The 2013 rom-com I Give It A Year seems to me both an apt prediction of how long till we make it to Park End again, and an accurate summary of my household’s relations during quarantine.
It’s a bit of a mediocre film, feel-good at best, but I’ve always liked the moment when the marriage counsellor (played by the glorious Olivia Coleman) advises struggling newlyweds Nat and Josh to “cut your losses now before your life becomes about who put the King’s Speech DVD back in The Sound of Music DVD case.” For me, it encapsulates so pithily the struggle of cohabitation – whether that be with a spouse, sibling, parent, or friend.
So often, it’s the tiny physical irritations which accumulate over time, bubbling steadily, patiently waiting for a spark to explode into a full-blown feud. Lockdown has compelled many of us to spend vast swathes of time with family members with whom we typically do not live full-time, our time together usually diffused by work, study, or travel.
My household is one such case: the last time the five of us spent so many weeks together in one house was almost a decade ago, when my brother left home for university. Now we’re a household of five adult personalities who’ve enjoyed all the trappings of independent life. We’ve learned to live without one another, remoulding who we are and carving out a new space for ourselves. When we’re brought back together, it’s like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that just don’t slot together neatly anymore.
My family, as most, have their irritating habits. My mum is vigilant about the differentiation between a “hand towel” and a “tea towel”. If someone happens to dry their hands on the tea towel, well, they’re just asking for her to lose her rag – or should I say towel? My dad, meanwhile, has a penchant for bursting into our bedrooms with the hoover at ungodly hours. My brother takes great joy in devouring our supply of fresh fruit, noisily blitzing it all into several daily smoothies with his new baby, his NutriBullet. My sister likes to guilt trip me any time I make something for myself without consulting her – that girl could hear a kettle boiling a mile away. And me, well, I have a fair number of irksome traits, too.
It’s all of these dozens of idiosyncrasies and incompatibilities which render cohabitation a discipline in holding your tongue and letting things slide. The theorist Roland Barthes wrote a whole book about it, in fact. Living Together is a manual about what it means to endure or enjoy the condition of cohabitation. For Barthes, there is a way in which we might live together while still keeping our individual freedoms: “idiorrhythmic” existence, the concept of living to a beat that is both distinct and communal. However, while Barthes’ notion appeals to me, I feel it might be more complex in practice than the theory he fashioned in his ivory tower. He was far removed from the whirring of NutriBullets and din of hoovers at 6am.
A moment in Sally Rooney’s Normal People also strikes a chord. Discussing Connell’s arguments with his mother, Lorraine, the narrator states: ‘it’s usually about something like leaving a wet towel on the couch, and that’s it, it’s really about the towel, or at most it’s about whether Connell is fundamentally careless in his tendencies.’ Rooney artfully voices two seemingly mutually incompatible opinions here. Minor irritations should be confined to what they are – minor – but we should also be alert to the fact that they can be symptomatic of other, larger traits in ourselves.
Harmonious cohabitation during lockdown depends entirely on a delicate balance of zipped lips, compromise, and carefully-selected battles. We will always irritate and be irritated: it’s the human condition. But learning to listen to others’ complaints without rolling your eyes, and practising the art of delivering your own without exasperation, should stave off a trip to Coleman’s counsellor.