Healthy Relationships Need Space

Before meeting (and marrying) my wife, I dated quite a few women. I’ve never been one to just jump into a relationship, but I’ve also never been one to just sit around and wait until the “perfect” woman showed up. I made a point to date consistently and, when I found someone I thought I might be compatible with, would move toward exclusivity to give the relationship a good shot.

Invariably, we’d date anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, and end up feeling like we weren’t quite the right fit. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of those relationships turned south because I felt like I had to spend virtually all of my free time with my girlfriend in order for her to be happy.

I loved spending time with these women, of course, and I also loved working on my side hustles, taking care of my health, and otherwise having regular “me time.” 

Unfortunately, I quickly found that taking time for myself (when I “could” be spending it with my girlfriend) didn’t always go over so well in a committed relationship.

Was I wrong for wanting space?

“Who Goes To Bed at 10:30?!”

I remember first bumping into this with a woman I was dating in college. This was shortly after I had implemented my [incredibly empowering] morning routine, and I had a firm bedtime of 10:30PM. I still vividly remember getting a call from my girlfriend around 10:00 one evening, asking if I wanted to come over. I genuinely did want to go over, yet I also wanted to stay true to my personal commitment. I knew how great it felt to keep on my daily routine, and knew from experience that if I did so, I would be happier, healthier, and more present with my girlfriend the following day.

I ultimately decided to stick to my routine, but when I told her I had to get ready for bed, she was less than thrilled.

“What do you mean you’re going to bed?” she said. “Who goes to bed at 10:30?!”

I could tell by the tone of her voice that she had taken it personally. To her, my 10:30 bedtime was an excuse to not see her. It meant I didn’t like her as much as she thought, and her insecurities flared up. In her mind, if I wasn’t willing to blow past that commitment and stay up late with her (sacrificing sleep, productivity, and health), I didn’t care about her enough. 

Needless to say, that put a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

That experience was the first of many, where I felt like I had to choose between myself—and what I knew to be good for my mind, body, and soul—and her. We’d have a great evening together, then 10:15 would roll around, I’d get up to take her back to her apartment, and out would come the disappointment. On days when I gave in to my codependent tendencies, I’d stay out late. Then I’d feel like crap the next day, and end up resenting her because of it.

Little by little, day by day, that wore at me, until I no longer enjoyed spending time with her. If I had to either spend all my time with her or none of my time with her, it would be the latter.

Several months into my next relationship, I noticed a similar (albeit more subtle) pattern. If my girlfriend found out that I had spent the evening working on one of my side hustles, instead of calling or getting together with her, she was hurt.

Again, I felt like there was an unwritten rule somewhere in the universe that all couples must spend 100% of their free time together, or they were not suitable companions. And, again, my interest in the relationship began to fade.

Now, to be clear: I genuinely enjoyed spending time with these women. And we spent a lot of time together. I simply had other things in my life that were also important to me. Did I really have to choose between the two?

Discovering the ‘Other Woman’

Fast forward a number of years to when I met Melissa—the woman I would eventually call my wife. I felt from the moment I saw her that I would marry her (though it took her a bit longer to feel the same way…but all is well that ends well, right? 😉 )

Yet despite the fact that I wanted nothing more in my life than to be with her, about a year into our relationship, I realized that I was once again missing that same “me time.”

“Oh no,” I thought to myself, “here we go again…”

But this time, things played out differently.

To my wife’s credit, she recognized how important those other projects were to me, and didn’t feel threatened by them. She understood that I needed time to focus on them, and was completely okay with me taking it.

When I brought it up with her, she shared with me a conversation her mom had had with her when she was younger: 

“Melissa,” she said, “one thing you need to understand is that there will always be ‘another woman’ in your husband’s life. Not an actual woman, but at least one other thing in his life that means a great deal to him. It might be sports, it might be work, it might be time out with the guys, but every man has at least one other thing that he turns to to find fulfillment, excitement, and satisfaction. You want a man who will always put you first, but you shouldn’t expect him to get rid of the other woman. You just need to be aware of her, know what she is, and make sure you’re okay with him giving some of his attention to her as well.”

When I first heard that, I felt pretty uncomfortable. “Another woman??” I thought, “‘my wife feeling like she has to ‘share’ me? That’s horrible!”

And yet, the more I thought about it, I realized her mom was right. While the example might be a less-than-beautiful way to put it, it does make the point well:

In any relationship where two whole, complete, capable people come together, they will each have interests outside of each other that add richness and excitement to life. And it’s simply not reasonable (or healthy) for either partner to expect the other to give them 100% of his or her time, attention, and energy.

As my wife and I talked about it, I realized that my “other woman” was my projects. I run several side businesses, was in the process of building our home at the time, was writing my book and articles for this blog, and a dozen other things. And I loved every minute of it. I learned long ago that, as long as I felt like I was creating and progressing, life was good.

My wife’s “other man” (because it goes both ways) is animals. Her 9-year-old dog, the horses around our neighborhood, and just about any other living creature that wasn’t a human or an insect all gave her immense joy. As long as she gets to interact with animals on a regular basis, and properly care for her dog, she’s good. Get her to a zoo or some other nature expedition and she’s in heaven.

So, while I don’t love the analogy of the ‘other woman,’ understanding the principle it conveys was a game-changer for our relationship.

The Case for Space

Recognizing, then, that we both needed time to work on our own things each week, my wife and I decided to try out what we called “work days.” These are two days (evenings, really) per week dedicated to working on our own personal projects, or doing whatever else we wanted to. 

The plan was simple:

  • There would be no expectation of spending time together
  • We could spend these evenings doing whatever we wanted
  • The “non-work days” were sacred—meaning we’d put our personal projects aside to spend quality time with each other (even if it was just running errands together)

This turned out to be incredible for our relationship. I was able to crank through all sorts of work during the work days, without feeling guilty for not spending time with my wife. Then, I would feel much more present and focused with my wife on the other days, because I no longer felt like I was falling behind on my projects. My wife—with her projects, responsibilities, and separate interests—felt just as free.

I became even more attracted to my wife as I saw her continuing to grow and pursue her passions. We appreciated each other’s presence more. We had more to talk about. And, perhaps most importantly, neither of us felt like we were required to give up our individuality to build a strong relationship.

A true win-win.

Do What Works For You

I recognize that not everyone can (or would want to) take two entire evenings each week for themselves. But there is always a way to carve out “me time,” whatever that looks like for you. 

Perhaps you take one night per week. Or one hour per week. Or one hour per month

Maybe instead of working on side hustles, you get a massage. Maybe you just want to watch Monday-Night Football without feeling like your spouse is resenting you for it. 

Whatever it is, work with your partner to set aside sacred “me” time for each of you. You will be pleasantly surprised at what it does for your relationship.

What Do You Think?

Do you agree that relationships need space to thrive? If so, what methods have worked for you and your partner? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo by Roberto Nickson

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