pulse of our marriage at any given point — where once, indeed, we jointly made rules to ensure we actually spent enough time together to properly know each other — now, managing to yell at each other only when the kitchen is actually flooding should be seen as a small win.

To remember occasionally why we married each other; to think “I am glad I wake up next to you” sometimes, and to say those words out loud —well, those are the big wins. Perhaps those are all we need to count as proof of “a good relationship”, right now. As with so many other areas of our current lives, smaller goals mean bigger satisfactions.

We all need some of that, don’t we? Because it means that the shape of our relationships, for now, is one of “hope”. For now, that’s more than enough.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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