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Time Together and Time Apart

Striking a balance between the two can be helpful.

In our last article, we talked about how friends have a powerful effect on our marriage and our personal emotional health. Beyond providing emotional support in our time of need, spending time with others helps to strengthen our identification as a couple and make us feel connected to the world.

Just as important for a successful marriage, however, is the amount of time couples spend doing things with each other, without other couples. Partners who do things together become more closely connected and come to enjoy each other’s company. That’s because shared experiences give them something in common; that helps make them feel good about each other. For couples who have established a habit of doing things together, many actually come to enjoy these activities more than those they do on their own or with other people.

The amount of time together matters, of course, but it’s more about how that time is used. For joint activities to be beneficial, they have to meet a few criteria. First, they have to lead partners to interact with each other in a positive way. Even simple chores, such as grocery shopping or gardening, can add to a relationship if partners are engaged while they’re doing it.

Secondly, joint activities have to be enjoyable to both partners. Most couples have at least one or two similar interests, so they should be able to come up with things they can do together. If they don’t have things they both enjoy or can’t find something new, they can take turns participating in each other’s activities. But keep in mind that fairness and balance are essential. Partners should have an equal say in selecting activities and equal time should be dedicated to each partner’s interests. If we only choose to do our own activities, our partner will probably get tired of that arrangement, and our time together may then be more damaging than enhancing to our relationship.

Commitment is also important. If we agree to participate in our partner’s activity, we have to do it willingly and give the impression that we’re interested. This is a form of emotional work—it's the art of presenting yourself as involved even though you might not be, because you want to make your partner happy. If we act bored or disinterested with a partner’s activity, we not only take away their enjoyment, but that same attitude is likely to be reciprocated when it’s our turn to pick an activity.

Marriages also benefit when spouses have time for themselves, either to pursue their own interests or just to relax. Personal time allows us to maintain our individual identities, provides opportunities to do things we like to do, and lets us feel like we have some control over our lives. Alone time can actually help to keep a relationship fresh and less stressful.

How much personal time is optimal varies from couple to couple. What’s most important is that spouses agree how much time they want together and apart. When handled correctly, each partner feels they’re getting their fair share. Here perceptions are more important than the actual number of hours. Even if couples spend very little time together or very little time apart, the relationship is fine if the proportion is what they both want. If each partner has different perspectives, however, the amount of time together and apart can be a source of conflict. For some partners, too much together time can be suffocating, while for others too little can make them feel insecure and isolated.

In heterosexual relationships, husbands and wives may have different ideas as to how much time should be dedicated to the couple and the individual. In many couples, the wife tends to want more couple time, usually because she regards it as important for bolstering a marriage and making sure there’s solidarity as a couple. Her husband, on the other hand, may tend to prefer more time on his own.

That’s not to say men aren’t that interested in spending time with their wives. Rather, it may stem from the fact that men tend to have more and better quality leisure time than women. Men tend to excel at compartmentalizing, so issues they’re dealing with in one part of their lives don’t interfere with the other parts. It’s easier, then, for them to put their work and home responsibilities aside and enjoy whatever else they’re doing. Perhaps more importantly, however, is that many husbands still expect their wives to take care of their home and family. Consequently, they don’t feel as much pressure to sacrifice their personal time as their wives might.

Women bearing the brunt of at-home responsibilities can make their leisure time problematic. Their concerns about child care and maintaining their homes are often on their minds, even when they’re supposed to be "taking time off." While some can balance their various roles as spouse, worker, and home maintainer, many find themselves unable to switch off these roles and relax enough to get absorbed in their personal interests. The result is to make their personal time more fragmented, stressful, and much less enjoyable. Additionally, despite or because of all their responsibilities, many women don’t feel as entitled to free time as do men. They might feel guilty when they take time for themselves, and that can makes their leisure time more of a source of stress.

Taking a break is important for a marriage. For wives who constantly sublimate their own needs to those of her family or career, husbands might want to encourage them to take a mini-vacation from their job. However, in order for her to do so, he will have to assure her that her home and family will be fine—and a big part of that assurance includes fully taking on the responsibilities she’s trying to let go of. Husbands might want to keep in mind that this is actually in their best interests. Reduced pressure from responsibilities will make wives happier, and when wives are happy, husbands generally feel the same way.

We should also mention that a couple’s leisure time should be split between spouses-only versus time spent with children. While men will tend to lump the two together, possibly so they can kill two birds with one stone, wives will generally differentiate between the two, and will require time with her husband, both with and without children. Many women are with their children quite often, and time with just her husband breaks up her workload and helps her feel she has a balanced lifestyle—not to mention maintains her sanity.

As we’ve referenced throughout, balance and compromise are essential when it comes to using time. A mix of time with friends and family, time together as a couple, and separate time for each partner add to marital quality, as does an equal split between our circle and activities and those of our partner. If balance is missing, it’s wise to have a straightforward discussion with your partner and work out the necessary negotiations to get to a better place.

Such discussions should focus on the practical aspects of time allocation, as well as on the reasons for the imbalance. For example, if your spouse avoids joint activities with you, find out if it’s the activities themselves or some other reason. Your partner may have issues about how you act when doing your activities or how you react to his or her activities. While you might not like the answer, at least you’ll learn something about your relationship and you can then work on that. Dismissing this issue as unimportant is wrong-headed. The negative emotions that result from how you use time could affect other parts of your relationship. Besides, if your problem is simply time allocation, this is relatively easy to fix, so it’s best to eliminate it and have one less thing to worry about.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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