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Pandemic Marriage, Ménage, & Me

Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Bruno Balestrini via Bridgeman Images
Detail from Simone Martini’s Blessed Agostino Novello altarpiece, 1325–1328

One of the first things I read about China’s coronavirus outbreak were the divorces: the many couples who supposedly emerged from quarantine no longer able to tolerate each other.

These reports seemed apocryphal, or at best anecdotal­—based on interviews with clerks in a few regional registry offices. (Apparently, the Chinese government only publishes national divorce statistics once a year.) They also had few explanations. Were the breakups caused by something grave, like domestic violence, or just the accumulation of ordinary irritations? Maybe there was simply a backlog of couples who’d been planning to split before they were quarantined?

But as the virus spread through Europe and the US—and we, too, were herded into an at-home lockdown in Paris—all those Chinese divorces suddenly seemed like a warning. What would happen when we were cooped up for weeks or months with what the French government was ominously calling our cellule familiale? Would being socially distant from everyone else make us feel closer to our spouses: a chance to reconnect over weeknight wine and home-cooked meals? Or were we each about to star in our own hell-is-other-people existentialist drama? Would confinement amplify small fractures in ordinary marriages, including my own?

I had reasons to be hopeful. Even under normal circumstances, marriage is a kind of quarantine: you’re supposed to live together, eat the same dinners, and sleep in the same bed.

My husband and I are both journalists who often work from home anyway. We tend to thrive as a couple when faced with a shared enemy: terrorists, Trump, our three children. As foreigners living in Paris—I’m American, he’s British—we unite against French tax filings, school meetings, and surly neighbors.  

The pandemic also affirmed my decision to marry him in the first place. I grew up reading books about the Holocaust and expecting some new catastrophe to strike. When I was dating, in my twenties and early thirties, my chief criterion in a romantic partner, after a sense of humor, was the ability to help me spot crises in advance, and lead us and our future children out of them. (I was good at imagining all possible horribles, but not at predicting which ones were most likely to happen.)

Now I’d been vindicated: a week before the French government shut down the country and herded us all inside, my husband—who analyses news for a living—insisted that we cancel our daughter’s slumber party and refuse all social engagements. He’d seen it coming.

Initially, I found the pandemic strangely calming. I no longer had to sit alone wondering which terrible thing might happen; they’d been winnowed down to one big worry, the coronavirus, and everyone else was fretting about it, too. (And I’m lucky, I know, that I don’t have to worry about domestic abuse.)

But after just a week of lockdown en famille, awe for my husband’s analytical powers gave way to frustration over his almost total lack of practical skills. He could foresee a pandemic, but he can’t operate a can-opener or unblock a sink.

Like many middle-class dual earners, we used to solve this problem by paying a weekly cleaner and summoning a never-ending rotation of plumbers, electricians, and handymen (here, they call these workers hommes à tout faire).

In lockdown, however, we suddenly have to do all of this ourselves. I draw up a family chore chart that’s based loosely on the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability.” But my husband points out that I respond to his efforts to complete household tasks with a series of passive-aggressive rhetorical questions: “What kind of person leaves a vacuum-cleaner in the middle of the living room?” “Who sprays bleach on a mirror?”

I realize that my usual anxiety hasn’t disappeared during the pandemic; it has just assumed a new form. The higher the Paris region’s death toll from Covid-19, the more I ask my husband questions like: “Does a frying pan really need to soak for three days?”

To cope with this, my husband draws on a Russian technique: internal exile. He treats lockdown as a writing retreat for his unfinished book about the Barcelona soccer team. After hunkering down all day in our bedroom, he emerges at 7 PM to declare that he’s finished a chapter on Lionel Messi.

All this work seems to require an enormous amount of meat. Pre-quarantine we’d cut down, to save the planet. Now, before I leave for the supermarket, he hands me a scrap of paper on which he has scribbled “chicken, lamb, hamburgers.”  

I envy his powers of concentration. Between shopping for food in hazmat gear, and keeping our home from returning to a state of nature, I’ve barely managed to work. When I finally sit down to write, someone barges in to say they’re worried their teeth have shifted too far in their braces, or to pose the dreaded question: What are we eating?

Of course, our family isn’t alone in retreating into medieval gender roles. When I go back and read some of those articles about Chinese divorces, I notice that the wives who are quoted have a recurring complaint: during quarantine, they labored while their husbands watched TV. One woman was trapped in Wuhan caring for her children and in-laws alone, because her husband was working in another city when the quarantine was imposed. She said the final straw was that he wouldn’t even listen when she complained on the phone.

In our circles, problems seem to intensify the younger your children are. A friend with a two-year-old jokes, via Zoom, that he and his wife have cycled from “ecstatic that we all get to spend time together, to miserable because we’re deciding to divorce, to ecstatic that we’re going to divorce.”

For most people, the big shock of quarantine isn’t that their partners are terrible, but that—in the absence of schools, shrinks, business trips, drinks with friends, and the occasional flirtation with strangers—their shortcomings feel more consequential. Now, if there’s no one in your house who can do something like operate a power drill, cut hair, or teach math, it won’t happen. Our combined level of patience and taste in movies suddenly represents the limits of our experience.

“No one signed up for a marriage where you have to rely on your husband for bloody everything,” a friend hisses by phone from London.

But I can see that my spouse has tired of my limits, too. He now has just two emotional settings with me: irritation and, occasionally, lust. It’s not just him. Everyone I know seemed to have a new “pandemic personality.” A friend who used to complain constantly is now delightful; an intrepid foreign correspondent is these days suddenly afraid to leave his house. I’m not proud of my pandemic self: I’m secretly relieved when I learn that men are more likely than women to die from Covid-19; I sulk when supermarkets still have items I’d stocked up on weeks earlier, in case supply chains collapsed.

Our middle-school age kids have developed pandemic personas as well: perhaps thanks to my Marxist task rota, they’ve morphed into Soviet-era workers who live by the slogan “We pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us.” They don’t do their chores unless we threaten and shout. Instead, they spend all day on screens claiming to be doing academic “research.” 

Our recurring family meals are pleasant, but too much of a good thing. “You have dinner with them and it’s nice,” my husband says. “They’re good people and they say fun things. And then the next evening, you do it again, and then again, and you think, ‘Why? What is the added value?’”

Never mind my hopes for renewed emotional intimacy in our marriage. Though we’re in the same house all day, we talk less than we did before the quarantine, and he looks exasperated whenever I start to speak.  

“I’m having an experience of long-term romantic love. And you’re muddling through,” I observe one day, while he’s reading at lunch.

“That is romantic love,” he says. “There’s no learning and growing in marriage. Because how does it end? Either people get divorced, or somebody is carried out. It’s not like it ends with you winning the Superbowl.”

“You know that long-term romantic love lasts like half a year?” our teenage daughter calls from the kitchen.

“My goal is to keep you reasonably happy and under control so we can get on with things,” he tells me.  

“But what if we are the thing?” I ask.

“We’re not the thing. The thing is my book.”

*

About five weeks into quarantine, something shifts. It’s like that point in the shipwreck movie when the fellow marooned on a deserted island stops weeping with self-pity in the rain, and starts building himself a snazzy hut.

Somehow, mid-lockdown, we cease thinking about our absent housecleaner and cancelled vacations, and the fact that our neighborhood park is padlocked. Our kids start waking up and doing their schoolwork, unbidden. My husband silently takes on the lion’s share of the housework: on Sunday afternoons, I write while he leads the children on a frenzy of deep cleaning. And the mental proportions of our lives have shrunk to fit the circumstances. Now, when he’s working in the bedroom, it feels as though he’s at the office.

My pre-lockdown life was privileged, of course. But I see now that my ceaseless work deadlines were their own kind of quarantine, forcing me to spend weeks, sometimes months, unhappily sedentary at my desk. Now I don’t have to break for the seven-minute workout; the physical demands of the household are built into my day.   

And my growing list of new skills is energizing. I watch YouTube videos about how to operate a power drill (there’s a whole oeuvre of these made by women). Within days, I’ve attached a giant, suspended bookshelf to my bedroom wall, and installed a lifetime’s wishlist of hooks around our apartment. Where I used to shop for clothes, now I thrill over copper pot-scrubbers and the satisfaction of cleaning underneath my bed.

And somehow, without ever discussing it, my husband and I have actually learned and grown. Some evenings now, he even initiates conversations.  

“I feel bad that we never discuss your feelings,” he volunteers, one night before bed. 

“How is that different from normal times?” I ask.

“Nowadays we spend a lot more time together not discussing your feelings,” he says.

With the weather warming, our whole neighborhood seems to have relaxed into lockdown. Their lunch plates all clang like clockwork at 1 PM. My friend with the two-year-old says he and his wife have found some balance, too: “The funny thing is, this has definitely brought us closer together,” he says. “But the first thing we want to do, when it’s over, is not see each other.”

My husband is now busy thinking about what post-pandemic life will be like. I’ve accepted that he’ll come out of quarantine having finished two books, while I’ll emerge as a femme à tout faire.    

But I won’t be a Wuhan wife who marches directly from lockdown to the divorce office. When France began easing its quarantine rules this week, I just took my kids to the orthodontist. (As soon as it’s safe, our cleaner can come back to work, too.) I’ve realized that my cellule familiale is really not so bad. When life goes back to normal one day, I’m going to miss all this.