You hear a lot of talk about quality time in our time-crunched society, whether it be quality time with kids or romantic partners or friends, or even one’s own self. Considering this, you might be surprised to know that I’ve had many couples come to me for couples counseling with the following pressing question on their minds:
“Are we spending too much time together?”
Why do you think this is? Have you ever felt like you needed a break from your spouse or partner? And, if so, have you felt guilty about it?
I also field many variations of the question: “How much time should couples spend together?”, which, perhaps disappointingly to the questioners, has no hard-and-fast answer. What might be perceived as too much time together for one couple might be not enough for another.
Let’s explore “Are we spending too much time together?” further and home in on three points to consider:
1) Sharing your life may be fulfilling, but it’s not naturally easy
First of all, it’s important to note that living with someone is hard. Even if you’re a very compatible couple, even if you love each other and like each other, even if you could turn to your partner right now and genuinely say, “I love spending time with you” (and even if s/he would sincerely reply, “I love spending time with you, too!”)…even with all those ‘evens’ satisfied, it’s challenging to enmesh your life with another human being’s. Yes, it can be joyful, too, but those couples who deny the inherent challenges are the ones who can end up in trouble, mistakenly thinking they aren’t right for each other instead of identifying the challenges as universal to cohabitating adults.
(Keep in mind that I’m not trying to talk couples out of couplehood! Quite the contrary, I’m trying to normalize the experience. And since humans are social animals, we are wired to be with others…we just don’t have to be with them all of the time…)
2) Where is the you-time in your life?
The second thing to consider is that you probably spend a great deal of your day doing things for other people (and that’s especially the case if you have kids, as I don’t need to tell you!). Whether you’re doing work for a boss or clients, whether you’re doing a favor for a friend, whether you’re helping out your parents or other relatives, you probably have very little time reserved for just yourself. Despite the fact that we no longer have to scrape our laundry clean on a washboard or churn our own butter, this modern life is exceptionally busy.
Therefore, the last thing you should feel guilty about is craving some time apart in a relationship! And if you are prone to guilt, remember this: you will be a better parent, partner, employee, etc., when you have time to nurture yourself. Self-care is not selfish! And for many people, alone-time is part of that self-care that allows them to live life for fully, for themselves and the people they love.
3) Don’t perceive all images in the media as fact
A third thing to think about is that we’ve been fed very unrealistic notions about relationships (and life in general) through the media. Comparing yourselves to the image of perpetually happy couples in various media streams will get you nowhere but frustrated. And since so much of what’s out there is carefully-crafted illusion with the goal of entertaining or selling a product, it bears no relation to real life. If you asked cardboard people how much time should a couple spend together, they’d proclaim, in eerie lockstep unison, “24/7 of course!”
You get the picture…
If you look forward to spending time away from your partner on a regular basis (whether it’s alone-time or time with friends or co-workers), this does not mean that you are with the “wrong” person…it means you are human!
There’s quality time, and then there’s at-each-other’s-throats time
I remember buying a house years ago and working with a husband-and-wife real estate team. Their marketing photo showed them with linked hands, beaming broadly, their little dogs cavorting around their ankles. Anyone would think they had the perfect marriage. It seems idyllic, doesn’t it? Going off to work together in the morning, working together all day, and then coming home together at the end of the day? (You’re not alone if you just said, “No!”)
Well, I remember this couple as skilled, helpful Realtors, and then I remember something else. We had stopped at the realty office at which they worked one day, and they asked me to wait in the lobby while they gathered some paperwork from the employees-only section. And the minute they rounded the corner out of my sight, they started bickering. (Apparently they assumed because I couldn’t see them, I also couldn’t hear them.)
I heard a volley of angry recriminations, such as: “I thought I asked you to have those documents ready before we showed him the houses!” “I thought you were going to do that…it’s your turn, after all.” “Did you call to make the appointment for that last one?” “No, did you?” “Well, no wonder the seller wasn’t expecting us!” “Your dialing fingers don’t look broken…”
The receptionist sighed, rolled her eyes, and said to me, “It’s not you. They always do that. Can I get you some coffee while you wait?”
Case in point, it’s not always better to live together and work together.
With that said, couples who do happen to work together smoothly, with a minimum of conflict (zero conflict doesn’t exist in relationship land, mind you, nor should it), do not love each other more than the real estate couple I just mentioned…it’s not about love, it’s about the Realtors needing more time apart than they were getting.
I’ve seen many couples where one or both partners were newly retired…and suddenly their relationship slipped into distress. They had looked forward to being together much more, and now that that time had finally come, they didn’t know why they were struggling. The couples who acknowledge that part of the problem may be that they’re suddenly spending too much time together come out of this period of distress more quickly than those who try to force themselves into some preconceived mold.
This issue is magnified in the case of retirement, where not only great swaths of time open up, but great swaths of attention too. When you no longer have that career to take up much of your mental energy, you might put new—and unrealistic—demands on your marriage or relationship and insist that it be the Everything in your life.
So if you don’t necessarily love your job, but you can’t wait till your long vacation ends (or for your partner’s to end), you’re not alone! It’s normal and healthy to want time away from your mate. That time apart can actually help you enjoy and appreciate your together time even more.
Here’s to meaningful time together and apart!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Featured image “Girl cupping face with stacked books” by Stuart Miles www.freedigitalphotos.net