‘I don’t have time for myself’: The phrase that portends a relationship crisis

In the complex web of estrangement, lack of time stands out as a crucial factor. From the impossibility of sharing moments together, to the difficulty of taking time for oneself, this scarcity is a powerful destructive agent

Crisis de pareja
A still shot from 'Anatomy of a Fall,' in which the main couple have an intense debate about time.

According to a 2017 study published in the journal Plos One, which used data from over 15,000 men and women between the ages of 16 and 74 living in the United Kingdom, growing distant is the number one reason couples break up.

While distancing can occur for infinite reasons and is manifested in multiple ways, it is clear that one element stands out a little more than the others: lack of time. In turn, this problem is expressed in two equally destructive ways: one prevents the partners from being together and another prevents them from taking time for themselves.

One or both partners feeling that they do not have enough time together is a problem as old as love itself. To give just one example, in Ovid’s elegiac poem Heroides — a collection of love letters in verse written by twenty-one female characters from Roman mythology and literature and addressed to their loves — from the first decade of the first century A.D., one can find abundant passages full of complaints, pleas and reproaches, many of which have to do with a lack of time.

“My complaints,

because the appointed time

Of thy coming flies,

and flees and passes away.”

Phyllis wrote this to Demophon, one of Theseus’s sons, whom she married; after going off to war, he never returned.

As we can see, this subject seems to have always been relevant, and even more so at a time like the present, when an epidemic of lack of time plagues us. Perhaps that is why time is one of the central themes of the film Anatomy of a Fall. Justine Triet’s film is rich in themes and interpretations. It is about love and the end of love, parenthood, relationships, gender, innocence, guilt, interpretations of a story. But it is also about time, its management and its value.

“Lack of time as a couple is a topic that is not talked about very much, and I consider it to be one of the most common issues I see in my therapy practice,” explains Núria Jorba, a psychologist, sexologist and couples therapist. “Normally we look at other areas. We talk about a sexual problem, or the lack of common interests, but we don’t think that perhaps one of the first points to work on is lack of time.”

Managers rather than lovers

In fact, Jorba points out that the most important thing is not time as such, but what causes that lack of time. “The first thing is that it puts us in a state of stress, nervousness, anxiety, makes us more irritable, and that causes more arguments to occur. It doesn’t exactly facilitate connection between the couple,” she observes. “On the other hand, this lack of time also causes the couple not to exist, that is to say, that it ends up becoming a team that manages obligations. Why? Because obligations take precedence: the kids, making dinner, going shopping, etc. So, what happens? The emotional connection between the couple is put on the back burner and, in the end, it disappears, it has very little space. When that connection between the couple does not exist, distancing occurs, this loss of time emerges, sexuality disappears. Therefore, having a certain amount of time and a certain amount of rest to be with your partner is fundamental.”

“I remember a couple who came to my office the other day,” Jorba recalls. “They told me that they had been together for two years and had always been hyperconnected sexually. They had sex almost every day, and now, if they were lucky, they were having sex once a week or once a fortnight. They told me that during [a recent] long weekend, they had gone to spend a few days away from home. Despite being on vacation, they were quiet, [there was] no sex at all. What was going on? Well, they were not really devoting enough time to it. Often the solution has to do with making the couple understand that they need time, that they need to relax, that they need to stop. Confronted with this, the answer is usually, ‘But we do spend time as a couple,’ but that time consists of going to the mountains, meeting friends, going shopping... In other words, doing things, productivity. But a couple needs time when they are not doing anything: lying in bed, being able to take a shower together in peace, having breakfast without rushing and letting feelings flow, to give space to the possibility of intimacy, a spark… That is something that we have not internalized very well, and that the type of society in which we live — one that is hyper-demanding that everything we do have a measurable goal — does not facilitate.”

Having children or a very demanding job is a direct threat to a couple’s intimacy. “Almost all couples live together, and we think we are a couple simply because of that, but that’s not the case,” says Jorba. “Being a couple means enjoying quality time, stopping, looking at each other... The problem is that this is less urgent than washing the dishes or answering a work email and we always tend to leave it for last, until perhaps a day comes when we realize that the couple is already disconnected.”

The value of having time for oneself

But we should not forget about taking time for ourselves, because if we don’t have that, it can affect us in two different ways, Jorba says. “The first is that the couple stops having small new things happen. We must not forget that, apart from shared moments as a couple, individuality also nourishes the couple. That is, if we go out with friends and tell each other how we are [after], if we go to the gym and then come home happy, if we go do an activity we like and then tell the other about it, we nourish the relationship, and we also have the chance to miss it.”

“Secondly,” she continues, “that individuality allows us to be more connected with ourselves, to work on our emotions, our self-enjoyment, our emotional well-being and, of course, we will end up bringing all those good things to the relationship.”

The secret to having time

The expert is very clear that the first step to stopping this problem is recognizing it, talking about it, sharing it with one’s partner so that both have a common vision of the problem and can work together.

Once that has been achieved, in order to gain time, paradoxically they have to start to lose it. “Lose it, but do it in the right way,” Jorba advises. “The couple has to find moments to isolate themselves. Take at least an hour over the weekend to talk in bed, touch each other, tell each other things. In other words, take time to reconnect. Of course, each couple has to find their own way to do it, because there is no right way to be a couple. And it’s not that simple, because no one has taught us how to do it.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS