How to Find Alone Time When You’re Together 24/7

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For the better part of 2019, my boyfriend of more than seven years and I shared roughly 60 square feet of space, nearly 24 hours a day. We were on a grand adventure, driving around the United States for months in the cargo van we converted into a camper. We discovered pretty quickly that when there’s nowhere to go cool off, and nobody can sleep on the couch for a night, you’ve got to get creative about dealing with tension. It’s a lesson we learned the hard way; there were some serious blowouts before we got good at close-quarters conflict resolution.

We had no idea we were training for a six-month quarantine.

Thanks to that time on the road last year, our relationship has weathered the pandemic’s stay-at-home order — and the intricacies of working simultaneously from home — really well. We still fight, but now we do it with radical efficiency: We get our grievances out quickly and honestly, and keep it moving. We’ve also become experts at finding time to ourselves without being, well, by ourselves, and that’s kept things relatively cool in our three-bedroom house in rural Pennsylvania — which may as well be a palatial estate compared to our Ford Transit.

“Now all we have is time together: Conflicts are inevitable, and when they do happen, they’re explosions.”

Most couples haven’t had the same kind of practice, and for many, the constant company is beginning to take a toll. “My practice spiked as soon as shelter-in-place went into effect,” says Veronica Monet, a relationship coach and certified clinical sexologist in California. “There are all these conflicts between couples that they never talked about because they’ve always been too busy. When they were together for a long stretch they were on vacation, or going to spend holidays with family, or taking the kids somewhere. None of those are good scenarios for working stuff out, so it just ends up buried. Now all we have is time together: Conflicts are inevitable, and when they do happen, they’re explosions.”

The good news is, there’s something you can do about it (without moving into a van). The antidote to too much togetherness is simple: a bit of time apart. It’s possible to temporarily “uncouple,” and it might be the thing that saves your relationship.

Temporary ‘uncoupling’ to ease tension

So far, 2020 has been chock-full of anxiety, grief, uncertainty, stress, and frustration — all feelings that create tensions we tend to take out on our partners. Studies show that stress is universally bad for relationships. More than half of people surveyed by The American Institute of Stress said stress has caused them to fight with people close to them; and that data is from several years before the pandemic descended.

Relationships may be struggling even more now, experts say, as people feel more disconnected from life outside their home and outside their partnership. “If all your leisure time — really, all your time — is together time, you’ll probably start to feel disconnected from yourself,” Monet, author of Exquisite Partnership, says. “To be a functional couple, two people need to have their own lives.”

Of course, that’s easier said than done when you’re trapped at home together. But with deliberate communication and a willingness to set boundaries, even while sharing the same physical space, it’s possible to make your partnership even stronger.

How to know you need some ‘me time’

Adaptable as we are, all this uncertainty that comes with the pandemic is tough to get used to. “We’re outside of routine and structure, ‘normal’ keeps evolving, and we’re constantly trying to adjust our expectations”, says Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, EdD, founder of Dr. Roseann & Associates, a family therapy practice in Connecticut. When those expectations — especially the ones we have of our partners — are mismatched, and we stop communicating what we want, we begin to break down. “People are not at their best,” she says.

“If all your leisure time — really, all your time — is together time, you’ll probably start to feel disconnected from yourself.”

If you can feel that you’re being a less-than-ideal version of you, Capanna-Hodge adds, that’s a good indicator that you need to spend some quality time with yourself. “If you’re snapping unnecessarily, getting tearful, having a hard time sleeping, getting stomach aches… if you’re just uncomfortable and struggling to get along with people, it’s possible you need some alone time.”

And those communication and conduct issues extend to the physical aspects of your relationship, too. A lowered libido is a common problem right now, Monet says, but “if you’re having sexual issues with your partner, maybe you need sexual alone time. It’s about getting in touch with yourself — taking responsibility for yourself and not putting it on your partner. From the sexual relationship with yourself, you’re able to build one with another person.” In or out of the bedroom, she adds, “one of the ways you can be of service to your partner is to fill your tank first.”

How to ask for space without hurting or excluding your partner

A little bit of solitude can be a very good thing for your mental health and overall well-being, especially, researchers have found, when being alone is a choice that contributes to personal growth. But telling your partner you need to be left alone can be a tall order.

“Most people are at a loss for how to set that boundary,” Monet says. “They don’t want to hurt their [partner’s] feelings, don’t want them to feel rejected. The reason we don’t take the time and set the boundaries we need is we only know how to do it by excluding people.”

Instead, she suggests, encourage your partner to also find something equally personally rewarding to do for themselves with that same time. If you plan to set aside three hours to do nothing but be alone and read a good book, your partner might spend that same time downloading a new game or watching a movie they’ve been wanting to see. “If you make people feel included,” Monet adds, “there’s a buy-in.”

How to suggest some “me time” in a way that feels positive and doesn’t hurt your partner? You could say “I know you’ve been dying to watch the new Avengers movie. And I could use a little time to read this novel I’m excited about. What do you think about us each doing our own thing tonight after dinner?”

If you need more distance than just being in another room, it may be a good idea to plan a solo weekend backpacking trip, or maybe just go and visit your parents. But be sure you’re making space for your partner to do the same. If they’re going to hold down the fort while you get away, offer to do the same for them the following weekend.

And alone time doesn’t necessarily require you to be physically in another location — good news for those of us who remain stuck at home together for the foreseeable future.

“You can be in a room with other people and each have your own quiet time,” says Cappana-Hodge. “You can put your earbuds in and listen to a mediation, or do a virtual yoga class. Maybe you get up before the other people in your house, or stay up later. You have to create those windows.”

Carve out time to walk around the neighborhood alone, spend 15 minutes on the couch with a magazine, or decide to spend a night with the bed to yourself. There’s no magic formula for the amount of solitude that will make you feel good. “I think people think it means they have to go for a 40-minute massage,” Capanna-Hodge says, “but it also means it can be five minutes.”

Whatever you do, just make sure you’re communicating your need for space clearly to your partner, and letting them know that the “uncoupling” is temporary, and that, ideally, you’ll reenter the partnership feeling more like yourself, and less on edge. Do it right, Monet says, and it’s “a boundary that creates more connection.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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