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It’s 9:40 on Saturday morning and I have been up for three hours and 10 minutes toiling around the house. I have been listening to my husband’s staccato alarm ringing at increasing decibels every 15 minutes over the last two hours and 40 minutes. I return to the bedroom and see the rubber mallet on my night table. I admit that this is a weird bedside accoutrement, but yesterday I was trying (unsuccessfully) to hammer a picture frame back together.
I tap Eric on the arm with the mallet. Amazingly, he remains inert. I tap him a little more rigorously, this time on the forehead. “How has this man not divorced me?” I wonder. Groggy, eyes closed, he manages a smile and a grunt before rolling over and falling back asleep.
It’s now 11 a.m. To manage my pandemic anxiety, I have done two loads of laundry, written part of a report and entertained the idea of colour-coding our socks. I realize that I am running out of things to do, which is terrifying. I have applied green painter’s tape to all the scratches on our floors. My handsome and well-rested husband has now been up for roughly an hour. His glasses are resting precariously on his forehead and he is holding his phone within an inch of his eyes. He is squinting and scrolling, taking the occasional break to sip his coffee. His feet are up on the coffee table, a tab of green tape is stuck on his holey sock. Our cat, Farfel, purrs happily on his lap.
“When can we oil the floors?!” I ask, not for the first time and with a tone of frustration and unwarranted urgency. He smiles indulgently, takes a luxurious stretch and applies some moisturizer to his scaly red hands that he washed “70 times” yesterday. (I guess we both have our hangups. Arguably at this juncture, his OCD is far more adaptive than mine.) I am unable to hide my contempt over his idleness as I stomp off to organize our socks. “So nice that he is still able to enjoy such repose during the damn apocalypse,” my inner martyr grumbles.
It’s now noon and I find myself pacing, caffeine intoxicated, in front of my computer. I attempt to organize not our socks but rather my paradoxical feelings of irritability, fear and acute boredom. My shoulders relax as the more objective parts of me parcel out what is going on with our love during the time of COVID-19.
Despite our differences, Eric and I love each other deeply. He embraces my workaholism and high-voltage personality. I usually appreciate, and at times envy, his capacity to sit still and enjoy the moment. There is no one I’d rather be jailed with. Evolutionarily, our attachment systems program us to seek proximity, comfort and connection from our loved ones. We are especially wired to seek this security during tough times. And Eric is tremendously comforting – when I don’t want to gouge out his eyeballs.
As a psychologist, I get what’s going on here. As a human, I am far from emotionally impervious. Most of us don’t respond well to ambiguity, lack of personal control or lack of freedom – all of which this pandemic seems to underscore in spades. Most of us in the developed world likely haven’t appreciated how much freedom and self-determination we have been afforded until we are denied it. We have become substantially more siloed over time. Seeing people is a choice. Most of us have places to go and things to do. Going to work typically provides couples a buffer, a sense of self and some autonomy. Co-isolation has ground this, and all sense of normalcy, to a halt. We are no longer engaging in activities that once gave us a sense of routine, purpose, control and exposure to other humans. We have been denuded from structures that have given us an autonomous sense of self and diluted the dosage of our relationships.
We are now not only forced to deal with the terrifying existential and economic threats of this pandemic, but we also have time to face feelings from which we conveniently have had the luxury to be distracted. We are faced squarely with our intrapersonal conflicts and interpersonal differences. During times of stress, we humans have been known to displace our negative emotions onto something tangible or someone proximal. Not speaking personally, of course, but we might develop more acute sensitivity to mundane things like the sound of our partner’s chewing, breathing or nose whistle. Hypothetically, our partners might find they have a growing frustration with our subpar dishwashing prowess or perceived lack of vigorous handwashing. This lockdown also has the potential to be a rather unsexy time. It is all too easy to fall into a pit of despair, and it might be tempting to remain unbathed, unkempt, pajama-clad and face down in a tub of our favourite flavour of ice cream (provided we can get to the store and find it stocked). Right now, like us, I suspect that even the most connected couples can sometimes find themselves feeling as if they have an indeterminate detention and a cellmate rather than a soulmate.
It’s now 1:30 p.m. Man, these days feel long. I have no surfaces left to clean. I tried a yoga arm-balancing video on YouTube made by a pert and nubile youngster, and I found my pretzeled middle-age body stuck, requiring a bemused Eric to help disentangle my limbs. Now that I have written this reflection, I am also a little less internally contorted. Eric is now making us breakfast (?!) and whistling. Despite my immense agitation, I realize something is happening here. I am acutely aware of the dialectic of time: our potentially immanent mortality, coupled with an excess of free time and fewer things to do. Perhaps this is not an internment, but an opportunity. Perhaps it is time to take a lesson out of Eric’s playbook and appreciate the moments and pleasures that can be derived – after we oil the floors.
Julie Goldenson lives in Toronto.