This weekend was a good one for dinner and drinks with friends, a birthday party, dressing up, going to the market, and a long slow walk in the middle of the night with fast-moving clouds. It was also a good weekend for doing just “stuff”. I dug boxes out of the basement and sorted their contents into Keep/Recycle/Trash. I put up some Christmas decorations (finally). And I read in quiet.
In sorting through boxes, I found a number of paintings and pieces of writing (short stories, poems) evidence of a time when I did a lot of what I call “being together, apart” or what a friend calls “co-puttering” (a term I’ll use here for its simplicity). It reminded me of the different ways that people experience friendships and relationships, and how some people prefer to do everything together and others have a preference for some mixture of time spent together and time spent apart, including a recognition that you can be apart but somehow together.
The paintings and writings were from times in my life when I lived with people (roommates in some cases, a former partner in another) who, like me, were very comfortable with co-puttering. We didn’t have to do every little thing together to be friends/partners or to be close. As an example, with the former partner, a typical Saturday for us went something like this: I would wake up early and go to the farmer’s market alone. I’d come home to drop off my things and then change to go to the log cabin home of an eccentric lady who lived in the woods and taught yoga. There, we’d do yoga and then she’d tell me winding stories about her life over lunch. By the time I came home, my partner was usually awake, writing, working, watching sports on TV, or playing music. I’d be home briefly before going out again to swim, hang out with a girlfriend, or take riding lessons. When I came home mid-afternoon, he was usually playing music or mixing music in his studio, and it filled our home. I might read a book somewhere. In the evening, we would either co-putter (he’d watch TV, I’d read) or we’d watch a movie or go out to dinner. This worked beautifully for us.
Some people have a greater need for togetherness and they do all sorts of thing together throughout the day – errands, hobbies, and so on. And while I like togetherness – most people do, especially in the beginning of a relationship because it gives you both a chance to get to know one another (and, let's face it, to have sex) – I also have a strong need for my own space. I like to paint, draw, think, and read. I’ve always viewed these solitary pleasures as gifts. They make me happy, they don’t demand anything of those around me, and I can do them alone or as a co-puttering activity. A friend, partner, or family member wants to work on their computer or watch TV? That’s fine: I can paint, draw, or read. We can do this in the same room or in separate rooms, being together but apart. I’m also fine with togetherness; it’s fun to have a partner in crime to go to a museum with or to grab lunch with. But I've found I need a balance.
We have a lot of time on the planet. We have a lot of time in our days. And one of our very human tasks is figuring out how to spend our time, especially in partnership with friends, family, and relationship partners.
Here’s what can go wrong in a romantic relationship:
- If a person isn’t aware of how they like to spend their time (alone, together, or some mix) then they may go with the flow of the person they’re with and become frustrated.
- If a person is aware but doesn’t articulate their preferences to a partner – CLEARLY – then their partner can’t know what they want. And in the default in most developing relationships is togetherness. If you can't or don't say what you want, you're likely to be dissatisfied.
The good news is that this is what can go right in a relationship:
- Being aware of your preferences means that you may be able to clarify your feelings about the relationship. We all feel annoyed with other people at times, especially with people we really like (it’s the pendulum swing of emotions). When you’re able to realize that you don’t really dislike the person, but you just need some time alone, that’s a good thing. It can help you to sustain a relationship and, over time, be more satisfied. It can help you to realize that you don’t need to throw everything out just because you’re feeling deprived of alone time.
- Telling your partner what you like/need can go a long way toward making everyone happier and more satisfied. Saying something as simple as “I like spending time with you, but I need some time alone sometimes too. Maybe I could do this while you do something else” is an okay thing to say. It lets the person know that you like him or her. It states your needs. And it suggests a solution. If you feel like you've already said that and they're ignoring you, check yourself. Maybe you didn't say it clearly. Maybe you just said "I need to read" or "I need to work" or "I can't hang out" which are very, very different statements (none of these suggest you actually like the person but just want alone time).
- Over time you can create habits together that you like and that work for you. My grandparents (who were married for 67 years) created the following routine in retirement: My grandfather would wake up early to play golf with friends. Then they would grab coffee together. After, he’d come home and pick up my grandmother to take her to her various classes (cake decorating, Spanish, French, etc). Then she would make lunch and they’d eat together. In the afternoon, she would watch soap operas indoors while he sat on the porch. If I was with him, which was not uncommon because we lived around the corner, then he and I might play dominos or cards while listening to music from the 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s. In the evenings, they ate dinner together and watched shows that they both liked, such as Lawrence Welk and Benny Hill. It seemed to work well for them. Sure, they still got annoyed with each other at times. They were human beings who spent decades together. But mostly they seemed quite content, dedicated to each other, and in love.
My grandparents’ model of co-puttering was a lovely example for me. It’s what I later experienced very naturally in one relationship but that I had to be very assertive about in other relationships in which the people I dated wanted far more togetherness than I preferred. If you’re someone who enjoys alone time, it’s easy to feel annoyed – and to think you’re annoyed with the person – when really what you’re experiencing is a need for some alone time. If you crave togetherness, you might feel deprived or rejected when your partner wants alone time.
So, we all have our preferences. And those preferences shift, so we're each likely to sometimes want more and sometimes want less. Being with a new person takes some adjustment, too.
But if you think you want to try to have a happier, more satisfying experience of a relationship with another person, it might be worth considering:
- What kind of time do you need alone? What kind of time do you want together?
- How can you let the other person know what you need/want?
- How you can create time together that works, too - especially in developing relationships where people try and fail with different levels of space/togetherness (and frankly, some of people's desire to spend time together in new relationships is not always because they need to be glued to you; sometimes they're just trying to figure out how/when you will have sex - which is also a very basic human desire).
It would be a waste to find someone you genuinely enjoy spending time with, only to lose the chance to be with them because of your lack of awareness or an inability to tell him or her how you want to spend your hours, being together but apart. Again: we have lots and lots of hours to spend on the planet. How will you create your alone time so that, when you want partnered time, you still have the option for that too?
Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is an Associate Research Scientist and Co-Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and the sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. She is also the author of six books about sex and love; her newest is Sex Made Easy: Your Awkward Questions Answered for Better, Smarter, Amazing Sex. Follow her on Twitter @DebbyHerbenick.