Can Your Relationship Survive Too Much Togetherness?

New research on relationships suggests how to cope when you're together 24/7.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

The spread of the novel coronavirus is placing novel challenges on couples, families, roommates, and anyone who lives within the same four walls with more than one other person. Working from home, social distancing, isolation, and shelter-in-place orders mean that people who only spent evenings and weekends together are now in more or less constant contact.

Although there may have been many times in your life when you wished you could spend more time with those you care about, these situations are causing you to regard these wishes in a different light. Rather than being with your loved ones, friends, or people you like all the time, you’re used to having the freedom to see friends outside the house, spend lunch hours with coworkers, and enjoy part of your weekend at restaurants, bars, sporting events, the theater, and many other outside-the-home leisure pursuits. What used to be called “cabin fever” in referring to weather-related forced time at home is now turning into a potential constant malady.

Given the recency of this phenomenon of enforced togetherness, there is little research to use as a guide for you to figure out how to help your relationships stay strong under these potentially stressful conditions. One new study on leisure time use by couples may provide you with some useful pointers. University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Leslie Stapley and Nancy Murdock (2020) pursued the question of how individuals in close relationships can, through leisure time, achieve a balance between togetherness and separateness in a way that helps maintain those bonds.

Using what is called the “Core and Balance Model” of leisure functioning (Olson, 2000), the University of Missouri researchers observe that families in ordinary conditions search for a “balance between familiarity and change in their leisure activities by participating in both core activities, or common activities that are low cost and occur on a regular basis" (e.g. watching television), and “balance activities, or activities that are less common, less frequent, and generally more expensive" (e.g. vacations) (p. 78). Previous researchers testing this model looked at the amount of time and degree of satisfaction in core and balance activities as predictors of relationship satisfaction but haven’t, as Stapley and Murdock note, looked at that togetherness-separateness ratio and its effect on couple outcomes.

One key feature that may determine how the togetherness-separation ratio plays out for a couple is what the authors call “self-differentiation,” or the ability to maintain your sense of self independently of your relationship. People high on this quality are able to derive enjoyment from solitary as well as joint activities, and without necessarily wanting to "get away," seem to prefer having the chance to go off on their own once in a while. When they do come back together, they are able to benefit from these independent experiences that enrich their relationship. Being forced to spend all of their time together would, if self-differentiation applies, ultimately harm the relationship because each partner would feel stifled.

According to the concept of self-differentiation, couples who are able to maintain their independent sense of themselves should be able to find an ideal degree of togetherness by negotiating the time they spend in both core and balance activities. This ideal degree should relate, in turn, both to higher satisfaction in the relationship and greater satisfaction with the time they spend together. Using a sample of 266 adults involved in a committed relationship for no less than 2 years (average age 32, ranging from 18 to 80 years), the Kansas City researchers collected data on self-differentiation, time spent in leisure activities, and shared leisure time satisfaction. The self-differentiation measure included questions designed to assess whether individuals preferred to maintain some emotional distance from others, were self-accepting, could make decisions on their own, and felt emotionally stable. Participants also rated their perceived time balance and feelings of satisfaction with that time balance.

The findings indicated that self-differentiation indeed played a role in determining relationship satisfaction via the influence of satisfaction with shared leisure time. As the authors noted, “individuals who have higher levels of [sense of self] might be able to more effectively ask for desired time together and ask to do activities that are more personally meaningful, resulting in more enjoyable time together” (p. 94). In other words, if you know what you want to do in order to feel satisfied with a leisure time activity, you’ll get more out of it, especially if your partner is willing to accommodate your desires. Furthermore, findings regarding the other scales of self-differentiation suggested that people higher in this quality are also better able to tolerate situations in which they can’t have their exact needs met.

What happens when you’re put in that position of forced togetherness experienced when you have no choice but to be together? Although the working-from-home scenario may be a unique situation now, there are always situations when couples must be together more than they may prefer. If you’ve ever been on a trip with your partner when there’s literally nothing to do at night other than hunker down in a cramped motel room or cottage, you know that these situations can happen quite often. Even under these conditions, though, it's possible to feel that your sense of self is well respected if your partner is content to let you go off in a corner and read for a while rather than insisting you do nothing but talk or watch a TV show or movie together.

Here, then, can be the key to maintaining separateness in the face of constrained togetherness. Within the confines of whatever space you are sharing, whatever its size, allow each of you to carve out the room to get your own alone time. This alone time may consist of nothing more than engaging in some mundane household chores, such as folding laundry or cleaning out a cabinet. Don’t feel that just because you now have time together you need to spend it in activities that engage both of you, all the time. If physical separation is possible, so much the better, as long as neither of you feels neglected or rejected by one partner’s need for space.

To sum up, under the best of conditions, couples are able to make choices in how they spend their time. When those choices are taken away from you, for whatever reason, finding your fulfillment as a couple may very well rest on maintaining your fulfillment as an individual.

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References

Olson, D. H. (2000). Circumplex model of marital and family systems. Journal of Family Therapy, 22(2), 144–167. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-6427.00144

Stapley, L. A., & Murdock, N. L. (2020). Leisure in romantic relationships: An avenue for differentiation of self. Personal Relationships

doi: 10.1111/pere.12310