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How Pingpong Diplomacy Saved Our Marriage

Playing pingpong during the pandemic diffused tension and restored our sense of fun

By Andrea Atkins

At first, I kind of liked the COVID-19 lockdown. Grateful for work, a home and being an empty nester, I enjoyed the slower pace and had no problem sitting on the couch with my husband night after night watching TV.

Orange and blue pingpong paddles and balls on a pingpong table. Marriage tension, Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

"I'm so glad we love each other," David mused one night. "It would be terrible if we were on the verge of divorce and forced to be together 24/7." I nodded in hearty agreement.

But not long after that COVID calm settled in, something very different arrived: tension. Back then, overflowing hospitals, death and the lack of a coronavirus cure dominated the news. No one knew how or when we'd get out of this mess.

Tension and Anxiety Crept In

Given that David runs a business based on in-person meetings, he was harboring a heightened anxiety that he wasn't sharing with me. But I sensed it, and it was scaring me, too. Before I knew it, David and I were sniping like a 1970s sitcom couple. 

"Can you please wipe up the crumbs after you make toast?" I'd grumble.

"Can you please not leave your shoes all over the house? And did you pay the Con Ed bill?" he'd snap.

"Why does cleaning up crumbs become a referendum on my bill paying?" I'd shoot back, "and why do you answer my request with a complaint of your own?" I didn't like the way I sounded. Or the way he spoke to me.

I began to understand how marriages crumble.

Our discourse felt like a runaway train rumbling through our happy life, trampling our joy. I was so angry that I avoided David in our not-that-large home. When we sat down for meals, even the sound of his chewing annoyed me. Each night, I curled up on the edge of our king-size bed — as far away from him as I could possibly get. And he didn't come looking for me.

I began to understand how marriages crumble. Castigate someone for not doing something enough times and that person may get defensive. Repeatedly charge your spouse with inconsideration and they might cut off communication altogether because they're tired of hearing what's wrong with them. I was starting to worry there might be no way back to the happy that we'd cultivated for more than 30 years.

Let the Pingpong Games Begin

One day, a month or so into our civil war, David asked me to play pingpong.

"Why not?" I said with a shrug.

We've always loved playing, but in our busy lives, we seldom do. The pingpong table — a prominent fixture in our basement -- often becomes the place where we fold laundry, leave outgoing mail or drop things that need to be stored.

But on this particular afternoon, we cleared it off cooperatively and bounced the ball back and forth, chatting as we played. Then we got quiet as we began to hit that ball faster and harder. Until….


"What a shot!" I shouted as David made a seemingly impossible return. 

"WHOA!" David roared as my shot grazed the end of the table and bounced just out of reach. By the end of our first game, I wanted to play again.

"Best of three?" I asked.

He agreed. I suddenly sensed something I hadn't in a long time: We were having fun. Together.

The more we played, the more we wanted to play. "Pingpong?" David would stick his head into my office mid-afternoon, and I would happily step away from my computer.

A Way to Have Fun Again

As spring arrived outside, a thaw arrived in my basement.

My response to the sound of the ball gnip-gnopping over the net was an almost Pavlovian calm. My singular focus on that little white orb was like a vacation from coronavirus realities for my brain and a massage for my ego. 

I made and returned amazing shots and never thought about my stress! The competition, ironically, was good for our marriage.

Our intense rallies puffed up our pride. (In the world of Forrest Gump-style players, we are probably nothing, but in our basement, we were astounding!) Between points we often bent over in laughter, bowled over alternately by our spectacular-ness or by our bungling ineptitude.

Standing directly across the table from my husband allowed me to really see his handsome face, which I liked. I knew he was taking me in, too — and I confess, I liked that.

Without these punctuation marks, marriage in quarantine can be one loooong sentence. Through pingpong, we rediscovered our exclamation point.

At the end of every match, we'd shake hands. Just touching each other was a reminder of what still exists between us. Soon, we were ending with a kiss — which led to some making out. In the midst of COVID-19, who couldn't use that?

The pandemic, I realized, had stripped us of the fun that fuels our relationship. No more movies, dinners with friends, trips to see our daughters or romantic getaways. Those "date nights" create conversation, shared experiences and even, sometimes, an opportunity to be glad we're married to each other — not that idiot down the block. Without these punctuation marks, marriage in quarantine can be one loooong sentence. Through pingpong, we rediscovered our exclamation point.

We joke all the time that pingpong saved our marriage. That may be an exaggeration, but pingpong did save us from being partners who slam, instead of appreciate, one another, who lob insults instead of love and are too far from each other to even come to the table. 

And that's a good thing to know as we emerge from COVID-19 one year later: Even when the chips are down, we can find our fun. So, as the pandemic recedes, I think I'll keep our pingpong appointments. I really like how they end.

Contributor Andrea Atkins
Andrea Atkins 

Andrea Atkins is a freelance writer whose articles and essays have appeared in numerous national magazines and web sites. She and her husband raised their two daughters in Westchester County, NY, where they still live. 
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