Among the many miserable byproducts of the COVID-19 pandemic, now (hopefully) receding in the rearview mirror, was a rise not only in inquiries about divorce but actual separations and splits.
Relationship experts pinpoint at least one taproot of the trend:
Stuck at home with each other, isolated in their houses and apartments, burdened by homeschooling, financial worries, job craziness and other stresses, couples apparently zeroed in on each other’s annoying personal habits and decided they were simply intolerable.
Love and lust may be one thing. Having to watch someone pick his or her teeth at the breakfast table morning after morning is evidently quite another.
An increase in divorce among older, long-married couples was trending even before the virus. But requests for divorce, which zoomed up 34% in the U.S. during the pandemic, was most pronounced among recently married couples.
So much acrimony was bubbling up in households across America that one well-known marriage therapist decided to just come out with it: Hating your spouse is in fact a common experience, especially for those baked into long-term relationships.
And especially when it comes to those irritating personal habits that make you want to tear your hair out — or wring your partner’s neck.
I personally know all about marital hatred, particularly in this context.
Let’s say I’m passing through the kitchen when, once again, I spy it: The dish towel crammed and crumpled, folded and moldering and damp, hanging — if you can call it that — from the oven handle.
In a reenactment that Greek mythology’s compulsive Sisyphus would surely understand, I bite my tongue, shake out the towel and drape it, with nary a fold or crumple, on the handle, where it can dry out and the world can continue spinning on its axis.
Amid the pandemic frustrations, there’s been a lot of talk about what makes a happy marriage, from the satisfactions of companionate love to the art of compromise to the enduring appeal of becoming best friends with your partner, once the libidinal splurge of infatuation fades away — something that happens to all couples, the experts say.
These concepts stem from the same mindset, which posits that true love — unlike frothy cinematic rom-com depictions of floral bouquets or unquenchable lust or rain-drenched proclamations — more rightly resides in the quotidian joys of sharing a life with another human, in all its rote but comforting glory.
I’ll do these philosophies one better. I believe marriage is about more than caring compromise or active listening or positive mirroring or resolving to find satisfaction in constancy and familiarity versus novelty and spice.
It’s about keeping my mouth shut about the damn dish towel.
Anyone who says this is easy has never been in a successful long-term relationship.
We started off as frothy as the best of them.
Mark was tall and funny and kind, with thick dark hair on his forearms that somehow got my meter running. He liked my ready laugh and bawdy sense of humor, and found certain of my eccentricities — like how I curled my toes on the cold linoleum while sitting on the toilet — to be adorable.
Who knew? We moved in together before the year was up.
As our co-habitation slid inexorably into marriage, I became aware of several of Mark’s eccentricities, which I didn’t find so adorable. The way he emptied his pockets all over the house, little piles of detritus I came to call his “colonies.” The way he never closed cabinet doors. The way his attention-deficit disorder had him forever misplacing and forgetting and not noticing.
I aggravated him as well, across a host of metrics, especially after our son came along and it turned out that, while I may have been a good mother, I was a haphazard housekeeper and sporadically attentive wife.
Those early years were hard, not just for the minor battles like uncapped toothpaste or wrongly arranged plates in the dishwasher, but because of the more fraught emotional issues that we — that everyone — dragged albatross-like from the distant precincts of our childhoods into our adult relationship.
We worked on those kinks in marriage therapy — a sometimes silly, stop-and-start journey that I both ridiculed and rhapsodized about in The New York Times — and life slowly, eventually, got better.
A dozen years ago, when my fun-loving affair with alcohol turned into something less, ahem, Instagram-worthy, Mark stood by me while I got the whole sobriety thing figured out.
And so now, as we stand at 37 years-plus of (mostly) happy marriage, the terrain of our relationship is fairly smooth. At our last marriage anniversary, Mark took my hand and said, “We really stuck it out, didn’t we?”
I paused. Looked at him.
“You make our marriage sound like a gulag,” I replied.
And then we both erupted into laughter, because it really was a joke. Yes, we still bicker at times. Yes, we get on each other’s nerves. But these moments tend to be brief sun flares, no longer Mount Vesuvius eruptions. Our fights aren’t as venomous as they once were because these days we recognize them as the absurd cartoon characters they are, and not some heinous villains indicating an irreparable fissure in the plot line.
They’re the price of admission for living with another person, with a premium paid for whoever’s humble enough to apologize first.
Which brings me to the dish towel.
I’ve told Mark I want him to hang it straight, so it will dry out and not get smelly. I’ve told him twice. He still doesn’t do it. So now, when I see the towel in its tortuous arrangement on the metal bar, I hang it correctly. Or I ignore it. That last part can be a struggle, but so far no one has caught typhoid and the house is still standing.
The old saw calls it picking your battles. I believe it’s more apt to understand that the battles themselves are the point, with learning to lay down your arms the very linchpin in winning the war for marital serenity. To accept and love someone completely, not despite their flaws, but because of them. To sing along with Leonard Cohen that the cracks are how the light gets in.
There are deal-breakers, of course. Serial infidelity. Domestic violence. Unaddressed addiction. And, yes, people can grow apart, and some unions just aren’t meant to be. But what lies hidden inside the conscious decision to cut slack on the more middling crimes of mere humanness is a golden kernel, a brass ring, for those of us lucky enough to grasp it:
In learning to tolerate the faults and imperfections of your loved one, you grow closer to tolerating your own. Take the log out of your own eye, and you can build a house that shelters you both.
It helps to become adept at reframing. Whenever Mark is a bit late back from a bike ride and I worry he’s been struck by a car and is dead and now I will be alone forever — because that’s how my brain works — I realize in a bone-deep way how precious that damp towel is. How I would give anything in the world — anything — to have it hanging twisted and accruing bacteria in my silent kitchen once again.
When I told my husband I was writing this, his first response was to blurt: You do lots of stuff that bugs me, too.
With a bit too much enthusiasm, Mark started sharing some of my own manifold household sins, a partial list of which includes: I don’t hang the trash can liner right; I empty his iced tea glass before he’s done with it; I don’t check prices at the grocery story before tossing items in the cart; I leave my underwear stuck inside my inside-out pants, making it hard for him to disentangle my clothes when he does the laundry.
Yes, my husband does the laundry at our house.
Which, to any reasonable partner, should automatically exempt him from the whole dish towel thing. He also picks up the backyard poop of our three dogs, but I tell him that really doesn’t count, because he let it slip once that he secretly, weirdly enjoys it. Finding a poop pile is like finding Easter eggs, he says.
Terrence Real, that famous family therapist who spoke up about the concept of marital hatred, said that everyone longs for a perfect relationship. But the real deal, true intimacy, happens only when we learn to accept the flaws of our partner.
“That’s the character of couple-hood,” he has said. “You’re clear about your partner’s imperfections, and you feel the pain and frustration of it, but you choose to love them anyway. That’s mature love.”
A former colleague told me that her grandfather once shared with her the secret to a long and happy marriage:
Every morning, he told her, when you stand before the bathroom mirror, look deeply into your own eyes and intone, “You’re no great prize, either.”
Words of wisdom. Just please be sure and pick up your towel before you leave.