The morning after my wedding in January 2020, I woke up at 6am with a throbbing face and staggered to the bathroom mirror to find the Bride of Chucky staring back at me. I had two rapidly developing black eyes and a purple and yellow cheek twice the size of my other one. I’d tripped over a tiny step in the hotel room in the middle of the night, whacking my face against the huge mahogany bed frame.
As I made my way to A&E, my new husband made his way to the airport to catch a flight for a mandatory work trip. Smiling newlyweds we were not; in fact, the damage to my facial nerve meant my smile didn’t return for four months, by which time there was little to smile about. We were in the first peak of the pandemic, my father was seriously ill with coronavirus, and I was feeling more distant than I’d thought possible from my husband, who had become my sole source of interaction during lockdown.
Newlywed during a pandemic
I’d never understood the adage that the first year of marriage is the hardest. Surely, it should be the easiest since you clearly loved each other enough to go through the financial, political and psychological thriller of planning a wedding — and you’re the proud new owners of nine John Lewis lamps.
As anyone in a long-term relationship can attest, 2020 has been a rocky year. Any sense of mystery and excitement in a relationship has gone, replaced with fundamentally incompatible dishwasher methodologies and questions (mine) such as, “Is your breathing right now some sort of joke?” and “Did you think about me at all when you were finishing the milk this morning?” The just-married tag seemed only to add to the sense of claustrophobia and inescapability — he’s going to breathe like this forever. We’re going to live like this forever.
Besides the mild-to-fatal irritations of spending 24-hours a day with my husband in a confined space, the bigger stressors of loss and uncertainty didn’t bring out the best in us as individuals, or as a couple. I thought of our marriage like a pot on a stove. Each person in the relationship puts different ingredients into the pot, and the combination of those ingredients makes the recipe taste good.
During the first lockdown, I realised I had stopped putting what I usually put into the pot, and so had my husband, yet we still both expected the recipe to taste the same. Pre-Covid, we would each come home from work or from seeing friends and share stories from our days, funny things our colleagues had said, musings on what I now realise is the utterly exhilarating experience of living in a big, thriving city interacting with dozens of people every day.
My husband was always planning fun things for us to do — trips, festivals, dinners and that pre-Covid novelty: a walk in a park. I missed all those plans and the opportunity for fun that they brought to the relationship. When I asked him what he felt I had stopped contributing, he commented that I usually brought a lot of energy to the relationship and engaged him with questions and conversation, whereas in lockdown, I’d grown quiet and unaffectionate. It felt like we’d both lost parts of ourselves that brought the other joy.
Creating coping mechanisms
Instead of planning these now defunct activities for us to share, my husband buried himself in work, busied himself with to-do lists and shopping lists, and took a highly logical ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach in reassuring me that my dad — and everything else — would be fine. He was right, but the jolly ‘it’ll all be fine’ line started to get on my nerves, sounding insincere and detached from reality. I was feeling anxious, and lost, and wanting to just let those feelings be — without trying to problem solve.
Relationship therapist and guru Esther Perel highlights this precise issue between couples in her four-part online workshop called How to Turn Relational Differences Into Resources During Coronavirus. “One person might experience the desire to create order, to start organising things because they have a sense that order on the outside is going to create order on the inside,” she says. “When they start to do all that, they experience a sense of order as a bulwark against chaos, against a feeling of powerlessness and a loss of control. […] The other person may go much more into the emotional realm and into the articulation of feelings. That person may think, ‘How can you be trying to fix things when the world is falling apart?’”
What I failed to realise was that my husband’s planning, organising and insistent positivity was as much a coping mechanism as my worrying and need to talk about my feelings. “While our coping styles may be different,” Perel continues, “the feelings that underlie them — the sadness, the stress, the loss, the powerlessness — those feelings are not different.” We were much closer in our feelings than I had realised — he wasn’t an “emotionless robot” (one of my firing shots at the time), he just had a different coping strategy. And thank God, because the thought of having to live with someone like me — a highly anxious catastrophiser — during the pandemic, would have definitely sent me over the edge.
Before getting married, I used to joke that my boyfriend’s worst quality was his irrepressible zest for life and carpe diem attitude to every day. I found it sweet, but ultimately naive and in my head I explained it through a complicated white-male privilege narrative. This year has made me understand that it’s something he consciously chooses to do, and that it’s a much harder road to take — a life skill I’ve come to greatly admire.
How we learned to listen
One pandemic-related loss I’m grateful for in my marriage is the loss of ego. In lockdown, your armour is off, there’s no front to hide behind — no coming home and humbly bragging about how busy and important you were at work today or how funny your friends were at dinner. I realised I brought home a lot of ego pre-Covid — an eagerness to impress. Having lived in a tracksuit with no make-up and Helga eyebrows since March, the only chat I’m bringing to the table is updating him on the technical versus creative strengths and weaknesses of The Great British Bake Off contestants. Without so much to say for myself, I’ve learned to listen more carefully and tune into him and his feelings — which are more subtle but no less important than my own.
What’s one year of marriage in dog years? That’s how long it’s felt like we’ve been married in lockdown. We’ve crammed at least five years worth of arguments, reconciliations and mutual understandings into 2020. As our first year of marriage comes to an end, I’d like to raise a toast to all the couples who made it through. Here’s to the worst thing we said to each other, the much worse things we thought about each other, and to seeing each other as we really are, with no airs or graces. An expensive wedding won’t convince you of marriage, but a pandemic will. We’re ending the year more connected than I thought possible and with the knowledge that we can get through anything.
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