Negotiating time with — and without — your partner

Over the years I have watched couples struggle to find a balance between the time they spend with their partners and all their other commitments. I hear stories of significant others who spend entire weeks playing computer games, and partners who never attend dinners with friends and family. Some are left bored and lonely while their girlfriend studies or works on a new project. Others just want to spend one-on-one time doing something other than renovations.

From the other side, I hear of boyfriends pressured into more socialising than they can handle, or who crave a night to themselves to do whatever they please, criticism-free.

Unfortunately there is no magic formula for achieving a balance. Work, family, friends, chores and extra-curricular activities all need time, energy and focus. From commuting to your nine-to-five, catching up with Sally and Pete on a Wednesday, attending Spanish classes at the CAE, Friday-night poker, cleaning out the shed on Saturday mornings, dinner with Mum and Aunty Pam on Sundays, finding time for just the two of you — let alone for just you — isn’t easy, and that’s without the responsibilities of parenthood.

The amount of space — and what that space entails — varies from person to person. This difference in space needs can be particularly pronounced when an introvert partners with an extravert. An introvert can very quickly be depleted by spending too much time around other people, while an extravert can feel drained from spending too much time alone. Don’t assume, for instance, that because your partner has been away from you for a few days that they’ve had enough me-time, or that your partner won’t want to see you after you’ve spent an entire weekend together.

When you presume your partner knows what you need and want, and that their needs and wants are the same as yours, one or both of you can be left feeling frustrated and disappointed. Friction occurs when you each have competing priorities and a different understanding of how involved you should be in each other’s lives. While no one wants to be told how to spend their time, communicating your space needs and expectations is crucial if you want to avoid feelings of resentment and insecurity.

Time spent socialising is another problem area. Do you see your friends together or apart? What if one of you has more friends, or likes to see their friends more often? Do you count seeing friends and family alone as me-time? Your partner may feel left out or unwelcome — perhaps that you are ashamed of them — when you arrange to see your friends without them. What if one of you expects to share time spent with family and friends, but the other doesn’t see this as necessary or desirable, and continually opts out?

Having a hobby, passion, or outside interest can also affect the amount of time you spend with your partner. If you study while working full-time, you may struggle to find enough time to focus on classes and assignments, let alone fit in all the other parts of your life. Meanwhile your partner can feel bored and neglected. And if one of you takes up a new interest or hobby, the other may feel they have suddenly lost their best friend.

The amount of contact you have can be another source of conflict. One of you might feel disconnected or abandoned if you don’t hear from the other several times a day. The same amount of contact could feel smothering to them. Some people like to spend an intense few days together, followed by several days apart to regroup, recoup, miss, and start to look forward to seeing their partner again.

Living arrangements make it harder still. When you’re sharing your living space and your bed, it can be difficult to get enough me-time, and when you do, it is under the judgmental gaze of your partner. There is no built-in way to regulate the amount and nature of time you spend together or apart.

Then there is the time spent on work, school, chores and life administration. When one partner feels the other isn’t pulling their weight, resentment can quickly escalate.

How your partner chooses to spend their time away from you can also be a problem if you feel it’s not well spent. It can seem like they are prioritising those things over your wants and needs, and even over you. No one wants to be scrutinised for spending an evening or three in front of old episodes of The O.C., playing Skyrim, or for hitting up the town on a week night. You also don’t want your partner doing those things for days on end while you are stuck vacuuming and mopping, or simply at home missing them.

On the flip side, it is okay to need time for you, and healthy to want to maintain a sense of independence. But asking for me-time can feel like telling your partner you’d prefer to be alone than with them. Skipping out on time with their friends or family members can seem like you don’t value their significant relationships.

The first step towards unravelling this complex equation is being able to identify your needs and preferences for each type of space. The next is understanding how your choices affect your partner. It is important for each of you to feel secure and valued, but to also maintain your independence. Be honest, be prepared to negotiate, and make the effort to see things from your partner’s point of view, whose needs are likely to be different from yours.

Once you know that, you can work together to find a model that suits you both, taking into account your needs for me-time, together-time, together-with-others time, and so on. For some this might mean setting aside designated no-questions-asked and judgement-free me-time; for others it could involve switching off the TV and accompanying a partner to the occasional party. If your relationship is worth it, trying to solve the space equation will be time well spent.

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