The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t just stretched us thin; it’s made us damn near translucent. The majority of parents are balancing a bigger burden than they ever have before. Scheduling. Schooling. Social distancing. Masking up. Working from Home. All with little or extremely reduced access to childcare or the older family members who once pitched in. Gone, too, are ways to find alone time. We are all cooped up, unable to do the activities that once brought us balance. Time apart is crucial to a marriage. Absence does, in fact, make the heart grow fonder. But how can partners ask for alone time without it ending in resentment or anger?
If you went to a couples’ therapist today and told them, “I need some time to myself,” chances are, they would agree. “Some couples thrive on being together all the time, but most are struggling at least a little right now,” says Carol Bruess, PhD, professor emeritus of family studies at the University of St. Thomas and author of What Happy Couples Do. “We don’t have models for [living like] this. We are not taught how to do it.”
More importantly, time apart from our partners is essential for our health — and the health of our relationships. So, if you feel even the slightest hint of guilt about your itch for a few hours of fishing on the lake in solitude — don’t. You may even find that by bringing up the topic, your spouse is equally eager for time alone after all these months at home.
Healthy relationships are healthiest when there’s constant push and pull between autonomy and connection, Bruess explains. “Living in the same space with someone 24/7 tends to send this dynamic into a place of significant disequilibrium. It’s out of whack,” she says. “You have too much togetherness without enough autonomy.”
Right now, too much togetherness is the norm. And it’s not just the fact that the bathroom is your only place to get away. We’ve also lost our rituals and routines and had to establish a whole new set of “rules” about who works where, who’s quiet when, who’s cooking breakfast, and who’s teaching the kids what. Add the stress of worrying about loved ones’ health, possibly losing a job, and everything else and it only exacerbates the tension.
“We bring those [outside] stressors into our relationship, and it disintegrates our ability to be our best self in the relationship,” Bruess says. With all of these challenges, no wonder you may sense an overall increase in conflict, irritation, or anxiety between you and your partner and find yourself arguing over minuscule things like how to load the dishwasher.
True time apart could help rebalance your autonomy-connection dynamic and benefit both your relationship and the two of you as individuals. The answer is simple: It gives you a chance to “recharge,” says psychotherapist Joseph Zagame, LCSW-R, founder and director of myTherapyNYC. When you come back together, you’ll have more to offer emotionally, mentally, and physically. Additionally, that space can make our partners more attracted to us. “When you have some level of distance and come back together, you see each other in a new way and may even desire each other more,” Zagame says.
Still, knowing the benefits doesn’t necessary relieve any guilt you may feel about wanting to go over to your friend’s house for beers on the patio once a week. If that’s the case, it’s important to remember that this is not only about you — it’s about your relationship as a whole, Zagame says.
Communicating about a need for space can be tricky. It can easily be read as a slight or add to already built-up resentment. Bruess recommends first identifying and telling your partner exactly what you are feeling and what you need. For example, “I’m feeling a little overstimulated. We are both here all day, working and taking care of the kids, and the dog is running around, and I’m realizing one thing I need is to find 30 minutes of alone time.” Include how this will benefit your relationship to have this time, such as that you’ll be less stressed and more likely to pause and think rather than simply react.
Next, Bruess suggests inviting your partner to problem solve with you so you can find that solo time. Even if the solution is taking an hour every night to read in one room while your partner watches TV in another while the kids are in bed, it can have a positive effect. Just be sure to set some boundaries: “I need no interruptions, not even a knock on the door. Here’s why…”
This may seem like a lot, but explaining your need and asking for your partner’s assistance can help head off any possible defensiveness from them, Bruess explains. “You are literally inviting them into your heart, as opposed to, ‘The house is noisy, I need time away,” which distances you emotionally and creates the opportunity for defensiveness in the other person,” she says.
After you discuss your time alone, don’t forget to ask if there’s anything your partner needs right now. “You may be surprised to hear they want their space too,” Zagame says. “It doesn’t mean that you are struggling or don’t love each other.” Encourage them to do the things they love and retain those friendships that you know make them thrive.
“Marriage is not about becoming one. We are interdependent. Together we create something bigger and different than our individual parts,” Bruess says. “And in a great partnership, it’s essential that each person is developing and sustaining parts of themselves. We should want to encourage the flourishing of the other person’s passions and interests.”
Making sure both of you get some time away — whatever that looks like — will keep you both happier and support your relationship even after you’re no longer together nonstop.