Alone time vs. couple time – learning to strike a healthy balance

Dec 7, 2018

By Terrence Patterson, EdD, ABPP

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness… 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.”
– Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Anaya and Calvin have been living together for two years. Anaya often feels hurt because it doesn’t seem like Calvin wants to spend time with her. Calvin can’t understand why she always wants to be with him and wants to spend so much time socializing. He’s used to spending more time alone. Is this a deal breaker?

Conflicts can emerge when partners’ preferences differ – e.g., if one partner prefers having time alone or enjoying solitary activities and the other would rather they socialize with friends instead of spending time alone. Maintaining a balance between solitary and social activities is healthy for individuals and couples. But we all have our preferences, and if a couples’ sociability differs too much, it can become a barrier to moving forward, requiring understanding and compromise.

A common dilemma

Calvin grew up as an only child whose parents were working most of the time. He often felt lonely but developed hobbies and interests that made him comfortable with being alone. Anaya, on the other hand, had four brothers and two sisters, as well as a large extended family that lived close by and frequently socialized together. Having little experience being solitary or doing things alone, Anaya liked to spend most of the couple’s free time with others. And on evenings when they had no plans, she wanted Calvin to engage with her. Calvin, on the other hand, needed his “space.” It’s easy to see potential problems in their relationship. So how might they avoid them?

Before we label Calvin an introvert and Anaya an extrovert and see their differences as irreconcilable, let’s look for a solution, based on their histories, preferences, and habits:

  • Calvin has little experience with frequent socializing. He’s comfortable with and needs alone time.
  • Anaya is not used to being alone and feels most alive socializing with others
  • Calvin’s family is small, and they live in another state
  • Anaya’s large family sometimes pressures her to join them for holidays and other activities
  • Anaya’s large circle of friends provides her with ample activities whenever she wishes
  • Calvin has few activities he can do with others

Options for negotiation

The first step is for Calvin and Anaya to openly discuss their preferences without judgment or blame (this may require professional assistance). If they can respect and validate each other’s preferences, they can begin to negotiate on a case-by-case basis. For example, when Anaya is with her family every other Sunday afternoon, Calvin can choose to be alone or go out to an event he enjoys. And Anaya may agree to be home with Calvin most weekday evenings while he reads or engages in a hobby in another room part of the time. They may also agree to have their families plan a joint social event occasionally to make Calvin feel more comfortable.

Fundamentally, the concept is simple, but getting to an agreement may be more difficult with two people who are entrenched in their ways. If both partners work with the following guidelines and are committed to their relationship, lingering conflicts can be avoided.

Guidelines and assumptions for finding the right balance

  • Discuss differences with your partner as early as possible in the relationship, including your preferences for alone time and social activities
  • Don’t assume your partner always wants to be together
  • Assert your need to be alone or do things with family and friends
  • Avoid judgment and criticism over differences, which over time can cause lingering resentment
  • Be willing to make compromises
  • Don’t assume your partner’s desire to be alone or to socialize with others is a rejection – it’s just who they are

Can we walk off into the sunset together?

In the end, while being “two as one” and “joined at the hip” may elicit images of blissful devotion, constant togetherness becomes stifling for most people and begins to erode one’s sense of independence and uniqueness. The resulting resentment can bring about conflict and destructive behaviors, such as what the noted couples researcher John Gottman refers to as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” – criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Separation, divorce, affairs, financial disruption, and alienation can result if not checked early. As Shakespeare noted in Hamlet, “To thine own self be true.” Couples who heed this maxim and develop “flexible togetherness” are more likely to have long-term healthy relationships.

 

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Terry Patterson is a licensed psychologist in San Francisco with decades of experience as a therapist, professor, and clinical trainer and supervisor. He is board-certified as a Couple & Family Psychologist and also treats depression, anxiety, and transitional issues in adults and adolescents.