Time-Starved Relationships

"We don't have time," Maria said. She and Rob sat across from me in my counseling office. I had just suggested that they have a weekly "date," and hour or two with each other. I know that if they do this tensions will start to ease, and they will start to enjoy being with each other again. But between work and family, friends and chores, most couples can't seem to find time for just the two of them.

"We get home from work at five and make dinner," Rob said. "Then we play with our daughter. She's just five, and we want to make sure she gets quality time every day. We put her to bed at nine, and go back to work." "When do you spend time with each other?" I asked.

"We don't," Maria said. "We're hoping that our relationship is strong enough to hold us together until we do have time again."

They wanted to put their relationship on hold for several years, banking on the goodwill they felt in the early days. But already there was strain. Although they smiled and joked, there were also misunderstandings. They had time for work, family, cooking, chores, friends - but not each other.

Below the Surface

Finding time is not always about schedules, or about packing too much into busy lives. Sometimes finding time is about emotion.

Couples often tell me that early on that it's impossible to find relationship time. What I often hear underneath their words is that it's uncomfortable to spend time together.

This makes sense. Most of us prefer to tackle problems we can solve rather than ones we don't understand. It's easy - or at least straightforward - to write a report, give a talk, have lunch with a friend, or get dinner on the table.

It's much harder to talk about what's simmering under the surface in a relationship. It's hard to bring up disappointments and difficult moments without sounding critical. It's hard to talk about deep longings and needs in a relationship when you're not really clear how you feel, or when you're afraid your partner won't understand.

But when couples can't talk about disappointments and longings, a kind of tension develops, and they start to avoid spending time together. It can happen almost automatically: that part of the brain that tries to keep us safe starts to focus on what feels manageable -- work, friends, the to-do list. The intention is good, but the result is problematic - couples start to drift apart.

Relationship Time

Time is part of the rich soil that sustains relationships. Relaxed, unscheduled time allows for new conversations, and new ways of being together. The things we value most in relationships - love, safety, romance, affection, desire -- don't easily fit on a "to-do" list.

I help couples find relationship time. For an hour a week, In my office, they have new conversations. Little by little, I help them talk about disappointments and longings they used to keep to themselves. This can be hard at first. But as each partner begins to understand the wish for closeness that underlies a frustration, they can talk about it more easily. And as they do, they feel new moments of closeness. There is more room in their conversations -- and their relationship -- for differences, disappointments, and dreams. The relationship starts to grow. As each person starts to see how much they matter, they speak more from the heart. When this happens, they want to spend time to together.

As we worked together, Maria and Rob talked less about schedules and more about their longings. Maria worried that she wasn't important to Rob, and put her energy into what she could do - taking care of their daughter and working. Rob was afraid he wouldn't measure up - both in his business and with Maria.

The conversations in the counseling sessions spilled over into their lives. They weren't always easy. But little by little, tensions relaxed. Maria and Rob started to see each other differently. There was a new openness in their conversation. They started to find relaxed, enjoyable time for each other - spirit time.

They also started to see time differently. Time became a resource they shared, and they used it to create closeness, safety, and fun. I knew we were on the right track when Maria said, "It's not about how much time we have. It's about doing what's important first." She looked at Rob and smiled. "And he's important. We're important. We make sure we find time for us."