Key points

  • Often overlooked are couples' clashes about "time."
  • Each partner brings to a relationship their own "sense of time," which is a function of culture, family, gender, and other factors.
  • A valuable concept for partners to recognize and work on together is possessiveness and judgement of each other's time.

Most partners have said or heard some version of these time clashes.

  • “Why can’t you ever be on time?”
  • “Do you know how much time you spend watching football?
  • “Tonight’s not a good time.”

What is usually missed in the back and forth arguments about being late, the other’s use of time, or the lack of intimate time is a couple’s appreciation of the complication of time as a stress factor in their 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 came 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.

Understanding Your Own and Your Partner’s Sense of Time

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

This broader understanding of your own and your partner’s sense of time may make you more aware of similarities, more accepting of the differences, and better able to use both as a source of strength rather than stress.

“Being on Time” vs. “ Being Late”

If you are the partner who prides yourself on being on time but married to a partner who is chronically late (or the reverse) have either of you considered discussing your differences in terms of family of origin patterns, work overload, lack of free time, or anxiety? For example:

  • Do you come from a family that insisted on being unfashionably early for every holiday, school event, or party?
  • Is there so much to do with the kids, the job, and the house that it is impossible to be on time?
  • Are you so overloaded at work that being late actually reflects an attempt to carve out some free time?
  • Do you face social gatherings, appointments, or school events with hidden anxiety that sabotages the possibility of being on time?
Young couple arguing – man’s gesture shows they are late.

Letting Time Be on Your Side

Mutual curiosity, discussion, and understanding of each other’s punctuality or lateness opens the options for mutual strategies and flexibility. It puts time on your side.

  • “I know how much you have to do to get ready—I’ll deal with the kids.”
  • “How about I come later with dessert? It will give me some time to unwind.”
  • “What can we do together to make going to this party less stressful?”

Being Possessive of Your Partner’s Time

Something that I have found working with couples (that may play a role in the unexpected finding that the longer couples live together before marriage the higher their divorce rate) is that once married, 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 afternoon watching baseball when we could go out?”
  • “Do you realize how long you have been lost in that garden?”

Recognizing the Different Uses of Time

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

  • What if a partner could recognize the “Ladies Night Out” as needed recreation?
  • What if a partner could understand the football watcher’s intensity as getting his dose of vicarious play and excitement?
  • What if the partner recognized the partner’s ” being lost in the garden” as being in “flow state,” a state of “time-free thinking” identified by Mihaly Cszentmihalyi as reparative and restful.

If partners could recognize the value of the different uses of time by themselves and their partners, there would be less judgement and resentment of each other. Partners may be more open to sharing their passion or different experiences and more amenable to spending time together.

The Impact of Kids on Time

Most would agree that from the time kids arrive, the time demands on couples increase as their time alone or together decreases. Be it the challenge of the 2-month-old up at 2 a.m., the 5-year-old who can’t sleep in his own bed, or the 15-year-old who has forgotten when to come home to his own bed, the time challenges for partners are high.

From “Me to We”

An important coping mechanism for couples who become parents that has staying power comes from the research of Gottman and Gottman ( 2007) described in their book, When Baby Makes Three. They report that those couples who changed their perspective from “Me to We” from pregnancy on did better handling the demands of parenthood.

Use of ” Me to We” with Time

The best translation of a “We” perspective in terms of time that I have seen with couples is with those couples who make the effort to watch and create time opportunities for their partner.

  • “I’ll take the twins to their soccer practice. Take a break, you look exhausted.”
  • “Go for the run. I am watching the game, the baby’s monitor is on.”
  • “I’ll stay up to wait for the kids to come home. You have work tomorrow.”

There is something about being attuned to your partner’s need for time and knowing your partner has your back that ends up opening more time for both. It is the benefit of approaching your life together with children as a ” We.” Caring and being cared for is a powerful use of couples’ time.

What About Intimate Time?

A common complaint of partners who want to improve their intimacy is that there is not enough time for sex. Given the chaos of this culture and the demands on people’s lives, it is true that most people don’t have the time—they have to somehow make the time.

That being said, it is valuable for couples to take the time to consider intimacy:

  • Couples often fall into a routine that has stopped working for them.
  • Overloaded, they rarely take some time to consider or even discuss the time of day or night they prefer for lovemaking.
  • All kinds of assumptions are made about their partner which they find not to be true once they start talking.

When couples start with mutual compassion and care, agreeing without blame how difficult it has been to get together, how exhausted, how much they miss each other, they often find that even the effort to talk about it, joke about it, and try to plan some type of intimate time is intimate time.


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