It’s 6 a.m., my husband Barry just left to go to a cafe, leaving me in our Guanajuato, Mexico, sala, working on this article. Spending our early mornings apart is one of the ways we give each other space.
Unlike most working couples, we see each other a lot, all day long. Both of us are self-employed, we chose not to have kids (he had two already), and we travel extensively for long periods, including a 20-month sabbatical. Because we spend so much time together, we’ve had a quasi-retirement lifestyle even though we’re not retired. We believe that the minute of “me” and “we” time which we’ve evolved over time is one secret to our relationship of almost 50 years. Here are eight strategies we’ve developed to create both intimacy and independence.
1. We Clarify Expectations
Before Barry and I first lived together, I told him I needed a room of my own for writing. He was all for it — but it turned out he wanted a private space, too. (The nerve!) We couldn’t afford a larger apartment, so we decided to sacrifice the bedroom in order to each have a separate office. Every night, we unrolled our foam mattress onto the carpet in a corner of the living room and made the bed, reversing the process in the morning.
Since then, we’ve had homes in four U.S. states, a Canadian province, and in Mexico, and no matter where we lived, we always each had an independent space — even if sometimes was just a nook with a divider. As our circumstances changed, we continued to discuss our expectations and look for creative solutions. For example, when my stepdaughter came to live with us, I rented an office.
2. We Carve Out Me Time And Me Space
In 2001, we moved to Eureka, on California’s North Coast, where we rented a two-bedroom apartment near the bay. We’re still there! Barry gets the view, but his desk is in our bedroom, whereas I lack a view but get a dedicated office. Sharing a small space, we discovered that our different biorhythms also helped give each of us “me time,” since I go to bed a couple of hours before Barry.
Sometimes we find we need separate space on the road, too. For instance, when we walked the 500-mile month-long pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago, we didn’t always walk together, because of our different paces. One day, we were cranky with each other (yes, even on a “spiritual” trip!), and agreed to take some time off. We went our separate ways and met up again in the morning.
In our current chapter, when we divide our lives between Eureka and Guanajuato, I usually fly to Guanajuato a couple of weeks before Barry and return to the U.S. later. During our periods apart, we each get to savor our favorite activities. He plays loud music (which I can’t stand!), and I can enjoy being messy for a longer period than he can handle.
3. We Stay In Touch When Apart
In Mexico, I’m two hours ahead of Barry. I usually write him a “good morning” email, sharing with him that classic boomer topic — how I slept! — and my plans for the day. He gets back to me within a couple of hours, and we keep in touch periodically during the day.
4. We Share Rituals
Though we no longer are formal meditators, we sit in silence most days for about 20 minutes, either in one of several churches in Guanajuato or in the repertory theater across the street from our Eureka apartment. When we’re apart, we continue the practice. We can’t always coordinate our times, but knowing that each of us is doing it deepens our bond.
5. We Use Silence In Other Ways
The night before our 25th wedding anniversary, we had a problem. I had been very busy, and all I wanted was time to myself; I didn’t feel like celebrating our anniversary or talking with anyone, Barry included. Bad timing! But we brainstormed and came up with a solution: to spend the morning hours of our anniversary in silence, each doing our own thing, near each other but not interacting, like toddlers engaging in parallel play.
That morning, I took my coffee, my journal, and part of the Sunday paper to our rooftop deck. I could see Barry down below, puttering and reading the comics. Safe behind our veil of silence, I could enjoy watching his movements.
A couple of hours passed. A luxurious phrase from a book came to mind: “I felt fat with time.” By the time we reconnected, I was eager to celebrate our anniversary. And we still had the whole afternoon and evening!
Ever since then, we’ve used silence as a way to give each other space. It’s particularly useful in cramped quarters, like when we’re on a road trip in our camper van.
6. We Spend Time With Our Own Friends
In the U.S., the woman in a couple usually manages the social calendar, but we find it works better for us to each take responsibility for our own connections. Some of our friends overlap, but many don’t.
Whether I’m in Eureka or Guanajuato, getting together with a friend is an important part of my week. Barry has fewer intense “walk-and-talk” pals than I do, but he easily chats and banters with strangers in a way that is much more difficult for me. He also has a hiking buddy.
When Barry went through a period of feeling lonely many years ago, he created what he called his “Friend-a-Day Program,” where he forced himself to reach out to someone new on a daily basis. I was impressed with the way he took on the issue and came up with a strategy. But speaking of loneliness…
7. We Accept Loneliness As Part Of The Package
In a mysterious way, happy solitude occasionally morphs into unhappy loneliness. While neither of us welcomes loneliness, we don’t run from it, either, and we’ve found it can bring gifts. When Barry feels lonely, he feels it’s so in his face that it jolts him awake. My moments of loneliness have helped me feel compassion for those whose whole lives are socially isolated, a serious health care issue. We feel very lucky, in that any loneliness we’ve experienced has been brief and temporary.
8. We Recognize That Reentry Can Be Awkward
We call the transition time when we reconnect our bardo, a word we co-opted from Tibetan Buddhism, meaning the state of existence between death and rebirth. As we let go of our individual rhythms, shift gears, and regroup as a couple, we sometimes feel a bit strange and untethered. But we’ve been through this enough times that we know the awkwardness always passes.
When people ask me how long Barry and I have been together, I often say, “Since before you were born!” Next February, we’ll have been together for 48 years, and inevitably in that amount of time we’ve developed our patterns, routines, and comforts. We find that spending time apart is the best way to get out of a marriage rut, mix things up again, and appreciate each other anew.
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