This post first appeared in October 2007.
Donald, a 28 year-old Christian, writes:
The question I have to pose is: Is it reasonable to expect that my girlfriend (23) should let me have more time by myself?
I work full time until 5:30pm Mon – Fri, we are both involved with the music team at our church which means Tuesday night rehearsals and going early for most of the am and pm services on Sundays, and I haveThursday nights to do domestic things like wash clothes or do shopping or whatever else needs doing. She works two or three days a week at the moment but wants more work. Apart from that, I’m with her every night after work and most of the day on Saturdays and Sundays.
We have dinner at her house and then watch shows or listen to music or talk and of course make out for a while a few nights. I’ve insisted that I need to leave her house at 10pm at the latest so that I can get to bed, but she always seems so down and forlorn when it’s time for me to go home and it can take forever for me to get out of the door. I go home wondering what I’ve done wrong, get home, fall into bed and get up at 5am to exercise and have breakfast and get ready for work. Lately I’ve been feeling likeI’m in a daze because I don’t ever seem to have any time for myself.
Being an introverted person I need time alone to recharge, and also after having so many years of my time being *my* time, this is a drastic change for me. Is this normal in relationships? I don’t have any experience to gauge it against, so maybe it is. But I need to work out how to arrange more time to ‘retreat to my cave’ or else I think I’m going to fall over from exhaustion physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I chuckled a bit reading this. The clear implication from Donald’s letter is that he and his gal are not sleeping together in either sense of the word; presumably they are waiting until marriage. In an odd way, the commitment the two of them seem to have to chastity exacerbates the problem; if Donald was sleeping over at his girlfriend’s place regularly, that would eliminate the problem of her forlornness every evening when he left. (She might be clingy in the mornings too, but his need to go to work might carry more weight.) But of course, I’m not going to recommend that they begin spending the night together as a a solution to their dilemma.
Donald seems like a nice guy (lower-case, as opposed to the “Nice Guys” whom we regularly excoriate.) And it’s hard for someone who has people-pleasing instincts and little serious relationship experience to avoid feeling guilty when he happens to be the one who wants to spend less time together. It is almost axiomatic that whatever the activity (spending time together, sex, etcetera), whichever person in the relationship has the lower desire also has the greater power. And it’s not a lot of fun to choose, as Donald feels he has to choose, between disappointing someone he cares for and depriving himself of much needed “down time.”
Those of us who come out of Christian backgrounds often have a particularly hard time setting boundaries in relationships. Those who are “cradle Christians” or adolescent converts are often deeply attached to the idea that “true love” is always sacrificial. Donald might know his Scripture well — he’s called to love his wife (or the woman who might someday be his wife) as Christ loved His church, giving himself up for her. I know a lot of young Christians who take that language very seriously indeed. And when your notions of “true love” mix in the desire for romantic fusion with the theological language of endless sacrifice, it’s fairly obvious you’re gonna have a hard time setting limits.
I know lots of young Christians who are “waiting” to have sex. Like Donald, they do date, and often find themselves in intensely emotional relationships. It is possible to be deeply in love and deeply committed without having sex, or at least, without having intercourse. (Lots of young Christians draw the line at “everything but”, something I’ve endorsed. See: Between the Already and the Not-Yet: a Long Post on Pre-marital Sexuality and Doing “Everything But.”) Sometimes, I think that those who are practicing pre-marital chastity often have more unrealistic expectations of what love should be than do their less-restrained counterparts.
It takes a lot of idealism to “wait” — and that idealism often transfers over into some wildly unhealthy ideas about how conflict ought to be negotiated. Those who do have a sexual component to their relationship quickly discover that in any lasting romance, desire fluctuates and is rarely equally present. They learn to compromise (or so one hopes). The “higher-desire” partner learns patience, and learns not to nag or pressure or sulk; the “lower-desire” partner gets to work through his or her own guilt. It’s good, healthy stuff: Love 101. Chaste Christians put off the conflict over unequal libidos, but often run into the very sort of problem that Donald is writing about — apparently incompatible levels of desire for time together.
Donald, you sound exhausted. You also sound like a very nice young fella who has a hard time setting boundaries. But the longer you go without setting the boundaries, without carving out time for yourself (to do those things you introverts do), the more your resentment and exhaustion will grow. Your girlfriend, no matter how needy she may appear, will eventually sense that resentment, and it’ll only make matters worse. I don’t have a formula that can dictate exactly how much time you ought to spend together. That has to be negotiated. Every night is clearly too much for you, and that’s okay. One night a week is probably too few. Asking for a couple of nights a week for Donald simply to “be” (or to sleep) is not unreasonable. It’s not evidence that you don’t love your girlfriend as much as you could.
When you bring this up, girlfriend may hit you with “Maybe you don’t really love me! If you really loved me you would want to be with me all the time. I really love you and I want to be with you always, and if you felt the same way you’d want the same thing.” That kind of reasoning is very compelling to a great many people, but as any therapist or theologian (I’m, uh, neither, but I’ve been around the block a time or eight-nine) will tell you, it’s based on false premises. True love is partnership, not delirious fusion. Real romantic connection empowers both parties to be more effective in serving the world. The love that God calls you to is designed to strengthen and sustain both of you, helping you to become more of who it is that you were called to be.
When and if your girlfriend reacts badly to your desire for more “time alone”, you do need to be both reassuring and firm. Reassure her that you don’t want someone else, that you’re not falling out of love with her; be firm and don’t give in on the basic principle that you need your “Donald time.” I’ve been in your position, Donald, and I’ve been in your girlfriend’s. Years ago, when I was the guy who wanted to spend more time with a certain woman I was seeing exclusively, she was wonderfully candid with me: “Hugo”, she said, “you’ve got to give me the chance to miss you“. I heard that. It made good sense then and it makes good sense now. A little time away does wonders . Most healthy people aren’t attracted to needy partners. Your desire for independence may spark the same in your girlfriend if you stick to your commitment to get more time for yourself. And when you see her come alive with enthusiasm for other people and other activities besides you, I guarantee that your interest in spending time with her will flare up again nicely. Dependency is rarely sexy; autonomy almost always is.
Incompatible desire in relationships doesn’t have to be the deal-breaker most people think it is. Sooner or later, in every relationship some degree of profound incompatibility will emerge. Learning to negotiate through this usually painful, frequently scary experience is a vitally important skill to develop. You will have to work through your feelings of guilt; your girlfriend through her feelings of rejection. But if you do it prayerfully and lovingly and firmly, practicing radical honesty with each other and radical trust in the God who made you both, you have the great opportunity to transform your relationship and your selves. Best of luck.