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5 March 2023

It was only when my husband was stranded on the motorway that I felt truly married

Forget the ring or the piece of paper, elation at the sound of your partner’s key in the door officialises a relationship.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Two weeks ago, our car broke down on the M40. The clutch decided to pack in completely, with no warning, leaving my husband marooned alone by the roadside at 10pm on the way home from Oxford. Worse still, the clutch had timed its self-destruction to occur in the middle of the Stokenchurch Gap, a ravine where the motorway hard shoulder is precariously narrow, flanked by looming chalk cliffs, and where there are, of course, no lights at all. The very helpful people at the RAC assured him help would arrive within 45 minutes. Over four hours later, he was still there.

We are both, if I’m honest, still somewhat traumatised by the experience. What with the emergency rescue (we thought we had breakdown insurance, turns out we didn’t – ouch) and the repair that followed, it has been an expensive month. To use a quintessentially millennial word that rarely graces the pages of this magazine, adulting can be bloody rubbish. 

The money, though, isn’t the important bit. For four and a half hours, there was a part of me utterly convinced my husband was going to die, mowed down next to our stationary vehicle by some sleep-deprived van driver pelting down the M40 at 80mph. It’s not rational, I know, but I have always been a jittery person and the last few years (namely: a global pandemic, three national lockdowns, and a complete if temporary cessation of life as we knew it) have turned what was a manageable social quirk into a full-blown anxiety disorder. It takes relatively little to send my catastrophising brain off into spiralling mode these days (sour milk in the fridge, an article on antibiotic resistance, the cat swallowing a rubber band), and as reasons for panic attacks go, a loved one stranded in the midst of speeding traffic seems a pretty legitimate one.

I didn’t panic though, at least not in the moment. Because he needed me to hold it together and distract him from losing his mind in the freezing, petrol-fumed darkness. So I stayed on the phone, hour after lonely hour, remaining upbeat and reassuring. Of course the RAC would arrive soon (they did, eventually, a dozen increasingly frantic phone calls later). Of course he would get home safe. One day, this would all be a funny story.

I mention this because someone asked me at a party recently what being married was like. A year ago I was musing over whether there was any point in doing it at all in today’s secular, progressive world. As my first wedding anniversary approaches, I’m still not entirely convinced there is – and it seems many women agree with me. Recently released census data shows that over half of women my age are now choosing to stay single, figures that have sparked a certain degree of consternation among those who believe there’s something special and aspirational about marriage.

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Still, those four hours on the phone calmly talking my husband through his distress and misery while I was inwardly disintegrating are about as married as I’ve felt this past year. And I think in terms of what officialises a relationship, that counts more than any ring or piece of paper. Forget the thrill of the wedding or the indulgence of the honeymoon – I’ve never felt as elated as I did hearing his key in the lock when he finally made it home.

[See also: Cupid Loves Eros review: a queer kind of poetry]

We have recently been forced to re-examine our assessment of the cat’s intelligence. All the evidence to date has pointed towards her being intellectually sub-normal compared to the baseline for her species: she frequently seems perplexed by the existence of her own paws, and on multiple occasions has got herself stuck in a paper bag. We once gave her a feline IQ test, which she failed spectacularly. Other cat owners quickly agree upon meeting her that she is possibly the stupidest cat on the planet.

One thing she absolutely cannot grasp is the concept of time. For five years supper has been served at 9pm – late enough that we don’t get woken up by dawn yowling – but now the pleas of anguished starvation begin at any point from dusk onwards, and continue to grow ever more plaintive as the evening draws on. In desperation (the noises made by a hungry cat have a similar frequency to the cries of a human baby) we have taken to feeding her progressively earlier, and offering a late-night top-up if needed.

Hang on, meals on demand and extra food?! Maybe she’s not quite so stupid after all.

[See also: The real reason to worry about young people not getting married]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid