How has Covid affected our intimate lives? I’m not talking about sex – my family have suffered enough – but has the unrelenting closeness of this year opened or closed up faultlines in our relationships?
It’s complicated. I am, for instance, writing this on the sofa and not at my desk in the bedroom, because my husband is having a siesta with the dog. As an intolerant and prickly cohabitee, I have mixed feelings about this: it’s irritating (I want the desk), a relief (an hour of silence) and delightful (I love this newfound canine-human closeness).
The emotional barometer of intimate relationships fluctuates constantly, but my experience of corona cohabitation is a rapid, perpetual spin cycle of emotion: profound gratitude, irritation, guilt, euphoric love, then: “Why are you doing lunges next to my desk?”
This dovetails with Relate’s account of Covid “turbo-relationships”. Apparently, couples have ticked off milestones at warp speed this year, both as an expedient, given the constraints of quarantine and because global catastrophe has a clarifying effect on your emotions. Pandemic whirlwind romances were like the swift courtships and weddings of wartime, except that your new beloved did not disappear to the western front: they went no further than the sofa, where they cut their toenails over your unread New Yorker.
Even for established couples, 2020 is cohabitation on boost. A discussion on sex and the pandemic in Nature notes that “fewer opportunities for independent activities or time apart” can create a situation where “intimacy collapses into fusion”. My husband used to travel constantly. Now he sometimes rides his bike to Lidl. No wonder he got excited recently when he thought I was wearing a new woolly hat (I wasn’t: it was a trick of the light).
But even after 26 years, Covid life has thrown up surprises: we have been intrigued particularly to discover the disparities in our working styles. His weekdays are 95% speakerphone calls while pacing and 5% loudly teasing the dog. Mine are spent in sepulchral, ideally uninterrupted silence, wrapped in a blanket: like Whistler’s painting of his mother, but with a laptop. He has found out that I like from eight to 10 small meals daily, like a toddler, a fact I have concealed for years (he is French, and French people do not snack). I note with alarm his tendency to speak his mind bluntly in professional settings instead of nourishing bitter, never-expressed grievances and sending overly polite emails, as is the British way. We must never be colleagues.
Worse than anything I have discovered about him have been the revelations about myself. I am horrified to find out that I am someone who hides food they fancy and who turns recycling into an exquisitely pointed act of passive aggression. I had no idea how viscerally I loathe repetitive movement and most domestic noises: this year I’m Daniel Day-Lewis in that terrible sewing film The Phantom Thread, violently pained by the normal soundtrack of life.
It’s miraculous my partner puts up with me, but he does. We all do, mainly. Despite the provocations, most relationships have weathered, or even thrived in, the corona spin cycle. In a survey, the Open University found that 26% of respondents thought their relationship had improved since Covid; fewer than one in 10 thought it had worsened. With some awful exceptions (the domestic violence figures are absolutely chilling), 2020 has mainly been a time of domestic forbearance and forgiveness, of realising how lucky we are to love and be loved.
Let me, however, share one freshly gleaned piece of pandemic relationship advice: this is no time to do an exfoliating foot peel. I did one recently: you put your feet in plastic bags full of alarming chemicals and your gross dead skin peels off to reveal baby-fresh extremities. Unable to deal with this depravity alone as God intended, this week – and I apologise if you are of a sensitive disposition – my hapless attempts to deal with the skin situation meant my poor husband accidentally picked up a plate full of my foot sloughings. He has endured so much already; let’s pray he can get back to the office before I find something even worse to subject him to.