She loves me; she loves me not, under lockdown

Updated: Mar 29, 2020, 12:05 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

What happens when couples are tested morning, noon and night without a break? Lovers in isolation tell us what being suddenly together, and apart, is teaching them

Malad residents Alita and Kevin Monteiro live in a two-bedroom apartment with Buddy. While she likes wrapping up the chores early before she relaxes, he takes his own time, driving her up the wall. Pic/ Satej Shinde
Malad residents Alita and Kevin Monteiro live in a two-bedroom apartment with Buddy. While she likes wrapping up the chores early before she relaxes, he takes his own time, driving her up the wall. Pic/ Satej Shinde

In the poignant short story, A Temporary Matter, Jhumpa Lahiri talks of the despondent and distant Shoba and Shukumar, who live in Boston. Thanks to an electricity cut for an hour every day they face for a week, the couple is forced to spend time together. Slowly, secrets emerge—Shukumar says he used to fantasise about thin models when Shoba was pregnant, and Shoba returns the hurt by confessing that she never liked the one poem he managed to publish. At the end of the week, Shoba tells Shukumar she is ready to move out, thanks to the "things they now knew".

As we brace ourselves for another few weeks of lockdown and self- isolation, couples have to face the fact that they are going to be alone, together, forced to talk and entertain, and then get ready to adapt to this new, hopefully temporary, situation. In China, where the coronavirus outbreak allegedly originated, over 300 couples are believed to have scheduled divorce appointments since February 24, which the authorities are attributing to them spending "too much time in close quarters under quarantine". But as a happy Instagram user, who put up a loving picture with her husband in quarantine, said, "Isn't this what you signed up for?"

Devika Patel and Neil Chowdhury say that they are surprised that when the lockdown kicked in, instead of being cranky, they naturally adopted a live-and-let-live strategy
Devika Patel and Neil Chowdhury say that they are surprised that when the lockdown kicked in, instead of being cranky, they naturally adopted a live-and-let-live strategy

Alita D'Souza Monteiro, her husband Kevin and Golden Retriever Buddy, have been at home for 10 days. They met on a matrimonial site, have been married for over two years, and live in a two-bedroom apartment in Malad. Alita, 30, is a PR executive. Kevin, 32, works in IT, and has moved around the country in the last few years, living in Hyderabad for a year away from his wife. So, this could be the first time that the couple is spending all this time together. "Before the lockdown, I would be out with friends on Saturdays too, so, it was just Sunday that we spent together. It is a roller coaster, and difficult to cope with."

They have divided the house work, and the day begins with one of them cleaning up, while the other takes care of the cooking. Evenings are spent watching movies, that is if "Kevin doesn't hog the remote." They say they are strong headed and quick tempered, and these 10 days have been an exercise in staying calm. "I want things done at the time they are supposed to be done. I get up and clean or cook, but Kevin will take his time. I have to remind him. This happened just yesterday, and I had to talk myself into remaining calm. For me, it's about, let's finish it off and then relax. But that's not his way," Alita explains. Kevin prefers ducking the arguments and walk ing away because Alita believes that "if she keeps reminding me, things will get done." Since his office work is scattered through the day, he takes on housework in between breaks. For now, their peace strategy includes staying quiet till they can. "In any case, he ends up doing his share, but in his own time, and I need to accept that."

If relationship counsellors are to be believed, the couple is in a healthy space.

Devrupa Rakshit and Dhruv Jain have lived in since October, and are using the isolation phase to set boundaries and discover new facets to the other’s personality
Devrupa Rakshit and Dhruv Jain have lived in since October, and are using the isolation phase to set boundaries and discover new facets to the other’s personality

Kira Asatryan, relationship coach and author of Stop Being Lonely, wrote in a piece for Time magazine, that showing annoyance could be the sign of a good relationship. "When you start butting heads, it means you no longer feel it necessary to always say the 'right' thing—which is a good thing for the longevity of the relationship". In an article that appeared in the New Yorker on March 16, 2020, LA-based divorce lawyer Laura Wasser "compared the situation to couples who, after enduring the forced togetherness of the holidays, seek divorce in January".

Togetherness leads to observations too. Did you know that your husband could go for hours lying in one position, or that your wife had an allergic reaction to the kitchen? Kevin thinks Alita has lived a pampered life, but it's now, under the focus of quarantine, that he sees that it's taking her time to get out of her comfort zone. "It's taking her time to adapt—to not go out, not meet her friends, have to cook… All I can do is encourage her, and say it has to be done. Because, this is it. The time to brace ourselves and do it is here."

American couples therapist, Dr Orna Guralnik, who is at the centre of the documentary, Couples Therapy, said in an interview to vox.com that the important issue at hand is "to understand that we are, indeed, different people with different needs, and it's important for us to be able to do things differently… We need boundaries around this ambiguous, endless stretch of time that's all around us." Newly-weds, entrepreneur Devika Patel and film producer Neil Chowdhury, were surprised that when quarantine kicked in, instead of screaming and being cranky, they naturally adopted a live-and-let-live strategy. "I have decided to let him be when he plays poker on the phone for hours or is Face Timing with his friends. And he lets me be when I work all night. We don't question. We know that now is the time to give each other the space." They are also encouraging each other to talk, when the anxiety bubbles over. Devika says she had overdone reading messages on WhatsApp about the pandemic, so she worked at bringing it under control. "We knew Floyd Cardoz [chef and restaurateur who succumbed to the virus last week], and when he died, it hit us. I knew him personally, so it was upsetting, but for Neil, it was a trigger to worry about his parents in Kolkata. It was then that he admitted to me, 'Okay, I am nervous'. I asked if he wished to be alone, and he preferred to head to the living room to exercise," Devika remembers. They say they have discovered new characteristics about each other—Neil says that Devika asks "too many questions and sulks a lot in anger" but "is making the quarantine period fun and light by joking". Devika feels that although Neil likes brushing things under the carpet, he is nurturing and a problem solver.

Dhawal Poladia and Jill Lanka were ‘separated’ when she couldn’t return from Kutch where she was visiting her parents. Video calling is keeping them going
Dhawal Poladia and Jill Lanka were 'separated' when she couldn't return from Kutch where she was visiting her parents. Video calling is keeping them going 

In a Popular Science piece, relationship coach Rachel Wright explains that what the two are doing is critical to sanity. "Everyone needs time by themselves, and it can't just be when you use the bathroom." Also, when space is less, it's important to distinguish between "a surface and real interest," Elaine Yarborough, a conflict-resolution consultant, recently told Wired. "For example, you may get angry that another has not taken out the trash. The real issue is that you feel ignored and unimportant. Express the latter."

Writer Devrupa Rakshit and lawyer Dhruv Jain, both 27, who have been living together since October, are now finally figuring out how the other functions. Rakshit had read the reports on the rise in divorce rates and that had her worried. "I am working a lot right now since I am a writer, and he is relatively free, so we have exchanged roles. I was on my computer the other day, doing edits on the phone, and he was silently sweeping the house behind me," she says. Dhruv, has a practical explanation for being the relaxed one. "I think external factors affect a relationship. Since I am working less, because the courts are shut, I am in a better mood. So the relationship is in a better space too." They also spend time apart—one stays in the living room and the other in the bedroom.

If couples, who are cooped up together, are forced to reevaluate their relationships, those who are apart are counting down the days to reunion. When this writer tried to reach out to people separated by the quarantine on social media, many wrote in. A majority were living with their parents and their lovers were away. Most hadn't told their families they are dating and were finding it hard to explain why they had been despondent lately. For Dhawal Poladia and Jill Lanka, who have been married for two-and-a-half years, things didn't pan out as planned. Lanka went off to see her parents in Kutch in February, and now can't return. "My parents and I are missing her. We had decided we would drive down, but now, the borders are sealed. My father, who Jill dotes on and kept reminding him to be careful about his health, is missing her the most," Poladia, who is a labour law consultant, tells us. But maybe fate has a way of working things out and Lanka was supposed to be where she is now—looking after her parents. "She is at the right place at the right time—and she is responsible and will take care of herself and her family," says Poladia of his stylist wife. They video call twice a day and the messages continue right through. "She asked me to send her pictures from all our travels, so that she can post and curate them. She finally has time to do that, and gaze at them as well, so we don't miss each other as much. I think wait is all we can do right now."

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