It took Peter and Leslie, married four years, by surprise. It was a vague discomfort, a yearning for time alone and personal space, that led to tension and fighting over minor things.
No, they weren’t quarantining at home from the coronavirus. They had recently moved into a small starter home in a distant suburb of Philadelphia. New to the area, they had few friends and, thanks to long commutes, little free time. While they enjoyed their evenings and weekends together, they found themselves craving time to themselves.
“What we finally did was to build a little retreat in the basement to which each of us could escape when we wanted time alone,” Peter remembers, decades later. “It really cut down on the fights and allowed us to enjoy our time together as well as time apart.”
Couples claustrophobia can happen at any time in a relationship – perhaps when a couple is first married or living together and struggling to find a balance between time apart and time shared or, even more commonly, after a couple retires.
My neighbor Anne told me recently that she feels crowded now that her husband is home all the time. A former corporate project manager, he is restless, not sure what to do with himself. And he is driving her crazy. He has been busy utilizing his project management skills in a new way: telling her how to load the dishwasher, how to organize the laundry room, more efficient ways to tackle housecleaning — all things that were of no interest to him whatsoever in the 40 years of their marriage before retirement.
"We need to get away from each other," she told me. "I have this fantasy of us living in two small houses, side by side. Mine would be filled with books and cats. His would be spare and immaculate with a big screen TV tuned perpetually to sports. And we'd visit each other regularly, amorously and otherwise, but we would also enjoy solitary splendor in homes perfect for us."
While dreaming of separate domiciles isn’t the most common post-retirement fantasy, feeling crowded emotionally can happen even when couples are happy together.
“There is this old saying that I find newly relevant,” Anne told me. “I married him for life — but not for lunch!”
How can couples of all ages create a balance of time together and time alone that works for them? Some, like Peter and Leslie, may carve out personal spaces at home for quick retreats when they feel the need for some solitary time. This, of course, becomes harder when there are young children in the family.
“My wife and I take turns retreating,” a friend I’ll call Mark told me recently. “I’ll take the children and entertain them or help them with homework while she takes a leisurely bath or nap. And she’ll keep the kids occupied while I retreat to my little hiding place in the garage — behind some old furniture stacked in a corner. I have a comfortable chair, a lamp, and a pile of books. It’s perfect.”
Honoring each other’s needs for time alone and time to pursue one’s own interests can make life together, in retirement or in coronavirus lockdown, more harmonious. While those two situations are quite different in many ways, the increased togetherness, the loss of work routines, and uncertainty about what comes next can be somewhat similar.
In both instances, there can be a sense of loss of the life you knew before this major event. So what can you do when you and your partner love each other dearly but find constant togetherness hard to take?
1. Find or rediscover interests and hobbies. Don't expect your spouse to take full responsibility for keeping life interesting. Think about things you enjoyed as a child or young adult. Would any of these activities please you once more? What have you always thought you'd like to try if you only had the time? If you go into quarantine or retirement with interests, hobbies, and a plan for your leisure time, the transition is likely to be much smoother. Sleeping and television watching don't count. Look for activities that engage your interest and skills in a new way.
2. Discuss making positive lifestyle changes with your spouse. Maybe you can divide the household work to create more leisure for both. Whether you’re both working or retired, is it fair that one person still gets stuck with the housework? Or all the cooking? Unless one of you prefers to take on or retain the total responsibility for these tasks, it might make sense to renegotiate.
3. Give yourself some structure as well as freedom. Transitioning from the structure of life as you knew it before the coronavirus or in your work life to the very new world of confinement or retirement (or both!) can be unexpectedly tough. Ease the passage with some structure: a morning workout at home, a time to read the newspaper, a time to do housework or scroll through social media or Facetime with friends or pursue special interests or hobbies.
4. Give each other a break. You don't have to share all your interests. But it can help to be supportive of each other's choices. "My husband Joe loves golf and plays nearly every day," my friend Pat said the other day. "When he's playing golf, I love to sit down, read, and just enjoy the quiet. The TV is never on when he's gone. As soon as he comes home, he turns on the TV. That's okay. That's what he likes. What makes it work for us is that each of us gets to enjoy time alone and time together."
5. Don't expect your spouse to meet all your needs. Though your husband or wife may be your best friend, closest companion, and true love throughout your marriage, it's quite likely that from youth to older age, friends and family members have enriched your days as well. Maybe there's a special joy in talking with a sibling or close cousin. Maybe taking a walk with a special friend can make your day. Embracing all the love in your life can enhance your happiness both together and apart.
Having more time together is a dream for many of us — but it can take careful planning, personal reflection, and talking together about daily tasks, activities, and priorities to make sure that your time together reflects this dream of togetherness — not a claustrophobic nightmare.