How many times would you say you’ve seen The Muppet Show?” I ask my husband as we set out on our daily walk. We are yet to decide whether it’s Route 1 (examining the melee outside Five Guys in a vaguely censorious fashion) or Route 2 (navigating the confusing one-way signage in the market). “I don’t know,” he says. “Not that often. Why?” “Because you must have hummed the theme tune daily for 26 years,” I say, molars clenched. “You’re humming it now. You don’t even realise you’re doing it.” It occasionally varies: sometimes he hums a French children’s TV programme theme tune; sometimes the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. Those three. Twenty-six years.
If you haven’t had a conversation about something like this recently, you’re probably living on your own. Actually, if I were on my own, I would have picked a fight with myself by now. I have innumerable annoying habits: putting my shoes on chairs and my mugs on every surface, failing to dry the high-maintenance cast iron pans, or spending £17 in Marks & Spencer with no meals to show for it.
How would our robot vacuum cleaner be as a partner? It has some excellent qualities
Confined to home for three months and counting, we sense every little vibration of irritation in our partners as we send out peevish vibrations of our own. I recently realised I had compiled a three-week tally of who had taken the bin out with a separate column for who replaced the bag. I don’t think it’s a coincidence Audible is advertising a podcast called How Not to F*ck Up Your Marriage Too Bad this month.
Relying on quantity over quality time and hoping months of snack provision and laundry will count for something is a parenting strategy of sorts, but surely no one thinks that spending every waking moment together is good for romantic partnerships? Yes, those couples you see on Ben Fogle: New Lives in the Wild who share an off-grid burrow hollowed out of a hillside claim they never get bored of each other. But they are not normal (actually, when you look more closely, usually one of them claims it’s bliss, but the other betrays a wild-eyed look of desperation in unguarded moments, silently pleading with Fogle to take them back to Fulham). Normal relationships need fresh experiences: something to talk about other than whether the pigeon in the yard is the same one as yesterday.
But what fresh experiences are there when we’re even sharing a desk (I get the morning; he gets the afternoon)? To keep the magic alive, we have instigated separate lunches, freeing me to graze on chocolate spread and crisps, and him to consume every crumb of a giant loaf over a week (the staler it gets, the happier he is).
We’re also watching different telly. I am sorry to say our choices have been exceptionally heteronormative: my husband is glued to something called The Last Frontier in which people too extreme for Ben Fogle navigate the Alaskan wilderness, complete with near-starvation, guns and bears. A typical episode description runs: “Otto and his son Eivin bond over a hunt for ptarmigan that nearly ends in disaster.” I, meanwhile, have been watching three twentysomethings navigate life, love and journalism in NYC in an atrocious, addictive show called The Bold Type (sample episode: “Jane teams up with Pinstripe to try her hand at gossip reporting”). I can’t in all conscience recommend either of these, but at least we’re getting a window on to different worlds: he’s teaching me how to lasso the dog; I’m showing him how to style your ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. That bit is a lie, obviously. But when I’m with Jane, Kat and Sutton I’m not muttering about the bin.
I have also been considering alternative relationships. Not real ones – I definitely couldn’t live with another human – but domestic fantasies. How would our robot vacuum cleaner be as a partner? It has some excellent qualities – quiet 22 hours a day, low maintenance, diligent at housework – but more terrible ones, lurching erratically around like a messy drunk, banging into walls, terrorising the dog and chewing up expensive cables. The dog itself – a world-weary whippet – is definitely out: passive aggressive, withholding and indolent, we are far too similar for it ever to work. The absolute worst alternative husband is our smallest tortoise, an angry, oversexed ball of toxic masculinity. His habit of following the other tortoises around and non-consensually “mating at” them, as a friend called it, is harrowing and accompanied by high-pitched squeaking: he’s like a priapic dog toy. That’s far worse than speakerphone calls to the bank.
We’re doing OK, really. When I gripe about his humming, my husband laughs, apparently genuinely amused. I used to worry about our soon-to-be-empty nest. How would we cope, stripped of the all-consuming distraction of children? Lockdown has reassured me. As long as there’s a giant stale loaf and terrible TV, I think we’ll be fine.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling