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Can Punctuality Ruin Love?

How partners can stay together when one struggles with lateness.

"I am invariably late for appointments — sometimes as much as two hours. I've tried to change my ways, but the things that make me late are too strong, and too pleasing.” — Marilyn Monroe

“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” — Charles Dickens

There are good reasons for considering punctuality to be a virtue. But is punctuality compatible with the more spontaneous and accommodating nature of romantic relationships? There are reasons to think it is not.

Emotions, politeness, and punctuality

“Punctuality is one of the cardinal business virtues: always insist on it in your subordinates.” — Don Marquis

“Punctuality is the politeness of kings.” — King Louis XVIII of France

Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock
Source: Dragana Gordic/Shutterstock

The spontaneous, direct, and sincere nature of emotions is contrary to the deliberative, indirect, and artificial nature of politeness. In intense emotional states, we often do not pay attention to practical constraints and the conventional rules of good manners. Although such manners are frequently morally valuable, profound moral attitudes go far beyond politeness. Murder is not considered impolite; it is a grave moral crime. Similarly, falling asleep during intercourse is not merely impolite; it is emotionally offensive. Emotions often hurt other people, whereas the main function of good manners is to prevent such harm. Accordingly, good manners are a useful means of hiding genuine emotions. Teaching children good manners is teaching them, among other things, to hide their real emotions.

Similar to politeness, punctuality is an important quality when it comes to strangers, people who are different in status or nature from you, and public activities in general. Punctuality is a type of good manners. Unpunctuality can cause uncertainty and a negative evaluation of the unpunctual person's nature and whereabouts. Letting others know our situation (“I am stuck in a traffic jam”) can eliminate uncertainty and reduce stress.

Punctuality in love

“Few things tend more to alienate friendship than a want of punctuality in our engagements.” — William Hazlitt

In loving relationships, in which spontaneity, sincerity, and flexibility play such essential roles, politeness—which is usually a kind of superficial and rigid manner of avoiding inadvertent offenses—is of less importance. Accordingly, lovers are less careful about what they say and do. This can hurt their partners. As the old song indicates, "You always break the kindest heart with a hasty word you can't recall." The price of being able to behave freely in love, without always having to tread carefully and hesitate before acting or opening your mouth, is that you can do or say impetuous things that might hurt your lover.

Unpunctuality can harm the development of long-term profound love, which is based on shared emotional experiences and joint activities. Such development presupposes a certain coordination between the two lovers. Accordingly, some level of punctuality is also necessary in loving relationships. Lateness can indeed hurt those we love, and we should try to prevent it as much as possible. However, being hurt is determined not merely by the lover who is unpunctual, but also by the way the punctual partner interprets the lover’s lateness.

The actor Chaim Topol recounted that his wife Galia was chronically unpunctual—and this often made him furious. One day, he reminded himself that he loved Galia immensely, and since he was unable to change her lack of punctuality, he should keep enjoying their loving relationship and simply accept that they would regularly be late for every event to which they were invited. Topol was not blind to his wife's unpunctuality, but he did not consider it to be a significant flaw, in part because she could not change this tendency.

In this vein, Lisa Neff and Benjamin Karney, in their article “To Know You Is to Love You” (2005), proposed a model of global adoration and specific accuracy in love, whereby spouses demonstrate a positive bias in their global perception of their partners, such as being "wonderful," and in this sense their love becomes (almost) unconditional. However, within this positive framework, they are able to display perceptual accuracy about their partners’ specific attributes, such as being unpunctual. The partner is indeed wonderful in a comprehensive manner, and therefore the lover pursues the relationship despite the beloved’s flaws, which he or she considers not to be grave. Being wonderful does not mean being flawless; it merely means that such flaws are evaluated as insignificant.

Can one be too punctual?

“If you're early, you're on time. If you're on time, you're late.” — Lik Hock Yap Ivan

“I am always late on principle, my principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.” — Oscar Wilde

It is clear that extreme unpunctuality is harmful and could endanger many relationships. Is extreme punctuality also harmful? Though extreme behavior is harmful in most cases, extreme punctuality seems to be less harmful than chronic lateness. Being punctual is usually beneficial in everyday life, and when accompanied by honesty and integrity, it is a great virtue.

The situation is somewhat different in romantic relationships, where reciprocity is expected. A lover who considers punctuality to be a significant virtue would typically regard a partner’s unpunctuality as a substantial flaw, thereby according the somewhat superficial value of punctuality, like that of politeness, too much weight, decreasing the importance of more profound values.

Punctuality becomes a problem when partners are incompatible regarding their degree of punctuality and the value they attach to it. When both lovers agree on the (positive or negative) value of punctuality, their relationship can withstand such differences in tendencies and attitudes. However, a normative dissonance can easily generate stress and distrust in both lovers. Even minor violations of punctuality are likely to insult the punctual partner, generating the feeling that the unpunctual individual is disrespectful not merely of his or her time, but also of more profound values. Such a feeling is likely to generate tension and wariness if the chronically late partner interprets the punctual partner's attitude as indicative of a failure to realize his or her romantic profundity.

Demanding unconditional punctuality, and considering its violation to be a significant offense, can distort a relationship, as partners begin to feel like strangers expected to treat each other with great politeness. Lynn says:

“I hate myself for being so punctual, especially when I am upset about my boyfriend's behavior. I typically will not have a romantic relationship with an unpunctual man, but if nevertheless, we are together for a while, I am okay with his unpunctuality, provided that he has significant virtues in more profound aspects.”

Extreme punctuality is often related to rigidity. The opposite of rigidity—flexibility, or the willingness to change or compromise—seems to be a more profound value than punctuality, as it enables adaptation to all sorts of circumstances. This is even truer in romantic relationships, in which you have to take into account your partner’s nature as well as various unexpected circumstances.

I am not saying that unpunctuality is a romantic virtue—I just oppose the view that regards moderate tardiness as a grave offense. The major problem with this view is that it can result in a distorted hierarchy of values—the treatment of a superficial value as if it were a very profound one.

Would you prefer your lover to be absent-minded or punctual?

“I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else.” — Gilbert K. Chesterton

The major aspect of lateness that insults those who are forced to wait is that it is seen as an expression of disregard and disrespect. However, this is not the only way to interpret unpunctuality. People can be unpunctual not because they disrespect a partner or fail to pay attention to his or her needs; it can simply be due to absent-mindedness or an inability to estimate time correctly. Here is the story of Gloria:

“I have a very good friend who is always late. At first, it drove me crazy. But soon I realized that I can compensate because I know that if we arrange to meet at 11:00, she won’t make it before 12:00, so I agree to meet at 11:00 but write down 12:00 in my diary. It works perfectly: She is always very apologetic—she didn’t expect the shopping to take so long; she didn’t think the traffic would be so bad; she forgot that she had to pop into the post office before she came; etc, etc. I always reassure her: ‘You did not expect things to take so long, but I did, so I knew you’d be late and I came late, too.’ That is part of all close relationships—compensating for the other’s flaw and expecting them to compensate for yours.”

Absent-mindedness is defined as “Deep in thought and heedless of present circumstances or activities; preoccupied” (The American Heritage Dictionary). It certainly does not refer to a sin. Absent-mindedness can be treated through the investment of time and effort in trying to make an individual person more attentive. But it is dubious whether changing another’s character is feasible or even worth the effort—although somewhat reducing absent-mindedness is usually beneficial. Moreover, trying to change someone’s character has its own emotional costs, especially when these efforts are less successful than expected.

Being attentive to a partner beloved is significant in loving relationships, but being attentive is not the same as always on time; it should refer to more profound aspects of the beloved’s life than punctuality.

Timing and punctuality, however, are very valuable in generating new romantic experiences; hence, I would not recommend being late for early dates. However, once love has been established, waiting is not a disaster and can even be pleasant, as you know that soon you will be together. It can be like having a tasty chocolate bar, but not eating it in order to prolong the pleasant feeling of anticipating a splendid experience.

Long-term profound love can be the result of fortunate timing, but maintaining and enhancing it depends upon investing time and not waiting for good timing to miraculously manifest itself. Punctuality is more important at the beginning of a relationship when partners do not know each other so well and being late might be regarded as profound disrespect. When the lovers know each other well, such an incorrect interpretation (if it is indeed incorrect) is less likely to prevail.

Concluding remarks

“I have noticed that the people who are late are often so much jollier than the people who have to wait for them.” — E.V. Lucas

Punctuality is typically a beneficial quality. In romantic relationships, its value is more limited; mutual caring and reciprocity are far more central. It is often believed that being punctual involves significant caring for the other, or at least his or her time. However, punctuality is not valuable for all people—those who are absent-minded, for example, are less likely to prioritize it. Caring for such people entails reducing the weight given to timeliness. The value of punctuality should be of moderate weight, leaving greater room for profound values. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that punctuality, like other forms of good manners, does have a role (though a more restricted one) in close or intimate relationships.

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