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The Five Myths That Mess Up Couple Time

Hello all!

For thirty years, I've been researching the problems couples have creating and maintaining time for connection -- sex, emotional intimacy, and friendship. In many publications including my book, Sync Your Relationship, Save Your Marriage: Four Steps to Getting Back on Track (2011; Palgrave-Macmillan), I describe the five myths or misconceptions about how to have time for each other. I'm gonna bet that you suffer under one or more of these misconceptions! Read on! And PS -- being the professor that I am, I always try to support what I say with research, either my own or others'. So you'll find little endnote marks in this text that will point you to further readings.

#1: The Myth of Spontaneity

The Myth of Spontaneity represents a kind of desperate but ultimately misguided backlash against the dominance of life lived according to the clock and the calendar -- what even the ancient Greeks had a name for, long before digital watches, planning apps, and smartphones -- they called this kind of time "Chronos". The Myth of Spontaneity shows our longing to protect our relationships from the same schedule mania that runs the rest of our lives. This myth suggests that great sex, as well as other forms of genuine fun and connection with our partners, must happen without planning, only when the spirit moves us. We think that a little deliberation or preparation for intimacy will douse the flames of desire. The power of this myth is revealed whenever I suggest to a couple that if fun and romance are to happen, they need to set aside time for it – actively, and consistently. In other words, they need to put Chronos to use to create time for connection and pleasure. The typical couple’s reaction is a deep, discouraged sigh, sometimes accompanied by a knowing, shared glance that says, “We’ve heard this idea before.” They turn back to me and groan that the last thing they want to do is “schedule sex” as if it were just another chore.

And with that reaction, I quite agree. Scheduling – a word associated with those modern work practices that grew to prominence in the Industrial Era – does not belong in conversations about intimacy. Routines is no better. Both are antithetical to the mood of desire and play required for enjoyable sex and other forms of pleasure, fun, and intimacy. But given couples’ overall busyness, some way of setting aside regular time for sex, fun, and connection is essential. For couples to feel inspired to do so, they need alternatives to the temporal metaphors of the work world.

To these couples, I suggest the idea of creating rhythms of couple time. The metaphor of creating regular rhythms of sex and intimacy carries a totally different set of connotations that are much more attractive and encouraging to couples. Unlike schedules, rhythms are as old as the universe and planet Earth itself. Rhythms are an essential aspect of the movement of planets, the eternal sequence of the seasons, the growth, death, and reemergence of plants and crops. Rhythms are at the heart of the intricate, multilayered linkages among bodily systems in all living beings, and in the cycles of holidays and other human cultural events. Couples are much more likely to agree to try setting “rhythms of intimacy” in motion than they are to “schedule sex.”

#2: The Myth of Perfection

The Myth of Perfection is a direct extension of our valiant attempts to live in and control clock and calendar time. It holds that if we can organize our time and energy effectively we can "have it all" – plenty of satisfying time with our partners, with our children, with extended family and friends; energetic, effective time at work; time for exercise and other health-promoting activities; for hobbies, community participation, and worship; and time for the weekly chores. By this account, the full, successful life results from skillful time management and successful multitasking. Yet emerging research indicates that we are less productive and less satisfied with our work when multitasking than when uni-tasking.[1] And the electronic calendars on our computers, smartphones, tablets, and other PDAs – with their capacity to fragment time into one-minute segments – create an unrealistic promise. We find that we can’t fit it all in, no matter how organized we are.

Instead of trying to have it all at once, and cave to our chronic case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), we need to make choices, learn to say “no” or “not now” to some things so that we can say a more complete “yes” to others,[i] embrace the reality of different periods in our lives in which we will have and do some things and not others, and hope that our life lines will extend long enough to attain things not yet realized, or return to things temporarily left to the side. As it is said in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” We have to make choices, sometimes tough ones, about what to invest our time in, when, and for how long, and what to let go, at least for the time being.

#3: The Myth of Total Control

The Myth of Total Control is closely related to the Myth of Perfection. It holds that we are the masters of our destinies, no matter what sorts of time pressures exerted on us by our workplaces, by the needs of our families, acute or chronic health issues in ourselves or in the lives of partners and family members that may require time for care and downshifting life pace, and even large-scale events that affect us as a society – as happened following the attacks on September 11, or Hurricane Katrina.

This is the time version of the foundational American myth of the “Rugged Individual,” standing above and apart from his or her context, manipulating (indeed, at times exploiting) resources at will. It is also related to that other foundational myth, America, the Land of Limitless Opportunity. When it comes to these myths about economic attainment, as sociologists like Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb have demonstrated in their classic book the Hidden Injuries of Class,[ii] there are far fewer opportunities than the myths suggest. Those who strive and don’t make it believe they have no one to blame but themselves. And that's simply not so, and devastating to one's self-esteem and mental health.

These beliefs about our capacity to make money are paralleled by our beliefs about our ability to make time. And so when we find ourselves buffeted about by various realistic pressures rather than fully in command, we turn a critical eye on ourselves. And when it’s our partners who are struggling to take charge of their time, and failing to a greater or lesser degree, we blame them, resulting in conflict, poisoning the little time left for each other. By compassionately acknowledging the realistic temporal constraints on ourselves and our partners, we paradoxically create more opportunities to support each other in making small but significant changes towards a better balance of time for our relationships versus everything else that tugs at our timestrings.

#4: The Myth of Quality Time

This is the myth that as long as we are “fully focused” during the time we spend with our partners, our kids, or others we care about, small amounts of time together are just as good as more extended time. One unintentional result of this emphasis on quality time is that we allocate less and less time for our intimate relationships, believing we can do just fine with small bits of contact. After all, if the time management techniques pioneered during the advent of Industrialism demonstrated that factories could produce more widgets (or their contemporary equivalents) while maintaining high quality, and if creating a sense of urgency[iii] and a culture of high speed are viewed as the keys to corporate success,[iv] why can’t we produce high quality relationship pleasure and connection even with smaller, faster bits of time?

The idea of “inhabiting” our time with loved ones more fully and intentionally has merit: Buddhism has long demonstrated, and the emerging Western science of flow corroborates,[v] that we enjoy our lives more and reduce our stress levels when we bring ourselves more fully into the present moment. But coupled with the increasing sense of time pressure and fragmentation exerted in the post-Industrial version of Chronos, the belief in quality over quantity time places unrealistically high demands on ourselves and our partners (and others) for “making the most” of our time.

Prominent work-life researcher Ellen Galinsky and colleagues conducted a national survey of children’s perspectives on their parents’ work-family balance, and reported that children desire not just quality time, but unstructured periods of time to “hang out” with parents.[vi] My own research found that children, rather than parents, typically initiate family time – but this requires parents and children to be present and available to each other long enough for kids to start something up.

Same goes for couples. By attempting to “make every minute count,” and expecting “high quality” in all our togetherness time, we leave no room for the unplanned, for serendipity, for silence that becomes sound, for floating and dreaming and “grooving” together – not to mention awkward silences, transition time from thoughts about work, gradually getting in sync rhythmically and emotionally – what could be called “relationship sync-up time.” Questioning the myth of quality time adds further impetus to couples’ attempts to carve out and protect more substantial time.

#5: The ‘Housework-Fun Incompatibility Myth

This myth holds that the mundane chores of life must be cordoned off from the sublime pleasures of intimacy. This myth is a logical conclusion from all the previously-described myths. In this view, chores are viewed generally as an unromantic drag, as far from passionate relationship spontaneity as one can get. Chores are usually experienced as an unpleasant but necessary part of the daily and weekly schedule, the unsavory side of life over which we attempt to exert control in creating the perfectly time-managed life. Pick up any women’s home life management magazine, from the old stalwart Good Housekeeping to the cooler, contemporary Real Simple, and you’re sure to find an article with 52 (or more, or less) tips to new and improved organization strategies designed to get the chores done efficiently and with as little effort and emotional investment as possible.

Indeed, these articles appear in women’s rather than in men’s magazines because, at least in heterosexual couples, even when both partners work equal number of hours, women do two-to-three times the number of routine chores as do men.[vii] (Same-sex couples divide chores more evenly.[viii]) In many heterosexual couples, the doing of chores may evoke quite the opposite of loving or sexy impulses – instead, the doing of chores is often associated with feelings of resentment, unfairness, and bitterness.[ix] And finally, because we (or at least she, and sometimes he), have to do all these chores on top of work, childcare and homework supervision, elder parent care, and other responsibilities, the time needed to spend on chores contributes to the myth of quality time, leading us to feel we’ve got to jam time for relationships into the tiny cracks and crevices between all these other activities.

For all these reasons, it is assumed that love time and chore time cannot co-mingle.

And that is a big mistake. Because chores tend to have daily, weekly, or monthly rhythms of their own, couples that keep chores and intimacy separated miss many regular opportunities to hang out, chat, catch up, and experience a sense of joint purpose and achievement. Washing and drying dishes, sweeping up the kitchen and tidying up the countertops, folding laundry, changing the litter box or brushing the dogs, raking the leaves, grocery shopping, even paying the bills and assembling the tax records…the list of ready-made rhythms for couple time provided by necessary household tasks and chores are as numerous as a pile of leaves in autumn. And if partners are using chore time as time for intimacy, it goes a long way towards equalizing who shoulders the burden and responsibility for them, reducing the sense of unfairness (especially for women, whose assessments of the overall fairness of the relationship is strongly associated with their perceptions of how equally housework and childcare are distributed).[x] And when both partners feel the relationship is fair, they are more inclined to have sex.

Although we’re focusing on your couple relationship, it’s also worth noting that the daily quotient of pleasurable time between parents and kids can dramatically increase when kids and parents do chores together. And if you, like many couples, put time together last -- after meeting work, parenting, and household responsibilities -- by using chores as a time to connect with kids, you can free up more time for you and your partner.

So, in short, by recognizing and acting in opposition to the ‘Housework-Fun Incompatibility’ myth, you can dramatically increase pleasurable couple time because you’ll jump in on the existing rhythms devoted for chores, you’ll become more efficient in getting those chores done, you’ll increase the sense of partnership and fairness, and have more fun with the mundane aspects of life.

These five myths about couples, intimacy, and time pervade American culture, and most other Post-Industrial societies ruled by the clock and the calendar. By becoming aware of how these myths pile on unnecessary pressure and keep you from seeing all the possibilities for enjoyable time together, you will be freer proactively to create and protect couple time.

[1] Chapter 7 of my book gets into the issues around time management and work.

[i] Ury, W. (2007). The power of a positive no: Save the deal save the relationship and still say no. New York: Bantam Books.

[ii] Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. (1973). The hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage.

[iii] Kotter, J. P. (2008). A sense of urgency. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.

[iv] Jennings, J., & Haughton, L. (2000). It’s not the BIG that eat the SMALL…it’s the FAST that eat the SLOW: How to use speed as a competitive tool in business. New York: Harper Business.

[v] Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

[vi] Galinsky, E. (1999). Ask the children: What America’s children really think about working parents. New York: William Morrow & Co.

[vii] Coltrane, S. (2000). Research on household labor: Modeling and measuring the social embeddedness of routine family work. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 1208-1233.

[viii] Solomon, S. E., Rothblum, E. D., & Balsam, K. F. (2005). Money, housework, sex, and conflict: Same-sex couples in civil unions, those not in civil unions, and heterosexual married siblings. Sex Roles, 52, 561-575. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-005-3725-7

[ix] Parker-Pope, T. (2010). For better: The science of a good marriage. New York: Dutton.

[x] Piña, D. L., & Bengston, V. L. (1993). The division of household labor and wive’s happiness – Ideology, employment, and perceptions of support. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 901-912.

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 BY PETER FRAENKEL, PH.D.