In advance of our wedding last May, my husband and I were warned, frequently, that “the first year of marriage is the hardest.” I had always assumed this well-worn piece of advice was really about making the adjustment to cohabitation, which can coincide with the first year of marriage but is kind of a separate issue.
My husband (then boyfriend) and I first moved in together in 2010 and by the time we got married, we had almost thirteen years of knowing each other and four years of living together under our belts. I know this is not what you’re supposed to say, but: learning to live together actually wasn’t that tough. Everyone said we had to make sure to find time apart and learn to compromise—we learned that years ago! This first-year-of-marriage business would be a breeze for us, surely.
Then we both started working from home.
This was always a tangible possibility. I am a writer and he is a cartoonist, but for years we had been pursuing those careers on nights and weekends, in the margins of our daytime office jobs. We dreamed of the time we could pursue these passions for a living, from just about anywhere, ideally in our underwear, and as we inched closer to our wedding day it was becoming increasingly likely that it’d happen to at least one of us. We’d both been picking up more freelance work, and we had been contacted by a publisher about making a book out of one creative project we did together. We knew that before long, somebody would not be in the house all day long. My husband was the first to make the switch, albeit unintentionally: He lost his day job but quickly got a part-time gig where he could work from home.
Truth? I recommend getting a sweet little house husband if you get the chance. He’d wake up every morning and make me eggs on toast with fanned-out slices of clementine. He’d text me photos of our cats all day long. I’d come home after dealing with subways and rainstorms and shitty office coffee to find him in sweatpants, finishing his work and ready to make me dinner. Working from home looked good on him, and dammit, I was jealous.
Two months later, I got my chance. My writing work was picking up, becoming too much to handle on those nights and weekends, so I decided to quit my day job. I wanted a taste of that cushy work-at-home life, and we were both plowing ahead, high with the possibility that we could actually make our fantasy careers work.
Our friends and family had a different take. “You’re both going to be working from home?” they’d ask, foreheads creased in concern, following with a joke about how we were sure to kill each other.
We weren’t afraid (though maybe we would’ve been if we were living in a studio apartment). We were already accustomed to having our lives intertwined with mutual friends and overlapping careers; both of us working from home didn’t seem like an issue, especially if we could manage separate workspaces. So my husband worked in the second bedroom, I set up my laptop on the dining table, and we could go hours without seeing each other. No one was being driven to madness.
Even if we were on the fast track to getting sick of each other, I didn’t notice or care. I was too focused on the perks of our new lifestyle: the ability to loudly rant across the room about something that made me mad on the internet. The money we were saving on lunch. Wearing pajamas all day long. The midday naps. The midday sex (a thousand times better than a second cup of coffee). I had no idea what people were trying to warn us about. We were living the dream.
Slowly, some of the perks began to transform into problems. They struck us obvious, simple issues we could fix, like remembering we still had to do dishes despite the ease of saying, “No time for chores, honey, I gotta get back to work,” as our desks slowly turned into graveyards full of dirty coffee mugs. We had to make sure at least one of us got out of the house and interacted with other people, cold weather be damned, instead of getting wrapped up in an argument over whose turn it was to trudge through the snow and get groceries so we wouldn’t starve. We needed to encourage one another to put on real clothes, even though wearing a bra has come to feel like a corset. But we knew we could manage these problems.
Obviously, we were spending a ton of time together. We’d work, cook dinner, and retreat to the couch to watch a movie, just like when we worked out of offices. But back then we’d also be perched in front of our laptops, writing and sketching into the night, longing for the day when the side work would become full-time work. Now we were free! Now nights were open for anything we wanted! And yet nothing had changed: I’d look up and see both of us on our phones or laptops, sometimes working, sometimes just scrolling through Twitter.
I started feeling lonely and I didn’t know why. We were spending at least eight extra hours together every day, and yet all I wanted was more. I could go into his office space and kiss my husband whenever I wanted. We could talk through ideas with each other, instead of surreptitiously texting each other behind our boss’s backs. Every interaction could be had in person, immediately—but it didn’t feel like enough.
I’d always believed that if you didn’t find time to yourself in a marriage, you’d be stifled under the weight of codependence. “The oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow,” our wedding officiant had read, and I panicked that my newfound craving for attention was the very picture of codependence. Time apart had to be answer. A little daily physical distance must have been what made our time together before feel special—that whole thing about absence and fond hearts. So I scheduled drinks, gym classes, anything to get me away from the house and my husband. “Thank GOD I’m out of the house,” I’d laugh to friends. “Spending all day together can be so rough!” That’s how I should feel, right? Those were the jokes I was supposed to make. But really, I still thought being home together wasn’t that bad—despite my creeping sense of isolation—and my effort to constantly get out of the house made me feel even more distant.
When we worked day jobs and did our freelance at night, it was easy to spend every hour doing some kind of work—to combat this, we had to make an active effort to set aside time for each other. But I realized that had stopped happening when spending every minute under the same roof became the norm. We hadn’t yet weaned ourselves off the compulsion to keep working all through the night, and we assumed that since we were in the same space all day, it didn’t matter how we spent our time anyhow. It felt a little silly to plan a special date night when we spent all afternoon sitting 100 feet from each other. Whether it was at a restaurant or flipping through Twitter on opposite sides of the couch, we were together, and we thought we could leave it at that. But sixteen hours awake in the same apartment can be as alienating as it is stifling.
One night, seemingly out of nowhere, I started crying while we watched The Last Man On Earth. I did that thing you’re supposed to do in a marriage, where you tell your partner all your feelings, even if you think they’re embarrassing and small and invented by your own anxiety. And he did that thing where he listened and took me seriously, and we resolved to try to make things better. The oak tree and cyprus can’t grow in each others’ shadows, true, but they don’t have a great time ignoring each other and pretending everything is a-okay, either.
A part of marriage is having someone to get used to all the new normals instead of running away from them. I haven’t given up sweatpants and I’m not looking for office space, because working from our apartment is our normal now. But adjustments have been made: We’ve been paying more attention to “quality time,” whatever it may look like. Sometimes it’s scheduling date nights or taking a midday walk, and sometimes it’s just remembering to leave work at work (or on the dining table). Because quality time doesn’t just mean being in the same room together, and alone time can look a lot like watching a movie and looking at your phone while your husband is sitting right next to you, doing the same thing.
Jaya Saxena is a writer and Prince enthusiast who lives in Queens with her husband and two dumb cats. Follow her on Twitter @jayasax to see just how much cheese she eats.
Image via Shutterstock.