“I don’t know why, but I love it when he’s out of the house,” she says with a sigh.
“And what do you do while he’s gone?” I ask.
“Nothing special. Nothing I wouldn’t do if he was around. I just enjoy having the house to myself,” she shrugs.
Ever since I reached a certain age, I’ve had some version of this conversation with a number of women friends. It often includes expressions of guilt (“I feel bad about wanting to be alone …”) accompanied by reassurances of the otherwise healthy status of the relationship (“It’s not as if we don’t get along…”).
I haven’t questioned friends in same-sex relationships, or long-married heterosexual men, so I don’t know whether this sort of thing happens to them as well. But I suspect that women with male partners are the most acutely afflicted.
Usually the situation doesn’t arise until the couple retires, when, after years of spending the days in their respective workplaces, they suddenly find themselves sharing a living space 24/7. All kinds of revelations ensue. I, for instance, learned that my spouse liked to listen to NPR all day long. After intense negotiations, we arrived at an arrangement involving closed doors and earphones after Morning Edition goes off the air.
When couples downsize, space becomes an issue. Getting rid of things seems to come more easily to women than to men. “You wouldn’t believe all his stuff,” my friends complain. By stuff they mean aircraft carrier-sized desks covered in tilting piles of papers, outdated electronics in various states of disrepair, and slithering tangles of neckties that once enhanced his business attire.
And then there is Order and Neatness, another mostly female fixation. “When I used to come home from work,” one woman explains, “I was too tired to care if the newspaper was on the dining room table, or the closet doors were left open, but now…” Now the parka draped casually over a chair instead of hung in the closet, the rug left askew, and the imperfectly-shut dresser drawer become a major irritant, especially since the culprit is right there, all the time, doing nothing about it. It’s possible that there are obsessively orderly men out there who suffer from their wives’ slatternly habits, but if so I wish they’d speak up.
Nevertheless, putting aside Noise, Stuff, and Neatness (too much of the first two, and not enough of the latter), there remains something about a male presence in the house that makes women long for regular doses of solitude. For one thing men, even less-than-king-sized ones, seem to occupy a lot of space. I first noticed this when I entered a co-ed high school. I couldn’t believe how much room boys took up, and how much noise they made. Whooping in voices that swooped unpredictably from bass to soprano, they loped through the halls, dropping books, slamming locker doors, jostling each other at the water fountain, stretching out their long legs under desks, and generally wreaking havoc.
True, by the time they reach their sunset years, most men have tamed that adolescent turbulence, but they still dash around more forcefully than women. In my half century of marriage, I have learned to keep well away from a closed door, in case my spouse should suddenly burst in. Even with gentle, slipper-wearing husbands who creep silently around the house, male energy has a peculiar quality that makes periodic breaks from it essential for the wife.
I suspect, however, that the need for conjugal respite has mostly to do with the heart’s propensity to grow fonder in absence. When the beloved’s presence adorns each day from dawn to dusk, it’s a necessary luxury to miss him for a while, in full knowledge that the pleasure of an empty house will soon be matched by that of hearing the key in the door, and the door shake in its hinges as the wanderer crashes in.