Best Health

CANA­DIAN WOMEN SHARE WHAT THE PRES­SURES OF A GLOBAL PAN­DEMIC, AND ALL THIS TO­GETH­ER­NESS, HAVE RE­VEALED ABOUT THEIR RE­LA­TION­SHIPS.

LOVE LOCK­DOWN

- By LEAH RU­MACK il­lus­tra­tions by GRA­CIA LAM

do­ing it again. The MY HUS­BAND IS breath­ing. Was it al­ways this loud? Was it al­ways this…wet?!

I glare at him over my lap­top, which is fight­ing for space with his at our tiny kitchen ta­ble.

“Ev­ery­thing okay, honey?” he asks.

“ARGH!” our nine-year-old son shouts, slam­ming down his iPad, the site of his “dis­tance learn­ing.” “This is stupid! This is wast­ing my time!”

It’s ap­prox­i­mately day 3,298 of the COVID-19 lock­down — or, as some peo­ple like to call it, late April 2020. Like mil­lions of peo­ple around the world, our fam­ily of three has been locked up to­gether in our small house

for over six weeks, hid­ing from a mys­te­ri­ous virus that’s leav­ing a trail of death and a shat­tered econ­omy in its wake, all with no dis­cernible end in sight. The nov­elty of board games and Zoom par­ties has long worn off, my in­come as a free­lance writer has slowed to a trickle, and guess what? I don’t know how to teach an an­gry, lonely kid grade three math. I can’t even do grade three math. Ten­sions, need­less to say, are high.

My text alert pings.

“Have you started the re­search for your ar­ti­cle about the in­evitable in­crease in di­vorce rates yet?” my friend asks.

I text back one word.

“YUP.” as I’m writ­ing IT’S EARLY SEPTEM­BER this, and Toronto, where I live, has been in “Stage 3” for a few weeks — a some­what nor­mal level of day-to-day ac­tiv­ity, with a lot more face masks. My mar­riage emerged from Stages 1 and 2 largely un­scathed, petty ir­ri­ta­tions like breath­ing moistly long for­got­ten. But there was def­i­nitely a rise in ag­gra­vated snip­ing and frus­tra­tionin­duced dish­washer slam­ming, and I know we’re not the only ones. Cana­dian fam­ily lawyers are re­port­ing a larger-than-usual inf lux of new clients; it’s pos­si­ble we’ll see the same pat­tern as Wuhan, China, where di­vorce rates sky­rock­eted post-lock­down. And in­stead of the baby boom ev­ery­one joked about when iso­la­tion be­gan, re­search pre­dicts a lin­ger­ing pan­demic-in­duced baby bust in the U.S., and pos­si­bly Canada as well — ei­ther be­cause no­body is hav­ing sex any­more or be­cause women are putting off, or com­pletely avoid­ing, hav­ing chil­dren in this shaky econ­omy.

For many co­hab­i­tat­ing cou­ples, es­pe­cially ones with kids, lock­down was like a bucket filled with gaso­line that was set on fire by a laser, ex­pos­ing not only the fault lines in in­di­vid­ual re­la­tion­ships but the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of mod­ern re­la­tion­ships as a whole. “It’s like five years of reg­u­lar mar­riage crammed into four months of pan­demic mar­riage,” says Ada Cal­houn, the author of Why We Can’t Sleep, a book about the frus­tra­tions of Gen X women. “It’s like dog years.”

“You can be mar­ried to al­most any­body if you only see them for a cou­ple of hours a day,” says An­drew Sofin, a cou­ples coun­sel­lor and the pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian As­so­ci­a­tion of Mar­riage and Fam­ily Ther­apy. “But now peo­ple are forced to be to­gether.”

So while none of us could have pre­dicted that the re­siliency of our ro­man­tic part­ner­ships would be judged by how they weather a seis­mic global melt­down the likes of which we haven’t seen in gen­er­a­tions, here we are. Even if a vac­cine is mag­i­cally

devel­oped to­mor­row, the fis­sures that have ap­peared in cou­ples’ lives will likely haunt them long af­ter the “Thanks for so­cial dis­tanc­ing!” signs are taken down. Ex­clud­ing the far more com­pli­cated rise in do­mes­tic as­sault since the pan­demic be­gan, and the night­mar­ish sce­nario that faced cou­ples who were al­ready sep­a­rat­ing and sud­denly had to iso­late to­gether, most co­hab­i­tat­ing spouses in the world have now lived through some ver­sion of a COVID-19 lock­down cri­sis and will be nav­i­gat­ing a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent world, one that in­cludes more work­ing from home, a smaller so­cial cir­cle, fewer recre­ational out­lets, more home-school­ing and a strug­gling econ­omy.

“If we want to look at the chal­lenges of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, of sex­u­al­ity, of de­sire, of conf lict in re­la­tion­ships, this is such a petri dish mo­ment,” Es­ther Perel, the fa­mous psy­chother­a­pist, pod­cast host and author of Mat­ing in Cap­tiv­ity, told the New Yorker in the spring. “When peo­ple live in acute stress, ei­ther the cracks in their re­la­tion­ship will be am­pli­fied or the light that shines through the cracks will be am­pli­fied.”

So where are the big­gest cracks? And how can we find the light? fes­ter­ing di­vide to ONE BIG, OOZ­ING, emerge from COVID-19 so far is a su­per-con­cen­trated deadly-virus ver­sion of an equal­ity prob­lem women have been point­ing out for years: The. F--king. Chores.

For women, es­pe­cially ones in het­ero­sex­ual re­la­tion­ships with kids, the breath­tak­ing speed at which more, most or all of the pan­demic house­hold du­ties and child mind­ing, school­ing and sooth­ing fell onto their plates was shock­ing. Some pun­dits are even call­ing the COVID-19 re­ces­sion a “she­ces­sion” due to the num­ber of moth­ers who ei­ther left jobs or cut back on what work they did have to care for chil­dren when schools and day­cares shut down. While to­day’s dads do more do­mes­tic work and child care than their fa­thers did, stud­ies have shown women still do up to 70 per­cent more un­paid labour even when both part­ners have full-time jobs and even if the woman makes more money. Many dads would vig­or­ously dis­pute this fig­ure — they think they do as much or more than their fe­male part­ners. (A May sur­vey in the New York Times found that 45 per­cent of dads thought they were do­ing most of the COVID-19 home-school­ing, but only three per­cent of their fe­male part­ners agreed.) While it’s hard to say who’s right (is it, though?), years of re­search us­ing time diaries con­sis­tently show that men over­es­ti­mate the hours they spend on house­hold du­ties and child care, never mind all that in­vis­i­ble “emo­tional labour” — the men­tal load of keep­ing a home hum­ming, the larder stocked, the birthday par­ties planned, the hockey sign-up day re­mem­bered and the pan­demic face masks pur­chased. COVID19 turned this al­ready grat­ing di­vide into a white-hot slash of fe­male rage.

“When I in­ter­viewed women for my book, they were all barely hang­ing on, and this was two years ago,” says Cal­houn. “They felt like there was al­ready too much, and sud­denly there’s a pan­demic and their kids are home with them to be home­schooled — it’s just one thing af­ter an­other. It’s al­most com­i­cal.”

When COVID-19 hit, 48-year-old Natalie’s* ad­min­is­tra­tor ca­reer kept chug­ging along, but her hus­band’s work shut­tered. For the first time in their nine-year re­la­tion­ship, he drove the fam­ily bus. But all that did was make painfully clear just how much — too much! — she’d been silently do­ing for years. “I can­not tell you how easy it was to just work,” she says. “My life was mag­i­cal. I didn’t do a dish, I didn’t know how much toi­let pa­per was in the house, I didn’t know if the dog needed more med­i­ca­tion, I didn’t re­search a camp, I didn’t gro­cery shop.… I don’t know how I did it all be­fore.” But a few weeks ago, her part­ner went back to work.

“And guess what’s hap­pen­ing? It’s all slid­ing back onto my plate, and I’ve be­come en­raged. Now I’m so over­whelmed, I’m sob­bing ev­ery night.” also sob­bing ev­ery SI­MONE,* , WAS night dur­ing lock­down. She told her part­ner of 25 years she was up­set be­cause she’d been fur­loughed. The truth was, when the world stopped, she fi­nally had time to think about what she re­ally wanted in her mar­riage.

“Sud­denly, when your life is to­tally put on hold, it’s there in front of you and you kind of have to face it,” she says. “For so long I would just hope our prob­lems would blow over. Things would hit a boil­ing point, and we’d fight. I’d tell him, ‘Stop be­ing self­ish, stop be­ing so needy, stop talk­ing to me about how you’re lonely. We have kids to raise!’ I’d cry, we’d have sex and then we could pre­tend ev­ery­thing was okay. I was fine with that, but be­ing in lock­down turned me into this ex­posed nerve, and now I’m at a to­tally dif­fer­ent place, where I’m like, no, it’s not fine — we can’t just keep go­ing through this cy­cle.”

Cal­houn isn’t sur­prised by this pan­demic-in­duced mo­ment of re­la­tion­ship reck­on­ing. “Every­body was work­ing so hard and do­ing so much that you could float by for years with­out even re­ally hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with the per­son you’re with. If there are prob­lems, you don’t nec­es­sar­ily ad­dress them be­cause you’re too busy and you don’t spend quality time to­gether that would give you

NOW THAT PEO­PLE HAVE HAD MORE TIME WITH EACH OTHER, IT'S PROMPTED THEM TO GO, 'OKAY, WHAT ARE WE DO­ING? WHERE ARE WE AT?'

that space.” Sofin agrees. “Now that peo­ple have had more time with each other, it’s prompted them to go, ‘Okay, what are we do­ing? How are our kids? Where are we at?’ ”

In Si­mone’s house, the lack of out­ward dis­trac­tion dur­ing the pan­demic fi­nally forced an hon­est con­ver­sa­tion with her hus­band about whether they should stay to­gether. Their answer, for the mo­ment, is still TBD, but Si­mone thinks COVID-19 kick-started a de­ci­sion-mak­ing process that was long over­due. def­i­nitely such OF COURSE, THERE’S a thing as hav­ing too much time to­gether. The big­gest joke about post-lock­down di­vorce, es­pe­cially for cou­ples now work­ing from home, is al­ways some ver­sion of the uni­ver­sal death by a mil­lion cuts — the sheer cabin-fever-in­duced ag­gra­va­tion of be­ing stuck with the same per­son, and no one else, for months. Ir­ri­tat­ing habits be­come nu­clear-lev­el­wor­thy sub­jects of dis­cus­sion — fart again, I DARE YOU — and, es­pe­cially if you live in tight quar­ters, you never have a hot minute to your­self. Even the hap­pi­est of cou­ples get on each other’s nerves some­times, and if you never have a break? Let’s just say if ab­sence makes the heart grow fonder, forced con­stant to­geth­er­ness makes the heart want to throw that stupid Fort­nite con­troller and the man who has been hold­ing it for eight straight hours off a bridge (just a ran­dom ex­am­ple!).

The only so­lu­tion is learn­ing to ig­nore each other. But what hap­pens when cou­ples learn to ig­nore each other a lit­tle too well? What if they never stop?

“There’s a healthy way of ig­nor­ing each other — I’m in my work zone and you’re in your work zone, and then we’ll come back,” says Sofin. “But it can also be un­healthy if you don’t learn to leave the work. This is why it’s im­por­tant to do some­thing to­gether to sep­a­rate work time from leisure time, like go­ing for a walk. If you don’t, the other per­son will feel com­pletely ig­nored.”

That’s not a feel­ing lonely spouses are likely to for­get, and as work­ing from home be­comes the norm for many, it’s a re­la­tion­ship haz­ard that may never go away. “We’ve def­i­nitely learned to ig­nore each other to get our work done,” says 43-year-old Claire.* “At the end of the day, we’re so tired and Zoomed out, we need space to our­selves. So we con­tinue to ig­nore each other. I know it’s lead­ing to a bad place, and I have no idea what to do about it.” time to­gether SPEND­ING TOO MUCH isn’t the only prob­lem COVID-19 has wrought on ro­mance. It’s also the lack of spend­ing time — or enough time — with any­body else.

One of the main points in Perel’s best­seller Mat­ing in Cap­tiv­ity is that in mod­ern so­ci­ety, peo­ple ex­pect their ro­man­tic part­ner to ful­fill all of the so­cial and emo­tional needs that his­tor­i­cally were pro­vided by an en­tire com­mu­nity, a lit­mus test al­most ev­ery spouse is des­tined to fail. If this is what you be­lieve, even sub­con­sciously, and your whole world dis­ap­pears in an in­stant — Good­bye, co-work­ers! See you in 2021, friends! Maybe never, im­mune-com­pro­mised ag­ing par­ents! — that pres­sure on your ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship be­comes even more un­re­al­is­tic and the dis­ap­point­ment when your part­ner in­evitably fails that much more cor­ro­sive.

Never mind that it’s hard to feel in­ter­est­ing or in­ter­ested when life has, for the most part, be­come so bor­ing. There’s not a lot to talk about when you’ve been see­ing no one and go­ing nowhere. As Holly*, 49, puts it, you can’t even ask “How was work?” be­cause, well, you al­ready watched that movie all day. (Spoiler alert: He had a con­fer­ence call. Also, ate some tuna.)

As for sex, well…the elec­tri­fy­ing combo of bore­dom and the loom­ing spec­tre of a pos­si­ble un­timely death mixed with grief about the end of the world as we know it isn’t ex­actly an aphro­disiac. When Holly is asked if the stress of COVID-19 has put a damper on her re­la­tion­ship, she laughs. “A damper? Try ‘wrapped it in duct tape and buried it in the gar­den.’ We don’t have date nights. We don’t even sit in the back­yard with a glass of wine. I need some ro­mance, and the sit­u­a­tion isn’t con­ducive to that.” fight, and STRESS MAKES COU­PLES one of the big­gest life stres­sors is fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity. Thanks to the blud­geoned econ­omy, life is start­ing to feel like one long fi­nan­cial stress test for more and more house­holds, with mil­lions of Cana­di­ans los­ing their jobs, col­lect­ing CERB, putting holds on their mort­gages or clos­ing their small busi­nesses — and those are the lucky ones who aren’t scram­bling to af­ford the very ba­sics. As Sofin points out, a cou­ple’s in­come prior to the pan­demic and the type of work they do will be an in­di­ca­tor of how well they’re po­si­tioned to get through it. “Some cou­ples have done re­ally well, even bet­ter than pre-pan­demic, in some cases. But if you both work in re­tail, where you’re be­ing ex­posed ev­ery day, and you’re liv­ing in a small place like an apart­ment, your level of stress and anx­i­ety is go­ing through the roof,” he says. “There’s go­ing to be a huge so­cioe­co­nomic di­vide about how COVID19 im­pacts cou­ples and fam­i­lies.”

While my hus­band and I def­i­nitely saw a dip in our house­hold in­come, thanks to my gig-based oc­cu­pa­tion (and a sub­se­quent sweat-in­duc­ing dive into ye olde line of credit), my

IN SOME WAYS, THIS HUGE EX­PER­I­MENT MAY BE A HARBINGER OF POS­I­TIVE CHANGE.

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