This is a cautionary tale for any young couples out there thinking of tying the knot. Be wary of what you have in common — it may end up dividing you.
When I first got together with Caroline, one of the things that made me think we were well suited was her slightly curmudgeonly nature. She wasn’t a full-blown misanthrope like me, but she was fond of a good grumble, particularly about other people. That’s a character trait that can leave you feeling quite isolated — it’s borderline socially unacceptable — so it was quite bonding to discover we both suffered from the same vice. Caroline reminded me of the slogan on a novelty cushion I once saw: ‘If you can’t think of anything nice to say… come and sit next to me.’
I’m not talking about horrible, mean stuff — we didn’t stand in the corner at parties, sniggering about people being fat or having bad teeth. It was more idiosyncratic than that, as if we were aware of certain unspoken rules of social etiquette and found it unspeakably irritating when others ignored them, even though no one else knew anything about them. Our life together was like one continuous episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, except instead of me being Larry and Caroline being his long-suffering wife, we were both Larry.
For instance, we found it intensely annoying when other people talked while you were trying to watch television. Didn’t they realise that that ruined the whole experience? And what’s with these people who simply carry on a conversation with you when they’re on the lavatory, as if it’s just another room they’ve gone into momentarily? That’s just gross. And is there anything worse than people who drive too slowly? They should be arrested.
OK, so we shared certain views about how things should be done and were equally annoyed by people who didn’t comply with those rules. I daresay a common sense of propriety is a feature of most romantic relationships, but we were probably more mean-spirited than most — there was something almost gleeful in our denunciation of those who offended us. We exaggerated how shocked and appalled we were to make each other laugh.
Fast forward 18 years and it’s finally dawned on me that being intolerant of other people’s foibles isn’t an ideal quality in a partner. D’oh! I am now one of those people that Caroline and I used to find irksome, except all traces of humour have been expunged from her expressions of displeasure. Any signs of age or infirmity irritate her — letting out an involuntary groan when I get up from the sofa, for instance — as do my table manners, which she claims have deteriorated since we married. Apparently, I make far too much noise when I chew, even with my mouth closed.
In fairness, some of her habits drive me up the wall, too. The top three are probably leaving wet towels on the bathroom floor, failing to switch off the light when she leaves the room and nodding off while watching a television programme — only marginally less annoying than sparking up a conversation. Turns out, two curmudgeons in a relationship doesn’t make for an ideal partnership. We’ve become Mr and Mrs Twit.
The awful thing is, it’s just going to get worse. If Caroline finds the occasional groan irritating now, how is she going to react when I need help getting in and out of the bath? And if I’ve already started to follow her around the house, switching off all the lights she leaves on in her wake, how penny-pinching will I be in 25 years’ time when we’re both living on a state pension? I’ve just read a thriller in which the protagonist’s wife tries to poison him and it rings horribly true.
So what’s the solution? I’ve studied older couples with similar temperaments, and our options are limited. One is to try and rekindle that original spark by focusing on just how annoying your children are. Plenty of scope for that in our household, but that’s just a temporary fix because eventually they’ll leave home. Another is to lead increasingly separate lives — and we’ve already started to do that. I hope it works, because the third option is to get divorced and I don’t fancy that at all. No one else would put up with me. Perhaps there’s another option, which is to change some of my filthy habits in the hope that Mrs Twit won’t kill me. I will have to try.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.