A friend of mine, let’s call her Lily, cries easily – tears of joy and sadness – and, like me, is moved by acts of kindness. We are the ones weeping during Lord Of The Rings because the Hobbits are just such sweet friends; or applauding the teen helping an elderly lady with her bags (even if he shouts “freaks!” at us).
But I have something Lily doesn’t: a protective layer of cynicism. It makes me resistant to manufactured sweetness and made-up concepts (unlike Lily, who happily sends me slideshows of flowers overlaid with a fake inspirational quote: “get up offa that thing” – Gandhi). I don’t know how empaths like Lily function. It must be exhausting, feeling all the time.
Lily has been telling me to “develop a gratitude routine” to negate pandemic stress, where I write down what I am grateful for (family, friends). But whenever I start, my cynicism kicks in, pointing out that gratitude for family won’t stop you worrying for them.
But then Lily got creative. “My lists were looking samey,” she explained. “So now, I also include things I am grateful I don’t have, and that didn’t happen.” Such as, being grateful to not get hit by a bus, or that the washing machine hasn’t conked out.
It’s actually quite a fun exercise when you get going. “Lils, you must be grateful your virtual date wasn’t a giant lizard in a suit,” I suggest. “Or that Gandhi hasn’t sued you for misrepresentation.”
Gratitude is not that simple. Sometimes it takes work, patience – even imagination – and I am still finding a way to balance it with my inner cynic.
Grateful for laughter in adversity, I decide to start a new list. I write, “Top bants with top pals, as Gandhi would say.”
How has Covid affected our intimate lives? I’m not talking about sex – my family have suffered enough – but has the unrelenting closeness of this year opened or closed up faultlines in our relationships?
It’s complicated. I am, for instance, writing this on the sofa and not at my desk in the bedroom, because my husband is having a siesta with the dog. As an intolerant and prickly cohabitee, I have mixed feelings about this: it’s irritating (I want the desk), a relief (an hour of silence) and delightful (I love this newfound canine-human closeness).
The emotional barometer of intimate relationships fluctuates constantly, but my experience of corona cohabitation is a rapid, perpetual spin cycle of emotion: profound gratitude, irritation, guilt, euphoric love, then: “Why are you doing lunges next to my desk?”
This dovetails with Relate’s account of Covid “turbo-relationships”. Apparently, couples have ticked off milestones at warp speed this year, both as an expedient, given the constraints of quarantine and because global catastrophe has a clarifying effect on your emotions. Pandemic whirlwind romances were like the swift courtships and weddings of wartime, except that your new beloved did not disappear to the western front: they went no further than the sofa, where they cut their toenails over your unread New Yorker.
Even for established couples, 2020 is cohabitation on boost. A discussion on sex and the pandemic in Nature notes that “fewer opportunities for independent activities or time apart” can create a situation where “intimacy collapses into fusion”. My husband used to travel constantly. Now he sometimes rides his bike to Lidl. No wonder he got excited recently when he thought I was wearing a new woolly hat (I wasn’t: it was a trick of the light).
But even after 26 years, Covid life has thrown up surprises: we have been intrigued particularly to discover the disparities in our working styles. His weekdays are 95% speakerphone calls while pacing and 5% loudly teasing the dog. Mine are spent in sepulchral, ideally uninterrupted silence, wrapped in a blanket: like Whistler’s painting of his mother, but with a laptop. He has found out that I like from eight to 10 small meals daily, like a toddler, a fact I have concealed for years (he is French, and French people do not snack). I note with alarm his tendency to speak his mind bluntly in professional settings instead of nourishing bitter, never-expressed grievances and sending overly polite emails, as is the British way. We must never be colleagues.
Worse than anything I have discovered about him have been the revelations about myself. I am horrified to find out that I am someone who hides food they fancy and who turns recycling into an exquisitely pointed act of passive aggression. I had no idea how viscerally I loathe repetitive movement and most domestic noises: this year I’m Daniel Day-Lewis in that terrible sewing film The Phantom Thread, violently pained by the normal soundtrack of life.
It’s miraculous my partner puts up with me, but he does. We all do, mainly. Despite the provocations, most relationships have weathered, or even thrived in, the corona spin cycle. In a survey, the Open University found that 26% of respondents thought their relationship had improved since Covid; fewer than one in 10 thought it had worsened. With some awful exceptions (the domestic violence figures are absolutely chilling), 2020 has mainly been a time of domestic forbearance and forgiveness, of realising how lucky we are to love and be loved.
Let me, however, share one freshly gleaned piece of pandemic relationship advice: this is no time to do an exfoliating foot peel. I did one recently: you put your feet in plastic bags full of alarming chemicals and your gross dead skin peels off to reveal baby-fresh extremities. Unable to deal with this depravity alone as God intended, this week – and I apologise if you are of a sensitive disposition – my hapless attempts to deal with the skin situation meant my poor husband accidentally picked up a plate full of my foot sloughings. He has endured so much already; let’s pray he can get back to the office before I find something even worse to subject him to.
When Emma Naks graduated in 2013, her love of reading led her to take an internship at the book department of a London auction house. “I was living with my parents in Buckinghamshire and took the Metropolitan line into work every day,” she says.
In September that year, she was spotted by Richard Showan, who lived in Chorleywood and worked as a lawyer in the West End. Although Emma had her nose in a book, he couldn’t miss her red lipstick. “She had all these feathers in her hair and looked very distinctive. I really wanted to talk to her, but I was too shy.” After a few days of seeing her every day on the tube, they caught each other’s eye and smiled. Emma was keeping a diary at the time and nicknamed him “awkward train guy”. “One day my sister caught the train with me and asked if ‘train guy’ was around. He was wearing a bad jumper, so I lied and said no, because I didn’t want her to judge,” she remembers.
By the end of October, Richard was finally ready to approach her. “I went over to the spare seat next to her. I think my first words were: ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ and I just stood there awkwardly.” Emma asked if he wanted to sit down and they chatted throughout the journey. “I think I managed to tell her I’d been bitten by a duck once,” he laughs. Although he told Emma he was a lawyer, she didn’t believe him. “He was always dressed in jeans and baggy jumpers. I thought he was a van driver,” she says.
They chatted again over the next few days, before eventually exchanging numbers and agreeing to meet for a coffee. “Neither of us were looking for anything at the time,” says Emma. “I thought it was a friendship at first. But I did think he was handsome and easy to talk to.” They met at a Costa near Emma’s home and ended up chatting for hours. “We met in the morning and were still there by dinner time,” she says.
By November, the pair were officially a couple. “The day before Christmas Eve, I told him I loved him and he said it back on Boxing Day,” says Emma. The following autumn, they bought a house together in Amersham and Emma gained her qualifications to start a career as a town planner. On New Year’s Eve 2014, Richard asked her to marry him. “It wasn’t quite the proposal you’d expect,” says Richard. “I was working during the day and Emma came to meet me for lunch with a picnic. I’d had a ring made already, so I just got down on one knee outside my office and then went back to work. My boss sent me home to celebrate.”
They married at Mayfair library in February 2017 and had a reception at the Landmark hotel, where they had shared afternoon tea on one of their early dates. That year, they moved to Aylesbury, where they still live. The couple share a passion for travel; they love going to off-the-beaten-track destinations. “We’ve visited Ghana, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Russia, Mongolia and we went on the Trans-Siberian railway for our honeymoon. We also go to Cornwall every year. I introduced Emma to surfing on the south coast,” says Richard.
Emma loves her partner’s thoughtfulness and the fact that he is confident about who he is. “He’s never afraid to say no and go his own way. He’s taught me to be more confident and introduced me to new music, food and experiences.” Although most people think Richard is “quiet and nice”, she says there is much more to him than meets the eye. “He’s spontaneous and funny. There’s so many layers to him.”
Meanwhile, Richard says his wife’s spark can light up a room. “She’s so generous with her time and always fun to be around.” He has also enjoyed getting to know her family, who are originally from Poland. “It’s meant I have been able to explore another culture and try new foods. I’ve eaten lots of beetroot soup,” he laughs.