Mind and Body

Just the two of us, non-stop

Managing the “brutalities of intimacy” in a pandemic, after more than 50 years of marriage

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

Still dancing, after all these years. Toby Simon and Peter Simon dancing on the deck of their home, after more than 50 years of marriage.

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

Peter Simon and Toby Simon dancing together in 1969, following their wedding

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By Toby Simon
Posted 2/15/21
Staying together in marriage often means learning to embrace each other’s irritating behaviors, particularly during a time of pandemic.
What is your favorite ritual of waking up in the morning and sharing a cup of coffee with a life partner? Does wearing of masks make it more difficult for those who suffer from “selective hearing” to be able to read the other person’s lips to understand what is being said? How important is it to center yourself in the natural world around you as a way of finding balance in a disrupted time?
Recently, while shopping for groceries, another shopper in a big hurry rammed her cart into the back of my legs, causing my legs to buckle and I almost fell. Given my current physical handicap of great difficulty in walking, which requires me to move slowly and cautiously, it could have proven quite dangerous to me if I had fallen.
In response, I let loose a string of loud, angry profane words, directed at the perpetrator, who apologized profusely and then quickly scuttled away, no doubt not used to being called out in public for her own careless behavior.
Later on, attempting to carry my grocery bags from my car to my apartment, two women stopped and asked if I needed help, as I struggled to keep my balance on the icy sidewalk. I thanked them for their kindness.
Paying attention to the world around us – to our intimate relationships, to our neighbors, and to our chance encounters – is always an opportunity to see ourselves as part of a much larger conversation. And, the difference that kindness makes.

WELLFLEET, Mass. – Recently The New York Times featured a delightful piece about Mandy Patinkin and his wife of 43 years, Kathryn Grody. A specific quote caught my attention – and the attention of many others, I’m sure:

“To have known somebody all these years, and to have lived this life together, and to have weathered the brutalities of intimacy – it’s a daring thing,” she said. “It’s an astonishing thing.”

Nothing says “the brutalities of intimacy” like being in lockdown with a spouse for almost a year.

Peter and I will be celebrating our 52nd wedding anniversary in June. We had careers that included long days, business trips, conferences, time away from each other, and very independent lives. At the same time, we were both consumed by wanderlust. And we were lucky, privileged; travel was always accessible to us.

Once we retired, we both remained busy, working on a variety of different projects. We continued to spend a great part of each day apart from each another. Many evenings we also went our separate ways.

Then came the pandemic. And, the lockdown. Add some quarantines thrown in. Suddenly Peter and I were together all the time. Just the two of us, non-stop.

Behaviors that do not change
However, luckier than most grandparents, we did have numerous respite from our dyad when two of our three children and their families spent time with us during the past 11 months.

It’s not like we don’t know each other’s irritating behaviors.

Some parts of our brains are beginning to show signs of aging: the omnipresent search for the iPhone or reading glasses, an occasional trip to the bedroom only to forget what you’re looking for, and the difficulties in recalling names and sometimes word retrieval.

Peter and I are in this aging thing together, for which I’m extremely grateful. As he said to me the other day after I put two cups of sugar instead of flour into the cookies I was baking, “We’re just going to have to help each other out with this stuff.”

In spite of memory lapses, what we are not forgetting, not for one minute, are those annoying behaviors on both of our parts, which have been present for 52 years: proper closing of the toothpaste tube, proper wiping down of the kitchen counter, turning off lights that aren’t in use, the toilet seat location, throwing out half-eaten bananas, and not returning things to their proper places.

And then there’s the hearing part. Someone once said that 95 percent of marriage is yelling “What?” from another room.

Weekly discussions occur over whether Peter should get hearing aids. Peter claims his doctor says there’s nothing wrong with his hearing. My children are on my side with this one but who’s keeping score? Here are two recent scenes from a marriage:

• Me, shouting from inside the house: I’ll be right out to the car. I just need to pee. Him, outside waiting in the car: I have the keys.

And:

• Me, asking from another room: Do we need to buy booze? Him, ready to leave the house: No, I’m wearing my boots.

Still laughing after all these years
Peter and I are managing these “brutalities,” some days better than others. Lots of bickering and getting on each other’s nerves, but still laughing.

I do love our mornings. Peter always makes the coffee. To me, this feels luxurious – to walk in to the kitchen and pour myself a cup of freshly brewed coffee.

Watching the sun as it rises over the ocean and then as the light spills into our living room  early in the morning is part of our daily routine. We sit together on the couch, staring out the windows. Then we return to reading newspapers online, looking at social media, often with the voice of Joe Scarborough in the background, always talking way too much.

We talk about COVID, the vaccine, the slow rollout in Massachusetts, and politics, of course.

Peter and I are the fortunate ones. We will be just fine and yes, as Kathryn Grody said, weathering these “intimacies” does seem astonishing.

Many marriages are being tested during this pandemic. Couples on the verge of divorce 11 months ago may still be together, due to COVID. That is neither a safe nor easy place to be. People living in abusive relationships are dangerously and frighteningly vulnerable. The toll this pandemic has taken on people’s mental health is staggering. There’s much hard work to be done when we emerge from COVID life.

In the meantime, Peter just texted me from downstairs, wondering if I had seen his phone. “Got it,” I answered, and walked downstairs and handed him his glasses.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI..

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