Sharing & Separatness
Connecting through time together and time apart.
Come live with me and be my love, And we will all the pleasures prove...-Christopher Marlowe, The Passionate Shepherd to His Love
Can this poet’s romantic image of living together be a reality in today’s world among dishes to wash, money that’s too short, and work hours that are too long? Absolutely! Happy marriages are not just a TV fiction. Many couples do steer skillfully through the challenges of everyday life together, staying steadily on the road of pleasurable loving. Paradoxically, one key to an ever-close connection is for spouses to allow each other separateness.
Marriage does not mandate that all time and pleasures be in duplicate. Reading, individual sports, basketball with the guys for him, a book group with women friends for her, and a myriad of other activities can enhance life for a married couple. Limiting yourself solely to activities that you and your spouse share can stifle too much of who you are and who you can become.
Maintaining a marriage in which spouses enjoy both sharing and separateness requires sensitivity to how spouses use their time, space and money, and in how they talk to each other.
For many couples, the hardest part of including sharing and separateness in their marriage is finding the time for both. Louisa and Bill discovered a number of ways to maximize their time for sharing and couple connecting. When they have dishes to do, or laundry to fold, they work together. When the children are around, they connect with hugs, eye connections, smiles, exchanges of comments and appreciation. They schedule an hour or more each evening for couple time. They put the children to bed early enough to ensure some time that they can share together every night. They tell the children that it’s up to them if they want to stay up in their rooms to play or read, but Mom and Dad are off-duty. They also schedule reverse date-nights. The grandparents bring their kids to their homes for sleepovers, leaving Louisa and Bill a temporary empty nest they can enjoy together.
Louisa and Bill enjoy special times together— evenings watching the moon from their porch or nights out together— but also understand that time alone also has a revitalizing impact for them. They manage on-their-own times by scheduling these hours. Louisa dances after work on Mondays and Wednesdays, with Bill handling the home front. Bill prefers to take his solo hours on Saturday mornings, when his friends are available for tennis and when he can enjoy the cool early morning air for bike trips. They say, “Being separate refuels us for time together. Time together refuels us for time apart.”
Of course, in being sure each of you has separate times for pursuing what you uniquely enjoy doing, be sure that romance remains solely in the province of your marriage relationship. Spending leisure time, or talking about your personal life alone with someone of the other sex, other than your spouse, invites the slippery slopes of jealousies and betrayals, endangering rather than enriching your marriage. That’s true with or without sexual infidelity. Share private time in groups or with a same-sex friend.
In addition to shared and separate times, delineating shared versus separate physical spaces adds to the likelihood that a household will be a happy one. “Our” areas typically include the kitchen, living room and a bedroom. At the same time, at least a desk, a bureau, a specific comfortable chair, or maybe even a room or more, give each spouse a feeling of “my” space. You can tell what you think of as your personal spaces by how uncomfortable you feel if your spouse should suddenly act as if that space were joint territory. Do you feel protective? Trespassed upon? A mix of shared places and personal places for each of you, signals that you have the ability to sustain a partnership and at the same time respect each other’s personal boundaries.
Ours versus mine can raise particular sensitivities in the realm of money. Healthy couples generally find ways to designate three money pools, with one for each individual spouse to spend as needed, and a third pool for family spending. Each spouse typically will spend money without consulting the other for haircuts, clothes and other personal as well as family items. But for cars, homes or other major items, comfortably-connected spouses generally touch base with each other, looking to be sure they have consensus.
In addition, in households where money decisions flow smoothly, each spouse tends to have separate areas of financial responsibility. One spouse, for instance, may pay the bills, and the other handle investments. Too much togetherness on every aspect of money management tends to be less efficient, and make for more struggles, than when each spouse separately tackles specific aspects of the total job. The key is openness to influence. For example, if the spouse handling investments is open to heeding the concerns of the other spouse, all goes well. If there is too much separateness in the financial realm, by contrast, one spouse can feel excluded or experience the other as being overly controlling.
Another important arena for maintaining both sharing and separateness is in the management of your emotional states. If one of you feels sad, anxious or frustrated, it can be tempting to slip into a victim or dependent stance, expecting your spouse to fix you. Fortunately, your spouse generally does not need to change for you to feel better. Rather, if you are the upset spouse, look to what you can do to remedy the situation. If you get annoyed when your spouse is late for dinners, figure out what you can do differently so that when the dinner bell rings and your partner has not yet arrived, you can handle the situation within your comfort zone.
At the same time, mature spouses do respond to their partner’s concerns. If you are the one who tends to come home late, and your spouse is asking that you return for dinner when you say you will, pay attention. Figure out how you go astray and how to remedy the problem. If each of you is both responsible for yourself, and responsive to your partner, that’s separateness and sharing at its best.
Staying two separate people enriches you both, and makes your sharing all the more meaningful. At the same time, sharing time, intimacy, spaces, money and more, keeps marriages strong. As a songwriter once said, multiply life by the power of two!
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, writes self-help materials on anxiety, depression and on the skills couples need for marriage success. Her latest books are