Too much quantity with not enough quality was causing problems
My husband James and I have been together for close to 30 years, most of them as a married couple. We’ve had the usual ups and downs of any long-term cohabitation, but dealing with the coronavirus as well other stressers in our lives nearly did our marriage in. Fortunately, it also gave us a chance to change up the way that we’d been going about things, and that made all the difference. It means that we’ll have at least one good outcome after all of this finally over with and hopefully many more happy years together.
COVID and the partial quarantine that’s come with it have been tough on a lot of people. Worse yet, there is no end in sight and in some places, stricter restrictions are going into place again to deal with skyrocketing infection rates. On top of sheltering at home with my husband and son, in March I brought my dying mother to our house from her place a thousand miles away so that she could spend her final days with us. Hospice thought that Mom had about 3 months to live, but not being so isolated and having better nutrition at our house meant that she actually lasted until early September.
I’m so glad that we got to have that time together but it was also incredibly stressful and exhausting. On top of the physical and emotional labor of caring for someone who needed assistance with every aspect of her life, I’m an introvert, and I was no longer getting enough time alone to recharge. If I wasn’t keeping an eye out, Mom would try to do things by herself that she really no longer had the ability to do safely, and so I was always on a kind of high alert for hours at a time every day. Only when she was napping did I get a bit of a break, but there were so many other things related to the rest of my life that needed to be caught up on during those times of respite that I typically didn’t use them to rest or otherwise take care of myself.
James was a huge help with Mom, and we did sometimes take turns with various apsects of her care, but ultimately, she was my mother and the primary responsibility for her was mine. Plus, she needed me to help her in the bathroom and to get her dressed and undressed each day, and that wasn’t something James could easily take over. James was also doing all the cooking, grocery shopping, and clean up for three meals a day, so he already had his hands pretty full as well.
We did eventually get a home health aid to come in a couple of days a week to give me more of a break, but even then, I couldn’t really go too far because Mom still relied heavily on me. Although I did begin to create better boundaries with her, I knew that I wasn’t going to have her all that much longer, and so most of the time I made myself available to her when she needed me. I wanted to be with her, but I was also getting severely depleted and James was pretty tapped out as well. Our patience with each other was thin, and there were times where I wanted nothing more than to be away from everybody and to reclaim something of myself.
I started to dream about moving into my own place once my mother passed — particularly after we’d just had a stress-induced argument. Someplace where I wouldn’t have the constant demands of other people and where I could do things the way I saw fit without having to negotiate that with anyone else. James and I tried to do a few lunch dates here and there just to have some time together as a couple, but with so many COVID restrictions, it wasn’t always easy and it was just a drop in the bucket of what we really needed to improve our relationship.
Once the weather got too hot for outdoor dining, we gave up even trying. The last date that we’d had, we still had an hour left before we had to be back, but there was nowhere to go and nothing to do. We ended up sitting in the car with the air-conditioner on, just talking about how badly we were getting along. With so much stress and few opportunities to replenish our inner resources, old resentments were coming to the surface, and new ones were being formed.
James and I were spending too much time together, under extremely difficult circumstances, and not having enough quality time, but there seemed little possibility of rectifying it. Although I didn’t want my mom to die, I began to wish that she would just go ahead and pass on because I knew it was inevitable anyhow and I didn’t know how much longer I could last.
Mom died peacefully in her sleep not long afterward but that, of course, brought a whole new set of issues. I’m the last of a very small family, and all arrangements, and administrative details fell to me to handle. Once again, James was a big help, but we were still spending a lot of our time together focused on things that weren’t terribly uplifting. I was grieving, and trying to get things settled, and we were still getting on each other’s nerves.
We’d sit near each other for hours at a time, not really interacting much, except to knock out a few chores, and then get up the next day and do it all over again. Our normally fun and satisfying sex life had hit the skids when Mom moved in, and it still hadn’t truly recovered. Although many things were not nearly as stressful now that we didn’t have to worry about Mom’s care, things were still not great between us.
Eventually, I started to get my feet back under me a little bit and I started to focus more on what I wanted and needed for myself. I’d began going to biofeedback sessions while Mom was still alive, learning how to better manage my stress, but our area had otherwise opened up some more at that point and I was able to add in a few other things for myself as well.
I found a new doctor and started working on some health issues that had gone on the back burner when Mom was here. I also found a person to cut my hair who had her own individual workspace with a door. I started doing some of the grocery shopping again, just to have an excuse to be out and about more often. It began slowly, but I started taking bigger and bigger chunks of time to do what I wanted or needed to do, rather than primarily plugging in to the family needs.
I’d go walking or swimming, or perhaps take a long nap. If friends wanted to have a long phone conversation, I wouldn’t worry about what time that might be taking away from James. He’s an extrovert, and would be happy just to always be together, but I was relishing our time apart. We have a lot of history from our early days of marriage and having a child of me subsuming my need for time alone in order to accomodate his desire to be together. But fortunately, in the last year or so James has finally started to understand that it’s just something that recharges me, and it has nothing to do with him. He’s started to question the stories he grew up with about how a family should look and feel.
James began encouraging me to take more time to do what I wanted to do, both inside and outside the house and although I still felt a tiny bit guilty about it, I knew how much I needed that in order to recalibrate, particularly after such a tough 6 months. There were days when I’d spend hours at a time just pursuing my own self-made schedule, and he would in turn, do his own thing. We began fighting less, and enjoying each other more when we were together — not just sitting in the same room, but actually doing things as a couple.
We still couldn’t really go out much, but we could prepare meals together or talk about something one of us had read. Our son’s care-giver kept him over night one Thursday and James and I watched a movie we’d been wanting to see. Then we turned off the TV early in the evening in favor of hanging out together in the bedroom. We were still too fried for the kind of really passionate sex that we used to have often, but it was still nice to just lay naked in each other’s arms and connect without worrying about being interrupted.
I started to realize that spending less time together was actually improving our marriage. When we were together, it was a more special event, and so we really focused on and enjoyed each other. Cultural narratives about relationships and marriage, in particular, are heavily weighted towards what is essentially co-dependency. From the “you complete me” of Hollywood rom-coms to the “two become one” dogma of Christian marriage ceremonies, we’d been brought up to believe that we should focus most of our time and energy on each other.
When James and I opened up our relationship about 5 years ago and become polyamorous, we started down this path of looking at ourselves more as interdependent individuals, rather than as completely entwined, but it took going through the past several months together to take it to the next level. I no longer dream about moving out and having a space of my own because I’m making more of that space right here in my already existent life.
Although my family is hugely important to me, I’m spending more time prioritizing myself. And although James and I still enjoy spending time together and doing things as a couple, it means a lot more to us both now that we aren’t expecting the other person to always do what we want to do. I don’t expect him to go to bed with me just because I’m tired, and I love getting up in the morning and having some time alone in a quiet house before he gets up too.
I no longer resent that he spends as much time as he does playing Marvel Strike Force, and I’ve just kind of let go of a lot of the other expectations I had that were hold-overs from somebody else’s ideas about what marriage is supposed to be like. Conventional wisdom is that you’ll grow apart if you don’t do things like go to bed at the same time, but we’re finding that the opposite is true.
Making space for the other person to really be who they are and to live their life as they see fit, has brought us closer together, just as adding other loves and lovers into our lives has also brought us closer. It goes against conventional wisdom, but if it works for us, what’s to complain about? I no longer feel trapped together in this house, even though colder weather will soon mean that there is less opportunity to be away from each other. And we’re getting along better than ever.
For a while there, I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it, even after all these years of navigating other hardships. The stress of quarantining with my dying mother sometimes brought out the worst in us, but it also gave us a chance to really re-evaluated and improve our relationship and that ultimately was a good thing. James’ brother and his wife weren’t so lucky, but their impending divorce was another one of those wake-up calls to find a way for James and I to find a better way forward together.
I’ve been saying this for years, but now I truly believe it in a whole new way. It’s not the other person’s job to bring you happiness and relying on them for that can only lead to disappointment. Of course, part of the point of any relationship is to care for and support each other, but there’s a difference between doing that and looking to the other person to create your life for you — even if you are a married couple.
James and I share a home, and a son. We still have a lot of overlap in our day, and in our lives, but to a very large extent, he’s living his life, and I’m living mine, and from the satisfaction that breeds, we have a stable place to create the part of our lives that is conjoined. We’ve been pretty happy with each other for a long time, but there were still some old places of contention that had kind of been papered over.
The hardships of the last several months ripped the paper off of those cracks, but that also allowed us to actually repair those cracks and not just hide them. We found a way that is positive, loving, and giving — not just to each other but to ourselves as well. I’m still learning to not feel guilty about making my needs a priority, but the more that I do it, the more peaceful I feel. And the more I let go of the expectation that James is supposed to mold himself to my way of life, just as I am supposed to simultaneously mold myself to his, the better actual collaboration we find.
It’s taken a long time to discover this, and to figure out how it actually works, but I have to say that I’m glad to have done so. It’s opened up a whole new world that feels very promising to me, and helped me to understand things that I have long believed in a whole new way. Like most major growth, it wasn’t without pain, but in the end, I do believe that it was worth it, and I love my husband and our life together even more than ever. Too much low quality time together with not enough high quality time created a lot of problems. The combination of greater independence plus more high quality connection was the solution.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2020
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.