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Why Some People Are Never on Time

Who's in charge? It may not be the person who set the meeting time.

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By Julie Jarett Marcuse, Ph.D.

There are few things more ubiquitous than lateness. “I’m running late!” is a well-worn exclamation.

But while everyone is late on occasion, I am going to focus on recurrent lateness, be it five minutes or 30. Just as we have come to understand that jokes or slips of the tongue can conceal unconscious attitudes or motivations, we understand that lateness, too, is meaningful—especially when it is habitual or shows up consistently in a particular relationship.

So, what might being late communicate?

Power dynamics deeply influence time management. This influence is often experienced in terms of dominance and submission. As an example, I will describe a patient in my practice who came to see me because her lateness was putting a valued job in jeopardy. Our work on this difficulty offers an opportunity to examine the meaning of being late.

My patient experienced some aspects of employment as humiliating: She felt her boss enjoyed his power. She could not distinguish between his “right” to control her hours and his control over her as a person. It irked her that he might feel morally superior, and she worried that her inability to get to work on time confirmed this. Her protest took the form of chronic lateness.

Lateness is part of a dialogue of push and pull. It passively expresses resentment about the expectations of others—and anger about submitting to external demands. My patient’s sense of entitlement magnified her anger. She wished to defy her boss and to come and go as she pleased. At the same time, since she craved his approval, her defiance was a source of insecurity and stress. She also feared losing her job.

Through our work together in therapy, my patient was able to see how she had reacted to her boss as if he were her unreasonable, insatiable father. She came to understand that her lateness was a compromise between opposing forces within herself—her spirit of independence was at odds with her needs for approval. It was a communication that expressed resentment, but also tried to contain it by keeping the transgression small and indirect.

Punctuality is a matter of consideration for others. It is a sign of good manners, sometimes deference, and sometimes merely a willingness to cooperate. It need not imply a difference in status. It arises out of perspective, graciousness, and clarity about self-assertion. It is a social necessity. Once you have set the time for something, it is no longer the occasion for a statement about autonomy, or the place to vent resentment over past grievances.

Being late expresses disrespect. It implies other priorities. No one likes to wait for someone, wondering if the person is challenging or forgetting them.

Lateness is meaningful because it reveals an internal conflict: My patient wanted to do well at work, but believed that “submitting” to her boss would diminish her as a person. However, since no two people are alike, the precise content of these conflicts vary. Therapy is a safe space to examine all kinds of conflicts, particularly those that are out of awareness.

If lateness is an issue in your own life, try the following experiment: Select one day and come to every appointment five minutes early. Check out how this feels. Not only may you feel empowered but a diffuse burden may feel lifted. As much as the chronically tardy may deny its significance, lateness often has a psychological meaning.

Being punctual can feel like a huge relief. Power struggles rarely accomplish their goals—and consume energy you could be placing better elsewhere.

Julie Jarett Marcuse, Ph.D., is a psychologist/psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan. She works with adults using an eclectic psychodynamic approach. Her clinical specialties are anxiety, depression, relationship issues, gender issues, eating disorders, and emotional trauma. She just completed an 11-year tenure as Head of the Sexual Abuse Service at the William Alanson White Institute.

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