One of the universal challenges faced by couples is balancing the need for one’s own time and space versus the need for shared time and intimacy.
One Member of the Couple Can Feel Shortchanged by the Other’s Need for Separateness
The time your partner carves out for himself or herself can feel like time that you are being short-changed. You may find yourself wondering how, whatever that activity is (video games, shopping with the girls, time out with the boys, time on ones iPhone), can be anywhere near as valuable or important as time that might be spent with you.
The Definition of Shared Time Can Also Be Complicated
What does it mean to be sharing time? Is it enough just to have the partner home rather than out with the boys or out shopping, or is something more required? Are you sharing when both partners are in the same room reading a newspaper or book? What about when both members of the couple are on iPhones? What about when one is cooking dinner and the other, also in the kitchen, is on an iPhone? Or when both are in bed together and one is on working on a laptop?
An added complication is figuring out how shared time with family or friends fits in. Does a fun family activity with the kids in which you and your partner are both involved count as shared time? What about dinner out with a couple of friends or with your parents? For one member of the couple such group activities may qualify, while for the other it may not.
Healthy Couples Negotiate What Will Be Shared and What Will Be Separate
In a healthy relationship there will be explicit negotiation about what and how much will be shared, and what and how much will be separate –- a calm discussion that takes account of each partner’s needs. This will include when shared time will take place, how often it will occur, and what it will consist of. (And the same for separate time.)
Shared time, for example, might be dinner time (which might or might not include preparation of the meal), and that might mean that neither partner will be on their phone or any other device. Or shared time might take place later in the evening when watching a favorite TV show together (again with no devices on), or for a half hour in bed before going to sleep.
Separate time may be articulated as the first half hour after arriving home from work to quietly read the paper and wind down, or the first half hour in the morning to quietly stretch, or Saturday afternoon with the boys, or a half hour nightly phone check in with an aging parent or a friend.
Clear Articulation of Each Partner’s Needs Avoids Conflict
Clear articulation of the needs of each partner and agreement about how these needs will be met will avoid unexpressed hurt/resentment on the one hand, or on the other hand, verbalized pressure on the partner (e.g. “Can’t you put your phone down for a half hour!”) that is likely to be experienced as nagging or criticism. Once there is an agreement, there should also be an understanding that a gentle reminder will be all it takes to get things back on track when the occasional inevitable lapse occurs from what has been agreed upon.
Couples Therapy Can Help
Some partners assume that in a sturdy couples relationship each member’s individual needs take precedence, with shared needs and activities to be negotiated. Other partners begin with the opposite assumption — that being a couple means activities and time are to be shared unless something separate is specifically negotiated. When the assumptions of two members of the couple are at odds, discussion and negotiation is needed. While many couples will be able to negotiate this issue on their own, help may also be available through work with a competent couples therapist.
Dr. Marsha Vannicelli is a nationally recognized author and lecturer who has trained and supervised scores of clinicians who work with couples. Her clinical books, articles, and lectures/workshop offerings, have won widespread recognition among those she has supervised and trained.
© 2018 Marsha Vannicelli