Post-lockdown get-togethers with friends initially felt like a class reunion. After my husband and I had covered all the bases (where were you? Who with? etc), came the inevitable tales of woe. At least three of our friends are divorcing.
However, I was particularly struck by how many couples – either through fear of Covid-19 or getting on each other’s nerves – had chosen to sleep in separate bedrooms. My most glamorous couple friends, used to jumping on planes and socialising every night, had the testiest time, along with the marriages where the control-freak City husband found himself at home trying to micromanage the wife and children.
I asked a lot friends what they did, maritally speaking, to survive. One particularly happy one said, "When I felt really angry with my husband and could feel a row coming, I went upstairs and continued my 1,000-piece puzzle. It put me in the flow and calmed me down."
I am extremely grateful for belonging to a self-help book club because every single book we have ever read has recently come in handy. Other techniques, taken from executive coaching to dog training manuals, have also proved useful.
"I think all marriages need a software upgrade after lockdown," says Jo Harrison, a couples counsellor. "Things need to be spelt out a lot better, even over small things such as when you’re making a cup of tea."
When lockdown first happened, I found myself alone in the country with a stressed-out husband of 32 years who manages a financial firm. Used to seeing him out the door by 8am, I was now aware that there was nowhere to run to diffuse tension. A fight could potentially go on for weeks, so best to have a plan.
My sore spot was the housework (our cleaner stayed away for four months). The feminist in me thought, "who’s going to do it?"; the journalist, however, remembered interviewing the American psychologist John Gottman, founder of the famous Love Lab in Seattle. Call it a throwback to the Fifties, but his advice then (and even more now) was ‘kindness’. "Research shows that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage," Gottman said, enabling each partner to feel loved.
My act of kindness, initially, was to embrace housework as though it were my full-time job. I could write articles in between mopping and ironing (I only iron square things); he couldn’t, because he had to be on Zoom from 7am-7pm.
I donned the Marigolds all day and literally vacuumed behind him. This had two benefits: 1. Serotonin and endorphins flow when you do housework because you are "achieving and completing tasks"; 2. My husband was so blindsided by this unusual behaviour that he purred in gratitude (and took over the evening cooking. Note: my husband is more domesticated than I am).
Gottman also believes in what he calls the ‘Yes, dear phenomenon’. "The marriages that work well all have one thing in common – the husband was willing to give in to the wife," he said. "The autocrats who failed to listen to their wives; complaints, greeting them with stonewalling, contempt and belligerence, were doomed from the beginning."
I pre-empted any criticism about not doing my share of housework by doing it all. Animal behaviourists have found that if you want a sea lion to balance a ball (or me to unload the dishwasher), you can’t keep telling him he’s rubbish at it. You have to do what is called ‘approximation’ – applauding small things while ignoring behaviours you don’t like. Much as we all think criticism will seep in eventually, it does the opposite.
The only way to encourage positive behaviour is through praise. Men, like dogs, never tire of compliments (while women tend to think, "he’s using a technique on me").
Another way to avoid a fight is to say "you’re right!" – Mike Liebling, author of How People Tick, says it unarms the fight picker. When my husband says "you’re right!" or "sure! You can book a long holiday when Covid is over", I lose interest. All I really wanted was a fight (tension release).
Many things came up during lockdown that stressed us both out. My usual inability to zip it saw me mouthing off about an expensive new plumbing problem in the middle of breakfast, which resulted in a day-long fight. One day I suggested a ‘staff meeting’. I consulted his diary and we scheduled a ‘working’ lunch (both armed with a notebook).
We discussed itemised issues, including whose job description included walking the dog. We decided it was good for ‘staff morale’ and made it part of our daily routine.
Another team builder was Netflix. We treated it like going to the theatre. One of my happiest married friends says she never, ever watches anything alone. We went to Israel (Fauda) and France (Call My Agent!). Now we’re in Syria (Le Bureau). Lockdown makes you extremely dull and repetitive so discuss plot twists instead of politics, which makes everyone cross.
I have a temper; my English husband favours calm at all times. During lockdown these differences became very pronounced. Fighting is OK, says Gottman, as long as you bridge-build in the middle. This means you can fight and throw things around as per usual, but while breaking dishes you might say something like ‘let’s agree to disagree’, or ‘let’s do this later’. Grudges are part of ‘contempt’, the killer of love.
Marital therapists love to go on about open communication but I disagree: a French friend who has been married 35 years to an extremely difficult man suggests keeping things to yourself. If my husband sees Amazon deliveries piling up, he gets stressed. If he doesn’t see them, he doesn’t. Many successful marriages are successful because there is mystery (French women never do their make-up or ablute in front of their husbands). Harrison calls this ‘bespoke’ communication. "Only you should know how best to communicate and when," she says.
Finally, there is humour – essential to marriage, but only if both are in on the joke. My husband knows full well that if he criticises the fact that there are dishes left over from the night before he’ll get it in the neck. Fairly early in lockdown he said, "where’s ‘boy’? Why hasn’t he cleaned up?" Boy also failed to fold the clothes piled up on my chair in the bedroom or clear the floor after the dog dragged mud all over it. Boy has no known nationality or language (which explains why he forgets to do what he’s asked).
Our game has become so real that several of our friends think we keep a slave in the basement. Those who get it have a ‘boy’ themselves now. The charm of creating an imaginary figure (this is actually an anger management technique) is that it’s not personal. It’s not ‘you’re so lazy,’ it’s ‘boy is useless.’
Domestic harmony often boils down to small things: complaining about an open tube of toothpaste takes more energy than just closing it. Bringing someone a cup of coffee in bed (as my angelic husband often does) requires little effort – but the halo effect lasts all day.
The Daily Telegraph