Relationships

Quarantine Changed Our Whole Relationship Dynamic

We used to have predictable, relatively low-key fights. Then we started working from home together.

An illustration of an angry couple at home
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This is part of Six Months In, a Slate series reflecting on half a year of coronavirus lockdown in America.

Every couple has one core fight that replays over and over again, in different disguises, over the course of their relationship. In this series, couples analyze the origin and mechanics of their One Fight. This is Our One Fight: Quarantine Edition. To pitch your own One Fight (we’ll also accept pseudonyms, if necessary), email humaninterest@slate.com.

Jessica V. and Tommy N. have been together for 12 years. They live in San Francisco. Their first names here are pseudonyms.

Jessica: I would say our core difference is that you are very orderly and very responsible, and I am kind of whimsical. I care less about the electric bill. My name has never been on a lease when we’ve lived together. You just sort of handled all of that stuff. And that has actually worked out great, up until now. I would say it’s only in quarantine that the careful balance of our relationship has been disrupted.

Tommy: I agree.

Jessica: I think the first big fight we ever had is when I missed a flight, and you were unhappy about that.

Tommy: Oh, yes, the flight.

Jessica: We’d been dating for maybe five years and were long-distance. I was supposed to fly to see you, and I wasn’t even close to making it. Like, I personally do not want to be at the airport more than half an hour before we’re supposed to be in the air. You will point to the time that I missed the flight, and all the other times that I’ve missed flights, as evidence that this is maybe not the best approach. But I’m like, “I make most of my flights.”

Tommy: There was also the time when you almost bailed on me in Turkey. I had been traveling around Europe for six weeks. You were going to join me in Istanbul for New Year’s. Your flight was out of Newark Airport, and you hadn’t really packed and were still in midtown Manhattan. … I’m looking at the watch, and I was like, “It is inconceivable that you are going to make this flight.”

Jessica: I would say in general my stance on planes is correct, but in this instance you were right. Anyway I called an Uber, and I made the flight.

Tommy: Another key difference between us is I want to be on time to arrive somewhere, and then I’m happy to leave as soon as it’s time, and I will Irish exit it, like just ghost, immediately. Whereas you will be very late to arrive somewhere, and then just stay later and be sad about leaving. You’re also more social than I am.

Jessica: I have no need to try to be on time for most things. I embrace the orderlessness. But historically, aside from a few notable fights, this dynamic has actually generally been pretty good. We’d reached a kind of equilibrium where we each knew what to expect from the other person.

Tommy: It’s true. Still, all our big fights before quarantine were about logistics. And then now that we’re inside together all day, as the world shrinks, logistics become the kitchen, not the flight to Turkey or whatever.

Jessica: As a freewheeling person, I definitely never wanted to cook. Partly because I never wanted to be a woman who would cook for her husband as a job. So it was very weird to me in quarantine to be suddenly upset about something like household cleanliness. I became annoyed at the fact that the house was dirty.

Tommy: From my end, it began with you starting to do things that I understood as my responsibility. I’d wake up and you’d have cleaned the kitchen. I was like, Oh, I was probably going to do that during my afternoon call or something. Pre-quarantine Jessica would not have cleaned the kitchen first thing in the morning.

Jessica: Yeah, definitely not.

Tommy: All of a sudden you started taking out the garbage and doing the dishes and whatever, because your threshold for “Am I able to work in this space?” dropped below “Do I resent this task?” Before, it was always sort of my responsibility to keep the apartment clean, and I thought it was completely reasonable for “cleaning the apartment” to be me “paying someone to clean the apartment on a regular basis.” You would come home and I’d be like, “Look, I made the apartment look amazing!” And what I had done was paid the housekeeper to clean the apartment, but I transferred my work-labor hours into a clean apartment, and that’s completely legitimate in my book. That initially broke down when we couldn’t have housekeepers come anymore.

Jessica: You had literally never taken the trash out of your bathroom.

Tommy: No, I have. I have paid someone to do it, and that, I believe, counts. Anyway, I work from home and I have for seven years, but you were all of a sudden in the space all day. And it turned out your belief about the exact timing of when the apartment should be cleaned was different than mine. Like, I would have the housekeeper come once a week or whatever, and I think the place looked like a hotel, it looked amazing. But the fact that there were some things around during the day on Tuesday just didn’t bother me, and you weren’t here to be bothered by that, so it wasn’t an issue. And then it suddenly became one.

Jessica: In general, you’re a pretty decent office mate. I mean, you talk a lot on the phone kinda loudly, but I have a giant pair of noise-canceling headphones, which has kind of made it fine.

Tommy: I wouldn’t say you’re that crazy about the fact that I take naps during the day.

Jessica: No, I did not really know you napped during the day. I trust your work instincts with your work, though. It’s just that once in a while—it’s more on the weekends—if I’m cleaning and you’re not doing productive activities, I get anxious.

Tommy: Yeah, where “productive activities” is specifically not allowed to include video games or napping.

Jessica: I can remember our biggest quarantine fight so far.

Tommy: You can?

Jessica: Wait, can you not? It’s the avocado incident.

Tommy: Oh, yes, the avocado.

Jessica: It was maybe three weeks into quarantine. It was after this one weekend where I did marathon cleaning and I was feeling like I’ve done all this scrubbing, and I left an avocado peel on the pristine kitchen counter and you were like, “I see you’ve left an avocado peel out.” I lost my mind. I completely snapped, I had a break, a mental break, and it was ugly, it was bad.

Tommy: It was.

Jessica: I think I just listed all of the things that you had not done and I had. I went through all of the household tasks I’d completed. I was like, “Well, I did the laundry, I took out your trash in your bathroom, I scrubbed your sink, I cleaned the nightstand tables, I vacuumed the entire apartment and cleaned the kitchen.”

Tommy: It’s a robot vacuum.

Jessica: That’s true. I ran the Roomba. I think I just laid out this litany, and then you were like, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” But then throughout the night I found myself unable to stop talking about it, and then I’d blurt out, like, “I also cleaned the dining room table!” And I have to say that maybe lasted for days.

Tommy: And I’m here, like, the rent has been paid, the lights are still on, we’re not evicted, you know? I don’t think we’ve successfully figured out what our new equilibrium is, because it’s not the old equilibrium where I did the laundry and you folded it, and I made dinner and you did the dishes or whatever, just because all of these things happen so much more intensely all the time now.

Jessica: I would say this tension has decelerated since the avocado fight, though. All of the dynamics are definitely still there. But recently it’s been a little better. I have to say, I used to take pride in how we had delegated these household tasks super well and had this perfect balance. I was kind of smug about it, and it feels so passé to be mad about household work. It’s just such a boring thing to be angry about—I feel like a 1950s housewife. It’s weird for me to think about myself as somebody who is mad at their partner for not picking up their socks.

Tommy: It’s an issue area that to me seems like a solvable problem, not like “Why are you a son of a bitch?” or something. As to how we’re going to deal with it in the future, I mean, my color commentary answer would be “throw money at it.” I sound like a complete monster, but if you both hate something and are resentful, it feels like a good investment.

Jessica: Even now I think we still enjoy each other’s company, regardless. In the end, we do really complement each other well. You make your flights on time, and that’s great.

Tommy: The rent gets paid and we also have friends, so that’s a good balance.

Jessica: Like, one thing I do is I lose my phone everywhere, and you, God bless you, no matter how often it happens or how recently it has happened, without any malice you are like, “Yes, let’s turn the car around, we’ll go get it, we’ll figure this out.”

Tommy: I feel like I’ve learned through quarantine that maybe if this is the thing we fight about, it is fine. It’s not like we’re constantly resenting each other and storming out of the house. Lots of couples aren’t getting along quite as well through this all, being cooped up.

Jessica: I will say, at one point—I feel like it was after the avocado incident—you were like, “When do you go back to the office?” At the time, that felt like a very urgent question for us both. But now—

Tommy: Now, whatever.

Jessica: Right. Working from home is kind of fun.