It’s heartening to hear that while it’s curtains for the economy, our domestic lives are on the up. In Wuhan there was a spike in divorce rates, and in Japan, wives have been sending their husbands away to hostels. But here in Britain, there’s love in lockdown. Sales of engagement rings have risen significantly since we were all told to stay at home and couples have found creative ways to pop the question in their living rooms and local parks.
For those who have been married for longer, working, eating and sleeping at home together 24/7 for weeks on end has been a strange novelty — an odd throwback to a time when the relationship was new.
It has always struck me as a deep irony of modern parenthood that many of us spend years trying to crack the voodoo of getting pregnant before using the subsequent newborn months to work out how best to delegate the raising of our children to others as soon as we can. The same im-patience exists in our romantic relationships: all too often, the ideal life partner is seen as a travel companion with whom we can share Instagrammable experiences, not someone with whom we can imagine sharing a home.
Modern marriage is meant to be a self-propagating force that simply ticks over by itself without any need for interference or guidance: if love doesn’t carry on organically, then you simply haven’t found the right person. But perhaps lockdown has forced us to unravel this myth and taught us something: that, like everything else in life, our relationships take perseverance.
We’re all having to work harder in lockdown to keep the flame alive. I had hatched several grand plans for our ten-year wedding anniversary — taking the train from Vienna to Venice, seeing the new Tom Stoppard, going back to the spot where we got engaged — but they were all swiftly shelved once it became clear we weren’t going anywhere fast.
Instead, we had to get creative. I dug out my wedding dress from the loft, my other half put on a tux and we had dinner in the garden, much to the amusement of the allotment owners beyond our back fence. Our cancelled travel plans had given me sour grapes of a very middle-class sort but in the end I wouldn’t have spent the day any other way.
Having to work at romance is no bad thing. In fact it can be the secret to success, but it’s an extremely unpopular idea. Ours is a culture of immediacy: next-day deliveries, short-haul flights and on-demand TV. Marriage too is seen as ready made, without need for improvement. Only bad parents attend parenting classes and only couples in crisis need counselling, right?
The Office for National Statistics announced that the number of people describing themselves as single had reached a new high just before lockdown. But the certainties that have made singleness so attractive in recent years — travel, open borders and low unemployment rates — have crumbled in the face of Covid-19. Having spent a decade championing independence, society is now doing its level best to embrace domesticity. Interestingly, sign-ups for the ever-popular Marriage Course pioneered by Holy Trinity Brompton and run by many Anglican churches have soared since the course went online at the beginning of lockdown.
I did the Marriage Course with my other half five years ago, just after we had our first child, and every time I mentioned it to friends and family I’d get a furrowed look followed by ‘Is everything all right?’ To me it seems sad that asking for help with your marriage is seen as a sign of weakness, when in so many other forums it would be viewed as common sense. Our modern view of love is often based on our experience of adolescent infatuation — witness Normal People. If Covid-19 forces us to take the longer view, then it won’t have been all bad.
The BBC once asked a manager of a post-war marriage bureau what her couples looked for in a marriage. ‘The dumb blonde is out,’ she replied. ‘Men think that if she can’t boil an egg then she really ought to learn.’ And as for women, they wanted ‘someone with a good steady job’. These replies, which would have been risible in our former circumstances, now make more sense as we approach the aftermath of Covid-19.
Maybe the Tinder-fuelled ideals of casual coupledom will diminish as the virus wanes — and, like the post-war generation before us, we will find ourselves longing for, and valuing stability.