My partner and I have fallen into the weird habit of saying “good luck for your meeting!”, then “how was your meeting?” 30 minutes later. It began when he started a new job in lockdown. It’s carried on because it’s all we have.
Despite the question, most days I already know the answer. There’s not much that stays private, when two people live and work together in one small flat. I can hear his voice murmuring through the wall throughout most of the day; his presence when he flushes the loo; his footsteps on the creaky floorboard, while I’m trying to have some alone time with Adriene.
My partner and I have spent more time together in the past nine months than we have in the rest of our nine year relationship. We cook together, eat together, walk together, sleep together.
I love him, but I also really miss missing him.
“You’ll never guess what happened to me today” is no longer in our vernacular. The days when we’d go hours without contact feel another lifetime ago. I miss rushing through the door to share a story, or eagerly waiting to hear one. And it’s been months since my phone flashed with an unexpected text, telling me I’m being missed, too.
Where once we thrived on independence – nights out with friends or whole holidays apart, leading to the best reunions – we now give minute-by-minute updates on each other’s lives. Yet, the pandemic has forced us to wave goodbye to lots of the things that bring refreshing energy to relationships: spending time with separate friends, colleagues, hobbies and family.
This is the claustrophobia of couple life right now. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, what is it doing to us living 24/7 in each other’s company?
Dr Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, admits it’s had an impact on her own relationship – so I shouldn’t panic.
“My husband and I have been married for almost 14 years, so I feel like I know everything about him, though of course that’s impossible,” she says.
“I’ve noticed that the times when I still learn something new about him are often the times when we’re interacting with other people, who bring up other topics, and prompt things that I haven’t stumbled across in all those years. Since we’re not interacting with other people right now, those moments don’t occur.”
Dr Sandstrom’s years of research have focused on acquaintances, or “weak ties,” as they’re known in the field. So that quick chat you have with a barista or bus driver that you barely know. “On days when we interact with more acquaintances, we’re in a better mood, and we feel more connected,” she says.
“We want to be open and honest with our partner, and get emotional support when we’re dealing with the bad stuff, but they also need to get to share in the good stuff.”
Although missing our partners physically may be a distant memory, we may subconsciously miss seeing them at their best (and them seeing us at ours).
Dr Sandstrom points me towards other research that suggests we’re on our best behaviour or “put our best face forward” with people we don’t know that well. This often results in us enjoying those interactions more than we expect, which in turn boosts our mood further. “We don’t do this as much with our romantic partner, which is both good and bad,” she suggests.
“We want to be able to be open and honest with our partner, and get emotional support when we’re dealing with the bad stuff, but they also need to get the rewards of sharing in the good stuff.” In other words, there’s a lot of extra pressure on a relationship if it’s completely devoid of outside influence.
“There’s a danger the relationship has no oxygen, and it gets stale or withers and dies,” says psychotherapist Lucy Beresford of spending 24/7 in someone’s company – news no one wants to hear when they’re a few months away from getting married as my partner and I are.
“Relationships work best when two individuals are able to come together as a couple, but also remain as individuals,” she adds.
Yet Michaela Thomas, a psychologist and author of The Lasting Connection, insists spending all day, every day together isn’t inevitably bad for you.
“It is as healthy as you make it,” she says. “And how well you get along during this time depends on whether you can keep the dialogue going about what you each need to feel healthy.”
Thomas sites a study from last year, which showed that the pandemic has created turbulence for couples, with partners feeling more angry or upset as their partner disturbs their normal routine.
“We aren’t used to working on top of each other, and might miss the space we normally have away,” she says, citing the ‘mere exposure effect’. This psychological phenomenon dictates that we like each other more when we spend time together, “but there can be too much of a good thing”.
As ongoing lockdown restrictions forbid us to socialise outside our households in the traditional sense, meaning absence is, well, absent at home, I’m keen to learn if there’s a way to fake it till you make it.
“Having space apart can be helpful, even if it is a walk around the block on your own,” says Thomas. “For parents who are partners, you can take turns with the kids to give each other a break and alone time.”
Beresford recommends reviving the anticipation we feel in the early stages of dating, when every minute apart is a moment too long.
“Send each other cheeky or flirty texts throughout the day, but don’t act on them until later,” she suggests. “Instead of the endless daily debates about what’s for the next meal, source and cook a surprise meal as if you were taking your partner out on a date.”
Other options include spicing up your sex life or booking a treat, such as a virtual wine-tasting session, that you can enjoy together. All good suggestions.
For now, I’m going to stop asking about those meetings.