When Self-Isolation Becomes Couple-Isolation
I’ll be honest. This is unchartered territory. I am only at the end of four weeks of self-quarantine, so I can only tell you how to stay married for literally four weeks of self-quarantine. By the end of Week Four I may be writing an article entitled How to Work with a Divorce Lawyer Using Zoom.
But they say write what you know, and all I know right now is the inside of my house and my husband. And these days I really know my husband, Saul. I mean, I know every single thing there is to know about him.
The other day Saul reminded me that familiarity breeds contempt. “No, it doesn’t,” I replied. “Shut up.”
But then I reminded myself that he is the only person in the world I am allowed to come within 6-feet of without having to be hosed down like Meryl Streep in Silkwood, so I put on a really big smile and said, “Yes, dear. That is so incredibly insightful!”
I’ve noticed a lot of single people posting on social media that they can’t wait to have sex again when all this is over. But I’ve not seen one post from someone in a relationship bragging about their excessive love-making while quarantined together. The couples I’ve talked to wonder if they’ll ever feel romantic toward each other again.
Like the rest of the world, only a few weeks ago I went to work and ran errands and was glad to see a familiar face when I walked in the front door at night. Now that very same face is there when I wake up and when I eat and when I breathe and when I blink. We have completely caught up on each other’s life stories.
Here is a sample conversation from last week.:
ME: Did I ever tell you about when my mom was in her forties and wore a lime green bikini to tear down vines in our backyard?
ME (continuing): It was soooo funny. The vines turned out to be…
SAUL (interrupting with an edge in his voice): …poison ivy, and the rash covered every part of her body except her bathing-suit parts. You told me that story earlier at lunch and also at breakfast. You also told me on our first date and wrote about it in your memoir which you’ve read to me twice now.
ME: Oh right. (Pause) Did I ever tell you about…
I’m also going through this with my dog, Alfie. When I look down at him and say, “Who’s a good boy??” He gazes up at me wearily as if to say, We’ve already gone over this several times today.
My husband and I have mostly been very good at carving out space for ourselves. I am a writer and he is an artist, so we already value alone time for ourselves and each other. And we’re lucky that two years ago we moved from our tiny apartment with no doors in Brooklyn to a three-story house 70 miles outside the city. In our old place when we had a fight, I would storm into the next room only a few feet away from Saul vowing never to speak to him again before pulling a thin curtain closed between us. It just never had the dramatic effect I desired.
Now we have enough space that I can create a makeshift office out of Saul’s art studio on the top floor while he stress-bakes through hundreds of Great British Baking Show recipes two stories below. But still, in the first days of me working from home, we had our run-ins. Sometimes I wandered downstairs to get a glass of milk and a snack while Saul was deep into dough-kneading in the kitchen.
“What are you doing in here?” he’d ask tensely. “Getting a snack,” I’d reply defensively. This often escalated into Saul growling something about needing to concentrate while making a “Queen of Puddings” and me marching out of the kitchen shouting “Can’t a man get a cookie in his own castle?”
We soon realized that part of the problem was that we weren’t tackling things together. Only a month ago we planned trips and parties, or even just went out to dinner or the movies. We had a mutual sense of purpose. But our new routine of avoiding each other during the day and watching television together at night wasn’t enough.
So we made a very specific chart to give us shared activities and projects:
MONDAY NIGHT — SOCIAL MEDIA BLACKOUT (way harder than I thought)
WEDNESDAY NIGHT — JIGSAW PUZZLE
FRIDAY NIGHT — DANCE TOGETHER FOR A HALF HOUR IN THE LIVING ROOM
SATURDAY NIGHT — BLACK-AND-WHITE MOVIE
SUNDAY NIGHT — ROMANTIC DATE NIGHT
As for my kitchen visits, we now needed to actually talk to each other about things that used to be routine. When I was a kid growing up with five other children under one roof, there was a rule that before we took a long shower, we had to ask everyone in the house if they needed to use the bathroom first. My husband and I adapted that for ourselves. Now Saul announces when he is going to be intensely focused in the kitchen, giving me a chance to grab snacks beforehand. And I vacate my “office” on Wednesdays and Sundays, so he can use it again to make art.
Both of us are being forced to reassess and reevaluate everything we took for granted. And we are well aware of the very real problems happening in the world outside our cocoon. Each day in this new reality, when we hit a roadblock with ourselves and each other, we are doing our best to take a breath and try to figure out a healthy way through it together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Keith Hoffman lives in Lambertville NJ. He enjoys snacking only at 1:15 and 3:25 every day unless he asks for permission two hours beforehand. For now, he is married.