As a mother’s day present, my husband sent me on a vacation to see one of my closest friends. He said that I needed a break and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Although I knew that it would be fun and this sounds wonderful in theory, I struggled with the idea of being away from my family and work for several days and throwing all of my responsibilities aside for someone else to deal with.

Like most women, I define myself based on my relationships and my days are largely devoted to caring for others. We care for others through housework, parenting, mentoring others, and providing emotional support. We are often in caregiving professions as well, like nursing and psychology. To shed the role as caregiver and the many responsibilities that come with that role is anxiety-provoking. Who will I be if I’m separated entirely from my relationships for days?

When you define yourself based on your relationships, you are also defining yourself based on the responsibilities of the relationship. Unless there is balance in the relationship between responsibilities and fun, this means that your relationship responsibilities can become so entwined with your identity that you lose touch with the fun side of the relationship and your own fun side. This can lead relationships (and life) to feel like they are all work and no play. This chronic stress weighs on people and often it is chronic stress that contributes to poor physical and psychological health.

Although working at a relationship is essential, it is also necessary for part of the work of the relationship to be play. This maintains a balance of pleasure and responsibility in the relationship and prevents the stress of maintaining a relationship from becoming all encompassing.

Sometimes the play is done with your partner; doing whatever you used to do when you first got together—going to the beach, spending all day in bed, or exploring a fun new location. This is important relationship work and should be scheduled in order to ensure that responsibilities never get in the way. I often suggest that couples schedule date nights once or twice a month in order to ensure that they have time to connect to one another and enjoy one another’s company.

Other times, the play of a relationship may be done separately—taking time to maintain your individuality and do what you want to do without having to consider someone else’s needs or desires. This may especially be important if you are often sacrificing your desires for your partners’ or if you often take on the caregiving role. Space is often essential to a healthy relationship as you do not cease to be an individual when you join a couple. You must nurture yourself as an individual in order to nurture the relationship.

Sometimes it is easy to forget all of this—to get so hung up in the daily responsibilities and stress that you forget to have fun and what it feels like to be happy and carefree. I am certainly guilty of this, but I am lucky to have a husband who reminds me of this (and sometimes gives me no choice but to take some time out for myself). The wonderful thing is that when my husband forced me to take a vacation, it brought me back from being an overworked and stressed mom and wife to just being me. I really did need a break from everything. The bad news is now I have to tell my husband he was right.  I will never live that down.

About the Author

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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