I, we and space: A marriage pact
Lockdowns, stay at home and work from home threw new light on husband-wife relationships.
The last two years have been hard on all of us, all over the world. From juggling careers via Zoom to managing our relationships — it’s been a roller coaster ride. And though things are gradually returning to normal, it’s no longer quite back to square one. That safe boundary of a home and an office has been badly blurred, work: life balance has taken on a different meaning. A reset seems to have taken place for most of us — with our spouses and partners in particular.
Some of my friends seem to have been happy to get this extra time with their loved ones but scratch the surface a bit and most admit that love is tough when dirty socks, hungry kids and work deadlines collide.
A number of celebrities called it quits during the lockdown and admitted candidly that the forced togetherness or long separations made it impossible to carry on. One of the most high-profile breakups was between American fashion designer and former actress Mary-Kate Olsen and her husband Olivier Sarkozy.
According to a report in Vanity Fair, for Mary-Kate the marriage was practically over when her husband insisted on bringing his children, mother and ex-wife to live with them during the pandemic. Mary-Kate moved out, first living with her twin Ashley Olsen on the outskirts of New York and eventually getting a place of her own in the Hamptons.
It’s hard not to sympathise with Mary-Kate; after all, who wants to be locked inside a house in a pandemic with not just a spouse but the entire ex package?
Among friends, most decided to keep at it but the need for space and ‘me time’ was a constant gnawing sensation. Archana Saluja, who is an HR consultant living in London with her lawyer husband and three kids, expands on the stress her life went through during lockdown. “Lockdown was a stressful time with juggling work, [managing] kids, [overseeing] home learning and [performing] household chores. With my husband working from home during the lockdown, it meant that we worked as a team mostly: managing kids, their home learning schedules, household chores and taking care of elderly parents at home. The time we both spent on different activities and responsibilities varied because my husband has a full-time job whereas I mainly work part time. So, he took care of chores such as printing kids’ study material, tidying up the kitchen counters, taking the bins out, sorting breakfast for kids, ordering groceries, paying household bills etc. I was responsible for supervising home learning, upkeep of the house,” she says.
Archana admits that while it was team work that managed to keep things together for them, the absence of any space or ‘me time’ was a difficult thing. “Living in times of a global pandemic is stressful in itself. Though it was a privilege not to go outside the safe environment of our home, having the whole family at home all the time did have its toll. Free time was non-existent and the ‘to do list’ was unending. It was a bittersweet experience where I was grateful to be with my loved ones yet craved for the cliched ‘me’ time,” she adds.
Looking for space
Maybe the lockdown has made us all realise what Kahlil Gibran wrote many years ago:
“But let there be spaces in your togetherness
And let the winds of the Heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea
Between the shores of your soul.”
Most of us struggled with the expectations of the ‘significant other’ during those long days and weeks of being closeted in the same apartment. One longed to get out for a simple walk alone and to breathe fresh air — again, alone. But relationships are tricky, and a simple request ‘to be left alone for a while’ can sound accusatory to the other. So, while we were and continue to be tested as to how significant or insignificant this ‘other’ is in our lives, our choices were stark simple. We could throw in the towel and just get it over with, as many did. But there were others who fought to keep things going, juggling in their mental spaces this love-hate relationship in an extended period of time when four walls defined everything.
Relate, the leading relationships charity of the UK, did a study on how lockdowns have affected relationships and found that almost a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) said the current circumstances are placing pressure on their relationship with their partner right now. More than one in eight (12 per cent) of those who currently live with their partner went as far as agreeing that staying at home is making them doubt their relationship.
And that is perhaps where the value of distance and space in our personal relationships comes in. Maybe distance doesn’t make the heart grow fonder but spaces and respecting boundaries definitely leads to greater respect and love.
Amna Khaishgi, an educationist and journalist who lives in Dubai with her husband, candidly points out that the extra time with her significant other during the lockdown periods went off rather smoothly because each of them were involved in their works. “Honestly, we both have been so busy with our respective works that it was almost the same. We always appreciated each other — lockdown or no lockdown,” she says.
But she accepts that for any relationship to stay healthy, that sacrosanct space remains a must. “Yes, space is super important. It keeps the integrity of any relationship alive, including that of a husband and wife. We have been fortunate to maintain that space even during lockdown.” Their busy work lives also ensured that, as a couple, they could focus on keeping pretty much the same schedule as pre-Covid days.
For those of us who have grown up in the Indian subcontinent — on a regular diet of Bollywood romances and family dramas — the idea of a marriage or a partnership pretty much implied being there for one another ‘always’ and all the time. Real life has a different wakeup call and one finds running around trees a rather tiring process after a few swirls. The idea of a cliched romance and that of a healthy relationship where one is willing to give the partner space usually clash in an adult world. For space also implies trust and respect that has to be inbuilt into the idea of being partners.
The importance of self-love
Sandeep Chopra, a lawyer who practises in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in Chandigarh (India), is happy that the lockdown provided a kind of second honeymoon for him and his wife. His wife is also a lawyer and he feels that all they ever did — pre-Covid — was talk about work. But lockdown was a great opportunity to discuss other stuff. “My wife actually cooked for me,” he grins.
But the one thing that remains a priority is this need for a healthy space between partners. As Sandeep explains, “Space is really important for a couple. For us to have that space, we have separate television sets, that ensure we watch our separate shows. All through the lockdown, we had to work from home, all courts were doing video conferences — so we now have our separate home offices too so that ensure we can be in our home office and read our separate books and files.”He adds that though, as a couple, they hardly share any common interests, and their marriage is probably an example of opposites attract.
In an increasingly fast-paced world, relationships also seem to come with a certain shelf life. Maybe we have also become impatient and tolerating or living with another person’s quirks is no longer a given.
It’s a bit like fast fashion. A few things are in for a season and the next season our preferences change just like we switch from skinny jeans to a baggy fit as Covid and serial lockdowns make us want to reach for a more relaxed outfit and approach to life.
Many relationships might have survived had the lockdown not forced us to stay closeted in the same place with the same person, day after day. It seems that two things have saved many a partnership: one, when both understand the need for a separate existence while living physically in the same house; and two, accepting that ‘me time’ doesn’t mean that one is being avoided. In short, self-love has become a must in our modern-day chores.
Separation within relationships
If one looks at data on to how people coped in relationships globally during Covid and lockdown times, the indicators are not very encouraging. According to a report in the BBC titled ‘Why the pandemic is causing spikes in break-ups and divorces’ by Maddy Savage, that appeared in December 2020, “Leading British law firm Stewarts logged a 122 per cent increase in [divorce] enquiries between July and October, compared with the same period last year. Charity [organisation] Citizens Advice reported a spike in searches for online advice on ending a relationship. In the US, a major legal contract-creation site recently announced a 34 per cent rise in sales of its basic divorce agreement, with newlyweds who’d got married in the previous five months making up 20 per cent of sales. There’s been a similar pattern in China, which had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns at the start of the pandemic. The same is true in Sweden, which, until recently, largely relied in voluntary guidelines to try and slow the spread of Covid-19.”
In more traditional societies like India, Pakistan and other parts of South Asia, the decision to divorce is harder because, at the end of the day, marriages remain very much a social commitment. Unlike the West, where they are considered pacts between two individuals, in more traditional societies marriage becomes more of a family, community pact. Maybe that also helps explain why when one sees an upward trend in divorce rates in the US, the UK, and Scandinavian countries, these trends are much less visible in Asian nations.
At the end of the day, Covid seems set to dominate our lives for the rest of this year too, if not 2022 as well. It is going to increasingly test our patience with our partners and, in the process, some of us will heave a sigh of relief and walk out. Some will set up boundaries, define ‘healthy spaces’ and demand their sacrosanct ‘me time’. That separation within the confines of a relationship brings solace to many of us. As Archana in the UK and Sandeep in India confess, it is that space where the partner can be kept out for a while, sets the tone for a healthy relationship.
For me, personally, it has been a mixture of both. Having a partner who is otherwise super busy at home is a delight — but days when I get to go out solo I feel are the high points. Maybe our modern-day relationships have evolved to a point where the ingredients of an ‘I, we and space’ are needed to make a wholesome pact. The Covid lockdowns have given all of us an uncomfortable closeness to some of our dearest relationships and while some have survived despite the new light on our dark sides, some of us have just thrown in the towel and moved on.
As the pandemic shows no sign of going away and different work-home equations take over our modern-day lives, maybe it is time to breathe a little easy and as Gibran said, “let the winds of heavens dance between you”.
(Simran Sodhi is a journalist and author based in New Delhi, India.)
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