Being confined with one other person, as I have been in the Spring/Summer of 2020, even if that person is your beloved husband, is not easy. In the best of partnerships and marriages, there are behaviors, tics, routines that, under normal circumstances the partner just ignores as best he or she can. Before March of this year, I might have looked the other way or gone to my home office and closed the door. If you’re reading this after we have been released from our legislated closeness and you think, “This never happens to me,” well, you’ll have to believe me when I tell you that every person I talk to in these days of sheltering in place who has a partner is feeling the annoyance I’m describing above. It may be the way he ties his shoes, or she waters the plants. My husband slurps his soup and hot cereal. I want to upend the soup bowl on his head. He also wipes his nose on the edge of the newspaper. Yuck.
I am certain that there are behaviors of my own that have driven him equally crazy. For instance, when I can’t stand being cooped up for one minute longer, I go to Target or the supermarket (the only retail spaces that have been open). My husband has patiently asked me why I need to go. Yesterday it was pants hangers. He got up, went to his closet and came back with a hanger with clips. “I don’t want that kind of pants hanger,” I snapped. He shrugged his shoulders. He would prefer that I not spend money. Ever. It pains him that I do. I know this. And, although my aim was not to spend money yesterday, but to be in a different space by myself, I inevitably do spend money.
We have been together for over 20 years and have learned through painful experience to be patient with each other. It is more of a challenge now than when we had individual freedom of movement in our community, and in our world. But it has also highlighted the real risk of impatience. A few days ago I lost what reserves of patience I had. The front door had been removed for repair and in its place was a solid piece of plywood nailed to the door frame. The cleaners and our contractor arrived at the same time, needing to be let in through the garage, and the company fixing the front door called to give me an estimate, all within three minutes. My husband was sitting in the wing chair in our living room reading. He could see that I was trying to do five things at once, couldn’t he? Could he open the garage door, or talk to the guy on the phone about the door? I spoke to him harshly. He returned the favor. We were off and running. The cleaners got an earful.
Patience, the Journal of Positive Psychology tells us, is the propensity to wait calmly in the face of frustration or adversity. It occurs between an experience and a response to that experience. You can see that I failed at both the definition (no waiting), and the experience (instantaneous reaction). Fifteen or twenty minutes after this situation, we could talk about it, but in this particular case I could not hold my tongue. Many stories like this appeared in a Sunday New York Times article (June 14, 2020) about living in close proximity to another (romantic partner or roommate). I am not excusing myself, just saying this situation is harder for many of us than we may have anticipated.
Psychologists describe three kinds of patience: interpersonal, life hardship and daily hassles. My meltdown follows the first kind, interpersonal. The second, life hardship, could be a serious illness, loss of a job, or any number of hardships that people suffer. The last, daily hassles, is also pretty universal. Scientists who study older people find that they are much more tolerant of life’s little bumps, those daily hassles. They are also more patient, generally, in the first two categories and are therefore, generally happier than their more stressed adult children and younger friends.
I am usually better at interpersonal patience than I was this past week. My patience quotient about life hardships was tested much more when I was a young adult than it has been recently, and I think I did a decent job of accepting and tolerating the hardships that came my way. I’m also pretty good at handling or ignoring the daily hassles, but they build up and in this unplanned time of both disease and social unrest, perhaps we can all be forgiven our occasional lapses in patience.