Can a marriage between an introvert and an extrovert ever really work?
Lockdown has laid bare our differences, but hermits and gadabouts can be perfect for each other.
On paper it looks like a relationship deal breaker: one person’s idea of heaven is sofa-surfing with cocoa and Newsnight, the other’s is a fancy-dress party that ends with a tequila-fuelled conga at dawn. So it’s surprising how often a hardcore introvert find themselves inextricably drawn to a determined extrovert – doomed to spend the course of their relationship arguing about the true meaning of quality time. Often the tension proves too much, as some suggest has been the case with This Country writer and actress Daisy May Cooper and her landscape gardener husband Will Weston. According to reports, the stresses of lockdown may have proved too much for the couple, who have been said to split after barely two years of marriage – though his mother disputes this.
Lockdown has been dreadful for exuberant characters like Daisy May Cooper – and me, me, me. Without other people to spark off, it’s almost as if you cease to exist. You can’t crack a joke or do the can-can in a void. This year’s overall Costa prize-winner, Monique Roffey, even set up an extrovert’s support group on Facebook so people like her and me (judged “a bit much” by retiring types) can exchange isolation sob stories and wistful memories of the time we – OK, I – were told not to try and upstage a sibling at their own wedding. But solitary types are living their best life with 18 months’ (and still climbing) worth of state-given excuses to live like a Siberian anchorite.
I feel huge sympathy for both Cooper and Weston, as a social animal wed for 26 years now to a die-hard hermit. In my husband’s ideal life, he’d be living on the Outer Hebrides for nine months a year, with only curlews for company. Whereas I wilt if I can’t make a weekly pilgrimage to one of my three London clubs (yes, three, because I am a unapologetic social whore) to see friends, carouse and surf the energy of London’s party people. I’ve long had a framed cartoon on my wall that shows two Indians perched above a canyon looking down on a masked cowboy leading hordes of revellers. One says to the other: “Look! It’s the highly gregarious ranger!” Let’s just say that gag speaks to me.
As you’d guess, it’s tough to reconcile conflicting needs when two people have such fiercely opposed dispositions. And they really are needs, not preferences. A true introvert doesn’t just yearn for solitude – having time on their own is critical for refuelling their batteries. Forcing them to socialise can be as cruel as putting a polar bear in a small pen at a zoo to be gawped at by crowds. Equally, a born extrovert wilts if deprived of meaningful human interaction. When we walk into a crowded room, it’s like being plugged into the mains: electricity surges through our veins and equilibrium is restored. The only downside is when we climb on a table at 3am to sing a tone-deaf My Way.
Despite this, the union of a loner and a livewire makes a lot of sense. Gregarious people can find themselves drawn to someone who keeps their wilder social impulses in check and makes sure they get sleep, thinking space and down time. In the same spirit, wilting violets know an outgoing partner will ensure they don’t become a batty misanthrope who neglects to see friends and family. What’s hard is maintaining the level of compromise and mutual understanding required to keep a fair balance over many years.
I speak from hard-won experience. I knew, back in the autumn of 1993, that it was strange I was attracted to the office’s most reclusive male (although aloofness can come with a tantalising air of mystery). He didn’t responds to normal flirtation: you had to talk about dreadnoughts, owls and metaphysical poetry. And I was duly warned; his oldest friend told me when we got engaged that he (my husband) had wriggled out of attending his pal’s wedding day and dodged his daughter’s christening, even though my spouse was appointed godfather.
Here’s some tragi-comic snapshots of our marriage’s early years. Two years after our wedding, a fun couple invited me to join a house party of 12 in a gorgeous villa in Andalucia and said: “Bring your husband, we’d love to meet him!” Not only did he refuse to come, he didn’t ask me for my hosts’ details, didn’t drop me at the station and barely looked up as he said: “See you in a week.” At a good friend’s wedding where I was bridesmaid, he faked a migraine and disappeared to our hotel room for the entirety of the reception. At my 30th birthday party, he vanished on a long walk and everyone kept asking where he was. When our oldest boy was born after a hugely fraught emergency C-section, he disappeared completely off the radar for 24 hours and didn’t tell anyone the baby had arrived. When I turned 50, we spent the day taking one son to see a new school, and when I said, brightly, “What are we doing now?” (meaning: who have you asked round?), he was baffled and said, “Nothing”. When he turned 50 and 60, I threw him lovely, intimate parties with just his closest friends invited.
Many of my social circle have never met my spouse – or my “imaginary husband” as one wag terms him – because he opts out of London trips, pubs, clubs, parties, weddings, festivals and most foreign travel. Now our sons are in their teens, he’s completely abandoned any notion of coming on family holidays. I’m the one who takes our boys to sporting events, concerts, galleries and family meet-ups. Next week, 11 members of my extended family will meet up for a week near Deal; everyone knew there was never any question he’d join us. Meanwhile, my spouse often remarks that I sit looking at our house walls “like someone looking for a secret trapdoor through which they can escape to a party version of Narnia”.
I know that I sound fatally disgruntled. You may wonder why we’re not heading for divorce. But here’s the flipside. Social gadabouts who are parents desperately need a reliable selfless homebody to give their children stability. There’s barely been a day of my sons’ lives when their dad hasn’t been home to cook meals, wash clothes, do homework, stand on school touchlines or put them to bed. He makes sure I pay bills on time, do my tax return, go for mammograms and make dental appointments. There’s no one better to watch Netflix or discuss a novel with, no one else who will buy exactly the right album for me. And as my friend Max (part of the extrovert’s support group) declares of his own experience: “Loud and quiet, what finer combination? They feed each other’s subliminal needs.”
But we’re hardly alone. Up and down the country, odd couples are having the same disputes and truces. One of my most vibrant friends says her lone wolf husband would lock her up in a family compound surrounded by 10-foot fences and barbed wire if he could get away with it. But the most content couples follow Sting’s mantra: “If you love someone, set them free.” Free to dance ’til dawn – and free to self-isolate, even when the pandemic is over.
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