It was my wife and I’s first wedding anniversary in June. I have seen her once since we got married. I have detailed the trials of my Wife and I’s relationship up to the point of our marriage here but as a summary, I am British and live in England whereas my Wife is American and lives in New Jersey. We met online in 2014 and it has been a slog just to spend time together over the last six years. This is largely due to getting into an international relationship at a time of naked hostility towards ‘foreigners’ by almost every nation in the world. Timing a marriage in the era of Brexit and Trump was difficult enough, having the first year of our marriage end up in the era of Covid-19 seems especially unfortunate. But here we are.
My wife visited the UK in January and we spent a little over a week together. That has been all we have seen of each other since she left after our wedding. We haven’t even been able to have a honeymoon. We speak on the phone every day and do the work of maintaining a relationship that way but it is far from ideal, particularly thanks to the current insistence on isolation for everyone. I live with my Mother right now (and am very glad I am, given that she is high risk, so my sister — who is also living here — and I are able to help her) so I am lucky enough to have company, my wife, however, does not have that luxury as she lives alone. This compounded with the multitude of other stressors placed upon us all during such a strange and unfamiliar time has made it difficult to say the least but we do have it better than some and we try our best to remember that when things get hard.
Stories like this abound at such a historical moment and future historians will not want for document or evidence about how the average person managed during this time (largely because Zoom’s data theft means there’ll be a pool of ethically dubious knowledge to drink from in 50 years time). But in abstracting what were once the commonplace, material, real-world practices of every day life for most people in the white, English speaking world the Pandemic has raised some interesting questions about the nature of these things and how they exist outside of our habits and rituals.
To be physically absent from the one you love presents immediate issues regarding physical affections and sex but this deprivation can be at least mitigated in the digital age, though it does reveal what a sensory experience Love is. The desire I have for my wife isn’t merely a product of how she looks (though that’s certainly a part of it) the things that are most missed are the smell of her hair, the tactile nature of our hugs and kisses and the physical space she takes up simply by being there. She is a presence when we are together and, like a proverbial sheet, a hole in that fabric is not just noticeable it’s uncomfortable. It is something that even a more platonic or familial relationship can reveal in absence. Despite the endless parade of low-resolution, online-streamed art exhibits, TV shows, interviews, plays, quizzes, political debates, and just plain old chats between friends, the real world absence of another is keenly felt in the quarantined world. Enough so that, as soon as ‘Lockdown’ (such that it was) was even slightly eased the public took this as a sign that everything is now as it was and immediately began gathering, without adequate protections, wherever they could. People cannot stand to be separated. The last 4 months have proved the old axiom that Humans are social beings. Jean-Paul Satre once said that ‘Hell is Other People’ whereas the truth, it turns out, is that ‘Hell is No Other People’ and it serves as a hopeful reminder that most people were willing to go through that Hell to preserve the life of their loved ones.
Unfortunately for my Wife and I, our separation must go on a lot longer while the process of ANY sort of immigration continues to be under severe restriction for the foreseeable future. So if our relationship is to be sustained during this long bout of separation it begs the question: what even IS that relationship? In his book A Lover’s Discourse Roland Barthes says that a Lover’s life is spent in waiting, in that the Loved One is always absent. All Lover’s wait by the telephone, the mailbox, or at the lake as Echo once did for Narcissus. So what is it we are waiting for? Barthes argues that we can only truly miss that which we know or have interacted with. In this way, Love is a form of ‘transference’, in that there is a movement of something between objects: ‘energy’, emotion, information, materials, or a combination of all these, between the two people. We send signals and receive signals. Love can only be experienced personally, we do not know what another feels or what it means to them when they Love, how they Love, we only know how they express it, which — as I’m sure you’ve all experienced — can manifest in a LOT of different ways. But it is in it’s absence that Love and our relationship with the one we Love is best clarified because we notice that hole in the cloth. Or as Barthes puts it: “I am an amputee who still feels pain in his missing leg.”
I miss my Wife like you wouldn’t believe but we are still able to ‘transfer’. I can still feel my ‘leg’ and so can she. Whatever it is that we call Love, the thing that continues to grow and develop between us, only does so by being fed and maintained with care and consideration. Though the material conditions to support life have been harshly rationed over centuries it seems now that this crisis has pushed us into a need to ration those aspects for good reason, it has thrown the modern world’s creation of artificial scarcity (and the protection of that scarcity) into sharp relief. Be that food, shelter, clothing and so on, the Pandemic has clarified what was once a deliberately obscured necessity and how these things have been restricted for certain people and groups for so long. We should also be aware of how this has happened in more subjective, less material, ways. Ideas of racial justice, class, human rights and even the Social Contract itself are all suddenly under much closer inspection at this time of crisis, yet we should not dismiss how revealing of ourselves this whole process is too. Aspects of life have been shaved away until only the finest of points remain. We are better able to appreciate parts of our lives that are most enriching and rewarding. It is in her absence I better appreciate what my wife means to me and what our relationship is and what it does. It is easy to get lost in the mire of what we have had to give up or postpone throughout all this (and it is great) but we must cling to what it has given us, even if that is simply an altered perspective.
With the death toll now over 600,000 worldwide, Covid-19 is destroying lives and collapsing economies in ways few predicted. This is all the more reason to hold fast to those simplest of things that remind us what we live for, even if it’s just asking my Wife how her day was.