Renuka, a single mom from Hyderabad, is thanking her lucky stars that her marriage ended in the nick of time. The recently divorced 30-year-old shudders to think of what would have happened had she been living with her former husband and in-laws during the lockdown. “There used to be constant arguments because of different value systems and incompatibility. Those fights would have turned nastier with everyone locked inside the house 24x7,” she said. No longer must she contend with the energy-sapping “disrespect and negativity” from her husband, and for all its hardships, the lockdown is largely peaceful for her.
This cannot be said of many couples who are still sharing the same space—and hitting the proverbial ceiling as a result.
According to Kolkata-based clinical psychologist Anindita Chowdhury, the lockdown has turned into an ordeal for many couples. “There are no external factors at play. There are no escapes,” she said.
Interestingly, single people living with flatmates are not reporting the kind of distress that Indian couples are, said several experts.
“I’ve heard couples say they can’t stand each other any longer during the lockdown,” Chowdhury said, “but I have not had any woman say this about her flatmates yet.”
So, what is it about coupledom that makes the four walls seem to close in so much more?
Too close for comfort
If you’re living with flatmates, you probably have your own room, your own shelf in the fridge, your own time to do what you like. But there are usually few such boundaries when you are living together as a couple. Married couples are finding it tough to let each other be. Also, constantly being in each other’s presence amplifies every foible and quirk that may have earlier slipped under the radar.
Sreeja, who is living with her boyfriend, said little things that never bothered her previously have become huge issues. “What seemed cute before, no longer is! His snoring makes it difficult for me to sleep, yet I wouldn’t want us to sleep in separate rooms indefinitely,” she said. The initial excitement of staying together all day faded away quickly for her, as the realities of cooking, doing dishes, cleaning and mopping made them both irritable.
Ruchi Ruuh, a counselling psychologist and relationship coach, told HuffPost India that she is inundated with texts and calls from troubled couples. “With so much uncertainty around us, without any possibility of escape, relationships are being put to the test now,” she said. “If we compare them, single women are doing much better than Indian couples. I think separations and divorces will go up after the lockdown.”
How long a couple has been together also plays a role in the kinds of difficulties they are facing during the lockdown. Older couples may discover that they are not as compatible as they once thought, while those who have started living together only recently may feel as if they are trapped with a stranger. A couple may also have conflicting expectations from each other.
Ruchika Kanwal, a clinical psychologist from Delhi, said most couples that she has spoken to are struggling with issues revolving around personal space. “I know a recently married couple who hardly got time to know each other before the lockdown began,” she said. While the wife is an extrovert, with a lot of friends and a thriving social life, both online and offline, the husband is just the opposite. “My client started doing video calls and online gaming with her friends to feel better during the lockdown. This made her husband feel left out and he started complaining that she is always busy with her phone, and this led to huge arguments,” Kanwal said.
However, while respecting each other’s space is important, so is giving each other time. “When a partner wants to talk and you are busy, acknowledge them and tell them you will discuss things later―just as you might have if they called you at the office. You cannot just ignore them or let things be during the lockdown,” said Chowdhury.
Some couples may spend too much time together at first, and then drift apart as time goes by. Kanwal suggested that couples need to be mindful of each other’s personal time and space. “There is no definitive timeline in this situation. Therefore, you need to space out the time you spend together, but also moderate the time you spend doing other things” said Kanwal.
“Even though we are both doing equally demanding office work, which includes non-stop con calls and video conferences, much of the household chores came upon me”
Lack of communication
Working as a team, keeping each other’s secrets, receiving and giving empathy―flatmates, ironically, may be better at it than couples.
Our experts said that single women living in rented apartments or in hostels find it easier to open up and discuss problems, while Indian couples fail to communicate openly with each other. The reason: a fear of being judged by the partner. Women in particular find it difficult to be clear about their needs, whether practical, emotional, or sexual.
Kanwal’s advice for struggling couples is “communication and more communication” so that time together is well spent. “Talk about your work challenges and timings. Tell your partner which time of the day you’d be most accessible, and have more clarity about each other’s schedules,” she said. “Even if you are living with extended family, find time to do things together,” she said.
Mindset also matters. According to Chowdhury, it is important to remember that both the partners are facing the same situation and can have mood swings. “Every relationship depends on love, and during a lockdown it is also about forgiveness. The success of marriages and relationships will now depend on how forgiving and fair both the people are,” she said.
According to Chowdhury as well as Kanwal, it is best if couples work as teammates―just as women living away from their families do―and decide on roles and responsibilities beforehand. While Kanwal prescribes a “clear segregation of tasks” to avoid confrontation, the spectre of gender inequality in our society muddies the waters.
While flatmates are usually able to allocate chores easily and happily, this is often not the case with Indian couples, where women end up doing the lion’s share of domestic work.
This holds true for Sreeja too. “Even though we are both doing equally demanding office work, which includes non-stop con calls and video conferences, much of the household chores came upon me,” she said.
When work is not divided fairly, disappointment, anger and frustration creep in, which in turn make ‘trivial’ issues assume much larger proportions.
Chowdhury told us of a client who was fine with her usual responsibilities until the lockdown changed the way she viewed her life. Earlier, she excused her husband’s lack of involvement at home on his busy schedule and office trips. However, she now realises that the burden of raising their child and managing their home is solely on her, and she has been bitter about it.
What does not help matters is the deluge of domestic-goddess/god posts on social media. Chowdhury begs couples not to compare themselves or their spouses to others. “Please don’t bring preconceived gender roles into this context,” she said, adding that it’s time to take inspiration from single women who are sharing the workload with their flatmates without the additional burden of cultural pressures and prejudices.
“It is wonderful to see people sing, dance and bake and cook new dishes. But, this should not add pressure on you or your spouse. You do not have to discover hidden talents, or beat yourself up if you fail to do some house work. All we need to do is see through this phase and survive,” she said.
When sex takes a hit
The lockdown has made couples realise that marital incompatibility cannot be shoved under the carpet forever. Sex, of course, is a complicating factor that housemates do not have to grapple with.
Romance flies out fast from the bedroom when resentments are simmering.
Chowdhury described a client whose husband told her he would be ‘nice enough’ to help with housework in exchange for sex. “This, of course, has become a turnoff for my client,” she said, adding that matters tend to become even more fraught when sex is used as a reward or punishment.
Pallavi Barnwal, sexuality educator and founder of RedWomb, a sex-ed startup, said “making a bid” is a better approach when both the partners are already overworked and anxious. “Bids are mostly subtle, where instead of saying something like ‘Hey! I want to connect with you! Pay attention to me!’ partners ask a question or play out an incident for connection, hoping to receive connection in return.” She said ‘bids’ often work well in complex, domesticated relationships as they make the person who’s approaching feel less vulnerable or apprehensive.
Some marriages, though, have fissures that are more difficult to repair. Consultant clinical psychologist Sahely Gangopadhyay said couples who earlier managed to stay in loveless or sexless marriages for years have finally reached breaking point. “Such marriages had been continuing because the partners could spend time apart for work or travel or leisure. By the time they were home, they were too tired to interact or make love. But that escape route is shut now because of the lockdown,” she said.
Sreeja said the lockdown has affected her sex life with her partner, as both feel tired and anxious by the end of the day. “Although I want to have sex, he rejects my advances. And now I have started feeling self-conscious because I am in the same, old boring clothes and haven’t waxed or groomed myself in months.”
Chowdhury believes that women need to communicate their needs, and must not take a lack of interest from their partner too personally. “If the man is unwilling or not in the mood, she could ask him to hold her, cuddle her or even go down on her. This releases ‘happy hormones’ in the body, which will make her go about her office and house work with more ease and less resentment. Men need to understand that women too have physical needs and urges,” Chowdhury said. “Indian women, single or in a relationship should know how to satisfy themselves and climax on their own.”
Sex in and of itself, of course, is not the cure for a relationship gone awry.
Barnwal said one of her clients happened to get stuck with her soon-to-be ex-husband, who had come to her city to complete some legal formalities when the lockdown began. The couple have been sharing a bed and co-parenting their child over the past two months, but intend to go ahead with the divorce. “There is still emotional and sexual incompatibility,” said Barnwal.
A compatibility test
This lockdown could go one of two ways, say experts: it could either strengthen the bond between couples or force them to realise they are incompatible. But unlike flatmates, who can quickly move on if they do not get along, many women often feel that they cannot leave a marriage, however bad it may be.
Gangopadhyay said she knows of women who are aware of their husband’s infidelity or parallel relationships, yet continue to stay in the marriage either because they are financially dependent, fear social ostracism, or are apprehensive about raising their children alone.
“The lockdown has made things worse for such troubled marriages. The women are now privy to phone conversations or chats that they could ignore earlier. To know your partner might be having an affair is different from seeing him carry it out right in front of you. The worst is when you cannot confront him as you have children or extended family living with you and you fear having arguments or meltdowns in front of them,” she said.
Although it is important to discuss issues that bother you, Gangopadhyay advises seeking professional help before confronting partners. “We are already so anxious and overwhelmed that we must try to maintain our peace of mind,” she said.
In this environment of uncertainty, where lockdowns appear to be the new normal for a while to come, Chowdhury said couples have been forced to introspect about whether they want to be stuck with the person they made their vows to. At this time, it seems that couples need to view each other not just as romantic or sexual partners’ but―with determined pragmatism―as house-mates who must work together to keep the domestic ship sailing. That’s if the structure isn’t already crumbling, of course.