Attention — 28 October 2003
Spend a little time with me

How much time do you feel you need with your partner to feel satisfied? What do most people regard as sufficient interaction time to keep both of them feeling connected- but not suffocated?

Time together is a subcategory of attention. Talking, doing recreational activities, exercising, playing, dancing, making love, and even shopping together are activities that tend to foster a sense of connection, familiarity, history and shared fun. Couples often say that they do not care what they do, as long as it is done pleasantly together.

The together part implies that the interaction is satisfying to both partners. Ruth tells me that she loves to talk with her husband, Ron until he begins to expound on his political sermons, which make her feel left out. Ron says he is happy to talk with Ruth as long as she doesn’t spend the whole conversation reciting his failings. For Ruth and Ron to be more comfortable talking, they need to be sensitive to each other’s interests and feelings.

Married couples were found to spend a total of twenty minutes a WEEK talking to each other, not counting driving instructions. That is despite research recommendations that couples need to spend at least twenty minutes a DAY in conversation, where their full attention is placed upon each other. They also need to respond in a way that allows them to feel heard, understood and have their emotions validated. Couples who do that, report feeling closer to one another, and describe their relationship as based on a good friendship.

Couples, who experience difficulty in shared attention, often report that their busy life causes them to be distracted. Both partners tend to feel ignored and even unloved.

One common example is of a wife whose husband works so many hours, that she and the kids feel abandoned. “I think he is married to his job- we never see him”, says Renee. Bob describes: ” She is so preoccupied with the home, the kids, her other activities that she does not have any time for me.”

A common two-career family scenario entails two partners who are engrossed in their jobs, intent on spending some quality time with their kids, and then trade their time together for sleep to alleviate their exhaustion. They may desperately want to be together, but do not manage to plan well for it. Life is so overwhelming that their time together becomes a low priority.

Like any other physical or emotional need, such as food, sex, solace, etc., the need for togetherness is likely to be different for each member of a couple. Some individuals feel that they need eye contact, physical affection, affirmations and conversation for an hour or two a day to feel happy. Others find this type of a request, too confining, restrictive and burdensome.

To demonstrate these differences, try this short exercise. Stand 5 feet apart from each other. Have your partner stand. Step forward toward him slowly, stop when you are at a comfortable distance for the sake of conversation. Ask your partner if this distance is ideal for him. He may choose to stay put or move one or more steps closer or further from you.
Most likely you will find that there will be a difference between your and your partner’s preferred closeness. There is no right or wrong decision; it only points out that our individual preferences of physical distance/closeness vary.

Though this exercise deals with physical proximity, similar differences exist for emotional closeness as well.

When it comes to spending time together- a variance in preference is also likely. What may feel too little for one may be too much for another.

Gender differences also play a role in the amount of time men and women choose to stay in touch. Most commonly, women who get their self-esteem from pleasing desire more time than men. Men, who value autonomy and independence, may view too much togetherness as suffocating.

So what is a couple to do?

  •  Remember that being attentive and spending a little time together strengthens your bond and supports your sense of well being.
  • Give your couple time a priority over many life demands.
  • If both of you need more time with each other- it must be scheduled.
  • Time together need not be long- it must be sweet.
  • Realize that if you have a discrepancy in desire for time together – it is normal and expected.
  • There is no direct correlation between how much time one wants to share and his or her depth of love.
  • Negotiate time together as you would with any other need variance. Compromise to please your partner- while respecting your own limits.

As the song Side by Side says:

“Through all kinds of weather,

What if the sky should fall?

As long as we’re together,

It doesn’t matter at all.”

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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