Do You and Your Partner Disagree About Time? This Emotional Life - PBS

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Relationships / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Do You and Your Partner Disagree About Time?


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Be it fact or folklore, most couples argue about sex, money and kids. Less visibly, but just as stressful, couples also argue about time.

  • “Why can’t you ever be ON TIME?”
  • “If the only thing I had to do was get myself ready- I’d be ON TIME!”
  • “Do you know how much time you spend talking to your girlfriends?”
  • “Tonight’s not a good time.”

What is usually missed in the back and forth arguments that take off about being late, the inequity of roles,  the other’s use of time and the lack of intimate time is an appreciation of the complication of time as a factor is our lives and relationships.

In his book, A Geography of Time, social psychologist Robert Levine reminds us that the meaning of time is very subjective. Traveling internationally, Levine reports that to really know people is to know the time values they live by.  At first amazed, confused, enraged and judgmental of what he perceived as lateness, inaccurate clocks, pace of work and wasted time, Levine comes to understand that there are vast cultural, historical and individual differences in the tempo of people’s lives.  He suggests that there may be no beliefs as ingrained or hidden as those about time.

Personal “Time Sense”

If we apply this to our relationships, we are likely to find that each of us has his/her own personal “ time sense”  that is a function of our family, culture, gender, role,  as well as the particular context we find ourselves in.

How does your time sense compare with your partner’s sense of time?

Do you dread time alone while your partner values it as a way to relax and refuel?

Are you arguing for a food break in the middle of painting the kitchen with your partner who insists on finishing?

If you consider some couple issues with a broader understanding of your own and your partner’s sense of time you may be surprised by the similarities, more accepting of the differences and able to use both as a source of strength rather than stress.

Being On Time

The issue of “being on time” is complex. It comes with the counterpart of “being late” and is associated with personality dynamics, value judgments, power issues, conscious and unconscious meaning.

  • There are some folks who make it a priority to “be on time.” They will leave very early and are willing to wait for hours to be on time.
  • Some are motivated to be on time by respect and social norms. Some feel cheated if they are not at the beginning of the party, appointment, or concert.
  • Others are far more distressed about waiting than worried about being on time. They feel possessive of their time and in an effort to own and use every moment, they will be exactly on time or pack so much in that they end up late. Depending on their personality – they may feel entitled or guilty.
  • Still others struggle with time schedules. They often face the appointment, show or party with an anxiety that sabotages the possibility of being on time.

Couples Being On Time

Whatever your personal dynamic about “being on time,” it becomes more complex when it involves a partner. An important question to keep in mind when keeping schedules as a couple is:

Do you need your partner to be “On Time” or “On Your Time”?

Can you adjust your need and style of “being on time” if your partner comes running off a delayed train? Is it possible to accept unexpected time challenges and move on as a couple or do you get caught in time expectations?

  • Arguing about how late he was or how long you waited is a time stealer. No one wins time duration battles because as research has found - estimating time duration is contextual and situational. Your sense of time is of counting minutes – his is racing against the clock.
  • Sitting in the car beeping or standing next to your partner reminding them of the time does not make them move more quickly.  Stress undermines speed of performance.
  • Coming home enraged by the delayed train ready to argue with your waiting partner is a recipe for wrecking the evening. The result is bad feelings and lost time.

Can you recognize that you have a problem being on time? Can you own that your lateness leads to tension and lost opportunities because it forces you and your partner to be stuck on your time?  Often this has created enough self-blame to make you defensive. Your partner’s reactions may not have helped.

  • If you are able to own this difficulty with a suggestion for working together to try to change the pattern there is likely to be less blame and more hope.
  • Trying out time management ideas, dividing chores, planning the time as if it is an earlier flight or concert “as an experiment.”  Even one time can start to change the predicted pattern. Psychologically it is experienced differently because it is a joint effort in time.

No Waste of Time

Something that I have found working with couples (that may actually explain one dimension of the paradox of why years of dating do not insure stable or lasting relationships) is that once committed, partners feel entitled to judge or become possessive of each other’s time.

  • “You were out teaching all day – why do you need a ladies’ night out?”
  • “How can you waste a beautiful day watching football from morning to night?”

Freud’s original quote that “Love and work are the  cornerstones of our humanness,”  is worth expanding to consider that in order to stay healthy most people need a balance of work time, private time, social or recreational time, and intimate time -- albeit in different doses.

In his study of time across cultures, Robert Levine found that people don’t waste time; they just use time differently. This is a powerful insight for couples.

Recognizing the “ladies ‘night out” as needed social/recreation time or the football watcher as getting his dose of fun and private time changes the perspective.  

Working together to respect and support the balance of time each partner needs usually enhances the trust and intimacy of a couple.  When people don’t feel judged or their time resented – they want to share with their partner glimpses and stories from the other dimensions of their life. Often they want to include them.

  • “You will never believe what happened to Sally and Jack in the Bahamas.”
  • “So let’s go to a ball game together.”

What is Your Intimate Time?

A common complaint of couples who want to improve their intimacy is that there is not enough time for sex. In most people’s lives no one finds the time – people make the time.

It often happens that couples have fallen into a routine that has stopped working for them, so they make less and less effort to make the time.  Rarely do they consider or discuss the time of day or night they prefer for love making. All kinds of assumptions are made about the partner – which they find are NOT TRUE once they start talking and trying out new possibilities.

One More Time

On Sunday June 26, 2010 a New York Times article described the final preparation of the deployment of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry of the Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y. to Afghanistan. It included a glimpse of the hushed and tearful last embraces and goodbyes of the many couples about to be parted.

Probably nothing puts couple time into sharper focus than a picture such as this. It moves our empathy to the couples described and invites us to recognize “time together” as something precious we can have with no guarantees… one day at a time.

Further Reading

Levine, R. ( 1998) A Geography of Time. New Work: Basic Books