On a recent night, something unusual happened…
My friend Aimee was over for dinner. My husband, daughter and I are in a tiny quarantine pod with her family, so once a week we set up the kids at the counter with hot dogs and baby carrots, and the adults sit around the table, like civilized people, pretending we are anywhere other than home: dinner, salad, wine. Placemats. Cloth napkins. It has, momentarily, the air of normalcy.
It started benignly enough: Aimee asked my husband something about work. Shameful as it sounds, my immediate instinct was to throw a tantrum — she’s really MY friend and I get so little time with her and I know all about your work! Can we please talk about anything else?! But once my husband started talking, I felt something unusual stir inside me, the thing I didn’t even know I’d been missing for almost a year: the thrill of seeing my partner through someone else’s eyes.
Much has been written about how hard this pandemic is on marriage — the forced togetherness; the unnatural weight of becoming the only other adult in the person’s orbit; and for many of us, the lonely slog of parenting without in-person school or assistance. For months I’ve thought about how much it would help me to see my girlfriends, to leave the apartment, to have a normal eight hours apart from my spouse. “Go to your office!” I often want to scream. (He can’t.)
But what I’d completely forgotten about in this year of isolation is the joy of being with your spouse and other people. It didn’t occur to me that some of the difficulty simply had to do with seeing your partner, day after day, month after month, through your same old, worn out eyes with absolutely no one else around to help you see them any differently.
Gone are the furtive glances across a party, when he’d wink at me the way I like while pouring himself a glass of red. Gone are the raucous dinners where he’d sit on the other side of the table, absorbed in conversation with someone (anyone!) else; when I’d catch a glimpse of his jawline from just the right angle, or be reminded how intently he listens to others, or how taken my friends are with him. Gone are the days of seeing one’s spouse in their element — at work, in a social setting, even simply dressed and put together, ready to leave the house. Those moments that, for many of us, gave rise to the heat, the lust, the interest, the curiosity in the first place. Those moments that made you want more.
It’s entirely possible that if Aimee hadn’t been there for dinner, if my husband had told me this particular story about his work over our usual rushed pasta (at the counter, a seven-year-old between us yelling for our attention), I would have half-listened or even cut it short. When it comes to work, we seem to have the same conversation over and over again. “How was teaching?” We ask each other. “Fine.” We have a joke that when I ask him how work is going, he can only say, “Can’t complain,” not because all is going well, but because I literally cannot hear one more complaint out of his mouth.
But here our friend was curious about the ins and outs of his job, which led to him recounting tales of living in China during the SARS outbreak; of deferring graduate school because of a clerical error; of the affection he feels for his hard-working graduate students — and something happened to me. I got that little, old rush I hadn’t felt in ages.
Here was my love, his outward face, on display again. Not the guy who forgets to throw out the garbage or make the bed or who plays the piano when I want him to be playing Legos with our kid. Here was the smart, kind, considered, polite, adventurous man I’d married. Here was, to put it simply, the person I’d fallen in love with. I so often, in these trying times, forget that guy.
We get married because we want to go beyond furtive glances at parties, drunken conversations over well-lit dinners, one-night stands where not much is revealed but a great time is had by all. We want the real stuff of intimacy — to be able to say to our partners eight times a week, “Do you think I have COVID?” and have them not divorce us.
But for intimacy to flourish, we also need not look at each other head-on for an endless series of terrifying months, our public personas sliced off completely, life reduced to survival and domesticity. For months I’d thought the solution might be for someone to leave for a while. I’d fantasize about driving off, or about him driving off for long periods of time. I dream about being alone in a cabin, no one asking me what’s for dinner or whether the credit card bill has been paid.
But maybe the solution is actually even more impossible right now: It is simply to bring others back into our orbits again. We need friends who force us to pull ourselves together, to get out of our literal and metaphorical pajamas. We need to see friends unmasked, up close, over dinner, over wine, over long, winding conversations not just because we love them, but for what they do for us. They provide this canvas, this stage. They allow us to breathe new life into our old relationships. They can help us remember why, of all people, we chose to marry each other at all.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies.
P.S. Eight things I’ve learned about marriage, and the secret to a happy marriage.
(Photo by Javier Díez/Stocksy.)