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Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.

Balancing Time Together vs. Apart

Every relationship is a balance of time spent together and time spent apart.

This weekend was a good one for dinner and drinks with friends, a birthday party, dressing up, going to the market, and a long slow walk in the middle of the night with fast-moving clouds. It was also a good weekend for doing just “stuff.” I dug boxes out of the basement and sorted their contents into Keep/Recycle/Trash. I put up some Christmas decorations (finally). And I read in quiet.

In sorting through boxes, I found a number of paintings and pieces of writing (short stories, poems) evidence of a time when I did a lot of what I call “being together, apart” or what a friend calls “co-puttering” (a term I’ll use here for its simplicity). It reminded me of the different ways that people experience friendships and relationships, and how some people prefer to do everything together and others have a preference for some mixture of time spent together and time spent apart, including a recognition that you can be apart but somehow together.

The paintings and writings were from times in my life when I lived with people (roommates in some cases, a former partner in another) who, like me, were comfortable with co-puttering. We didn’t have to do every little thing together to be friends/partners or to be close. As an example, with the former partner, this was a typical Saturday: I would wake up early and go to the farmer’s market alone. I’d come home to drop off my things and then change to visit an eccentric lady who taught yoga in her log cabin in the woods. We practiced yoga, and over lunch, she told me winding stories about her life.

By the time I returned home, my partner was usually awake, writing, working, watching sports on TV, or playing music. I’d be home briefly before leaving for a swim, hang out with a girlfriend, or take riding lessons. When I came home mid-afternoon, he was usually playing music or mixing music in his studio, filling our home. In the evening, we would either co-putter (he’d watch TV, I’d read) or we’d watch a movie or go out to dinner. This worked beautifully for us.

Some people have a greater need for togetherness and they do all sorts of things together throughout the day—errands, hobbies, and so on. I like togetherness, most people do. But especially at the beginning of a relationship, it gives both partners a chance to get to know one another (and intimately, too). I have a strong need for my own space. I like to paint, draw, think, and read. I’ve always viewed these solitary pleasures as gifts. They make me happy, they don’t demand anything of those around me, and I can do them alone or as a co-puttering activity.

A friend, partner, or family member wants to work on their computer or watch TV? That’s fine. We co-putter in the same room or in separate rooms, being together but apart. I’m also fine with togetherness; it’s fun to have a partner to lunch with or visit a museum. But I need a balance.

We have a lot of time on the planet. We have a lot of time in our days. And one of our human tasks is figuring out how to spend that time, especially in partnership with friends, family, and intimates.

Here’s what can go wrong in a romantic relationship:

  • If a person isn’t aware of how they like to spend their time (alone, together, or some mix) then they may go with the flow of the person they’re with and become frustrated.
  • If a person is aware but doesn’t articulate their preferences to a partner, clearly, then the partner can’t know what they want. Togetherness is the default in most developing relationships. If you can't or don't say what you want, you're likely to be dissatisfied.

The good news is that this is what can be corrected:

  • Being aware of your preferences means that you may be able to clarify your feelings about the relationship. We all feel annoyed with other people at times, especially with people we really like (it’s the pendulum swing of emotions). When you can realize that you don’t really dislike the person, but you just need some time alone, that’s a good thing. It can help you to sustain a relationship and, over time, be more satisfied. It can help you to realize that you don’t need to throw everything out just because you’re feeling deprived of alone time.
  • Telling your partner what you like or need can go a long way toward making everyone happier and more satisfied. Simple communication goes a long way: “I like spending time with you, but I need time alone, too. Maybe I could do this while you do something else.” This lets the person know that you like him or her. It states your needs and it suggests a solution. If you feel like you've already said that and they're ignoring you, check yourself. Maybe you didn't say it clearly. These statements are not as clear: "I need to read." "I need to work." "I can't hang out." (None of these convey that you actually like the person but just want alone time).
  • You can create habits together. My grandparents (who were married for 67 years) created the following routine in retirement: My grandfather would wake up early to play golf with friends. Then they would have coffee together. After, he’d come home and pick up my grandmother to take her to her various classes (cake decorating, Spanish, French, and so on). Then she would make lunch and they ate together. In the afternoon, she would watch soap operas indoors while he sat on the porch. If I was with him, which was not uncommon because we lived around the corner, he and I played dominos or cards while listening to music from the 1920s, 1930s, or 1940s. In the evenings, they ate dinner together and watched TV shows that they both liked—Lawrence Welk and Benny Hill. The schedule worked for them. Sure, they still got annoyed with each other at times. They spent decades together. However, they seemed content, dedicated to each other, and in love.

My grandparents’ model of co-puttering was a lovely example for me. It’s what I later experienced naturally in one relationship. But I had to be very assertive about my time in other relationships with people who wanted more togetherness than I preferred. If you’re someone who enjoys alone time, it’s easy to feel annoyed and think you’re annoyed with the other person; all you need is time alone. On the flip side, if you crave togetherness, you might feel deprived or rejected.

We all have our preferences. And those preferences shift, so we're each likely to sometimes want more and sometimes want less. Being with a new person takes adjustment, too.

It might be worth considering:

  • What kind of time do you need alone? What kind of time do you want together?
  • How can you let the other person know what you need or want?
  • How you can create time together that works; especially in developing relationships where people try and fail with different levels of space or togetherness. And, frankly, the desire to spend time together in a new relationship is not always because of the need to be glued together; sometimes a new partner is just trying to figure out how and when to have sex, a basic human desire.

It would be a waste to find someone you genuinely enjoy spending time with, only to lose the chance to be with them because of your lack of awareness or an inability to tell them how you want to spend your hours, being together but apart. Again: We have many hours to spend on the planet. How will you create your alone time so that, when you want partnered time, you still have the option for that, too?

About the Author

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Research Scientist and Associate Director at The Center for Sexual Health Promotion and a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute.