My husband came to me a on a Saturday, looking completely exhausted. It’d been a long six months (and counting) together, starting in March when our state issued a stay-at-home order due to COVID-19. My husband was mandated to work from home, and he’s yet to go back to the office. We’ve navigated the end of one school year with four kids remote-learning, then a stay-at-home summer, followed by a new school year. We are equally tired, confused, frustrated, and uncertain.
Date nights to keep our marriage spicy? Not happening. We don’t have a good babysitting option, and going out in the middle of a pandemic seems unpleasant. I’ve determined that the best thing we can do for our marriage in the midst of a global health crisis, is to spend time alone and separately. We can clear our minds, chill out, and rejuvenate. Plus, doesn’t absence make the heart grow fonder?
I’m the one who takes self-care breaks frequently, and I do not feel guilty for it. However, my husband is a different story. He had finally hit the wall, and he needed some time to get outside and moving without one or more kids needing his attention. I kicked him out of the house the next day, even suggesting a local nature center that would be perfect for a socially distanced morning walk. He came home in a better mood, more chill and ready to roll. My self-care breaks are all about comfort. I want a mug of something warm, a new book, cozy clothes, and my bed.
We’ve been married over 17 years and together for 22. I’m past the point of trying to make us enjoy the same things, or have the same preferences or personalities. We’re an old married couple, and we are who we are. I know what I need, and he knows what he needs. We do have one common must-have: Right now, especially now, we need to not be cooped up together all day, every day. We’re both working from home, two of our four kids are learning from home, and we don’t go anywhere that’s not essential. In the words of David Rose, “It’s too much.”
Is it possible that instead of working so hard to go out on occasional date nights right now, couples are better off pursuing some peace individually? I asked Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist in NYC, what she thinks — and Dr. Hafeez concurred. Couples do, in fact, need to take breaks, from each other and from their families. “Remember, while couples are a unit in many aspect of life, we are also our own person and finding times to be with ourselves is an important part of being happy and knowing who we are.”
What she shared next floored me. She acknowledged the COVID is causing tons of additional stress on couples, including financial, social, and being “cooped up together” which can lead couples to a “claustrophobic feeling within the relationship.” She says, “Stepping out for a solo activity can help keep that stress and restricted feeling from seeping into the relationship.”
Is a few hours practicing some self-care enough? Dr. Hafeez said there’s no standard amount of time off that is magical for relationships, as there is no one-size-fits-all prescription. She suggests starting with an hour. And remember, “it does not mean we are shedding our responsibilities, our love, or our appreciation” of one another. Instead, we need to look at solo time as investing in ourselves, in order to gain refreshment and reconnect with ourselves.
Is it true that this little bit of solo time will make a person’s heart grow fonder toward their partner? Dr. Hafeez confirms that not only does distance, yes, make the heart grow fonder, but it makes the heart “more forgiving.” She adds that by taking time apart, and doing what we enjoy as an individual, we are “allowing ourselves to replenish energy and wisdom.”
What if we neglect this need to spend time apart? Many of us feel a sense of guilt for practicing any self-care, telling ourselves that our children and partners need us and we are selfish for needing to refill our own cups. Dr. Hafeez understands, but warns us, “Without time apart, those small insignificant details that may bother us about our partner become magnified, and our reactions more intense.” If we take time for ourselves, apart from our partners, we are “more relaxed and more appreciative” of one another, and our bond is strengthened.
The more I learned about the importance of being alone, in order to be better together, the more I realized that it’s selfish not to practice separation. Parents and partners often assume that they are so needed that they can’t possibly take some time for themselves, when really, staying “on” all the time is doing far more harm than good.
Dr. Hafeez wants us to remember that “a better, more relaxed, more in-tune individual will tend to be a better partner, a better friend, a better parent, and a community member.” Sounds like a win-win to me!
The next time your partner comes to you with that desperate look in their eye, send them on their way. Whatever brings them comfort, peace, joy, and relaxation, whether that be a physical activity like a bike ride or a jog, a hobby like photography or dancing, or time for a cup of coffee or a visit to the bookstore, is exactly what the doctor ordered. Give each other the gift of guilt-free, uninterrupted alone time. It’ll improve your attitude and your marriage.
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