When It Comes To Togetherness In Relationships, More Isn’t Always Better
There’s not much question that an awful lot of relationships suffer from a deficiency of quality time together, a condition that greatly diminishes the experience
of connection shared by the couple. Other responsibilities and commitments have a way of winning the competition for our time, leaving us feeling resentful, frustrated, tired, lonely, or some combination of the above. While insufficient connection time is unquestionably a common phenomenon that afflicts many relationships, it is by no means a universal condition; in fact some relationships have the opposite problem.
They don’t have enough separate space in their relationship and this can cause a different but no less serious problem for the couple. In his book, The Prophet, Kahil Gibran writes of the need that couples have to honor the need for separateness as well as connection:
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
In most relationships one of the partners is more attuned to the need for separateness, while the other has a greater awareness of the need for connection. While these differing tendencies can create some “interesting opportunities” for learning and growth for both partners, the differences can provide a means of integrating both aspects of the relationship in a way that fulfills each of these needs. The challenge is to see each other’s perspective as a being legitimate, and even necessary, without condemning it as wrong.
There are, of course situations in which both partners have a high need for separateness or solitude, and while this can diminish the potential for conflict, it can increase the chances of running the risk of having a greater amount of disconnection than is healthy for the relationship. When one or both partners are not experiencing an adequate amount of solitude time, certain symptoms are likely to show up in one or both of their moods and behaviors. These symptoms include: crankiness, irritability, lethargy, volatility, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. The solitude-deprived person may not realize that feeling off and out of sorts is related to the fact that they are not factoring into their lives on a consistent basis, their need for solitude.
Making the changes that are required to make the necessary corrections to re-establish balance in the relationship begins with the recognition that things are out of balance, and the acknowledgment that a time for solitude or separateness is called for. Solitude is distinct from isolation in terms of their differing intentions. The experience of isolation is characterized by an intention to disconnect from others in order to avoid experiences that are expected to be unpleasant, threatening, provocative, or difficult to deal with. Solitude on the other hand is motivated by a desire to restore and recharge one’s spiritual and emotional batteries in order to be able to more effectively engage with others, and with the world in general. Consequently time spent in isolation tends to strengthen the tendency towards resentment, self-pity, defensiveness and mistrust, and time spent in solitude deepens the capacity for the self-awareness, compassion, empathy, and vulnerability.
Depending upon how long the need for solitude has been neglected or denied, the amount of time needed could vary from minutes to days. If there has been a prolonged solitude deficiency, a personal retreat of a weekend or more could be necessary to begin the restorative process. While introverts are likely to enjoy this time and take pleasure in feeling ‘unburdened” of the “responsibility” of having to deal with others’ needs, extroverts are also in need of this experience, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it or have no interest in being quietly alone and introspective.
Solitude is a form of self-care and because it doesn’t feel particularly comfortable or pleasant for many people to be alone without their usual forms of stimulation or distraction (phones, computers, TV, books, etc), the experience of taking the time to recharge one’s inner batteries and shift their current mindset to a more open perspective, can be not only valuable, but necessary.
There are of course, for most of us, certain logistical challenges that need to be addressed and met in order to disengage from one’s primary commitments in a responsible way. When the need for solitude and separateness is accepted as being as important to the well-being of the relationship as well as to each partner, as any other aspects of their lives, it becomes easier to prioritize it and find ways to integrate the experience more fully and regularly into the relationship.
Because there is a tendency in Western culture to highly value interpersonal interaction over contemplative time, it is easy to judge oneself or others as being anti-social or as isolating, when this isn’t necessarily the case. If we internalize those cultural assessments, we can fault ourselves or our partner for having the desire to periodically detach from others. This could cause us to deny ourselves this experience, running the risk of amplifying the distress of failing to meet this need. Eventually there will be an inevitable breakdown in our physical or emotional, health, our relationship, or in some other domain of our lives. Honoring our need for solitude doesn’t guarantee that such breakdowns will never occur, but makes it unlikely that if and when they do occur, that the corrections can be put in more quickly and the resulting damage can be at least minimized.
In cases where one partner is more able and willing to acknowledge and act upon their need for solitude than the other, there can be envy, disguised as criticism or resentment, that the other partner experiences. If the partner is taking an excessive amount of separate time or using it to isolate or avoid, there may be a legitimate ground for concern and the issue should be addressed. Until an adequate degree of trust in developed in a relationship, it is likely that there will be a need for some discussion and negotiation around the taking of solitude time.
More together time can be the answer to many relationship difficulties, but this is not necessarily a one size fits all phenomenon. Nor is it always the case that couples need to spend more time in separate spaces. Relationships, like all living organisms are in a constant state of flux, and consequently, require ongoing attention, care, and tweaking. Taking time to be apart from each other from time to time, with the intention of engaging in the kind of self-reflection that isn’t available with another person helps us to identify, address, and sometimes, even answer the questions that may be invisible to us when we’re caught up in life’s ongoing demands. And in case you’re wondering, taking this time isn’t selfish, it’s the most generous and respectful thing that you can do for yourself and everyone else that you care about. See for yourself!