Why Spending Less Time Together Was The Best Thing That Ever Happened To My Relationship

Emma McGowan

For the first four years of our relationship, my boyfriend Ben and I were rarely apart. That togetherness started early, when I got a phone call from Buenos Aires. We were both living on the Chilean coast and he’d gone to Argentina for a much-needed break after finishing a six-month startup incubator. “I’m done with my program, and Chile is boring,” he said. “The only thing keeping me there is you. Want to move to Buenos Aires with me?” We’d officially been a couple for three weeks.

My heart and stomach jumped. I didn’t even hesitate — yes. Yes I wanted to move to Buenos Aires with him! I was head-over-heels, free-falling into love. He was all I could think about; he was the only person I wanted to be around. And, if I’m being totally honest, I was pretty bored in Chile, too. I’d lived in Buenos Aires before, and I missed my friends. I missed the fast pace of the city; the art; the books; the wine in parks. But mostly I was so taken with this self-possessed British man who was nothing like anyone I’d ever met. I probably would have said yes to moving anywhere with him at that point.

Sian J. Kavanaugh

And, eventually, I did say yes to moving almost anywhere. Argentina turned out to be the first of over 20 countries we would travel to and live in over the next four years. Together we lived in the rice paddies of Bali; spent the night next to an active volcano in Guatemala; cleaned ourselves in a public bath in Kyoto. We got hot and dusty on a motorbike in Saigon; seasick on the ferry to Ometepe in Nicaragua; and logged over a million air miles. That free fall I was feeling in Chile developed into a deep — and sometimes difficult — true love and partnership.

But there was one massive problem. When you’re a couple that moves to a new country every three to nine months, you end up being each other’s “everything.” You’re best friends. You’re family. You’re lovers. You’re co-workers. We spent almost every minute of every day together because, often, we were all the other person had. And we started to annoy each other.

Or, more accurately, I started to annoy him — and then his annoyance fed my insecurities and anxieties. I’m an extremely extroverted, social person who grew up in a big house that was always bursting with other teenagers. Ben, on the other hand, is mostly introverted and was basically an only child growing up. So while I like to talk and talk and talk and hang out all the time, Ben needs a pretty substantial amount of alone time. That need often left me feeling rejected or left out or confused, and made me question how much he loved me and whether I was “enough” for him. (Side note: No one is “enough” for anyone.) Our lifestyle pushed us together in a really extreme way, but our differences were pushing us apart.

My family and friends would say things like, “I’m worried that you’re co-dependent,” or “You two spend too much time together.” I usually changed the topic when it came up — like mind your own business please? — but in my head I thought, “Yes.” Yup, I’m fully aware that we spend too much time together. Yup, I know it’s not healthy — I’ve read the research. Yup, my own parents lived on basically opposite schedules for most of my childhood and teenage years and they’re still together over 30 years later, so I see what spending less time together can do for a couple. I know. I get it. But what could I do about it? As long as we were traveling, I didn’t see a way around our 24/7 together lifestyle.

Emma McGowan

Here’s what happens when you spend all of your time with your romantic partner. You learn their every facial expression; every subtle bit of body language. You know — and see — when they’re even a tiny bit annoyed with you. You start to resent them for not giving you what you need, even though they’re giving you so much. You question the relationship because you’re forced to look at every single tiny element of it. Nothing is made to survive under that kind of scrutiny — not even the least complicated love story, which ours certainly isn’t.

Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and marriage counselor in Boulder, Colorado, says that all of the problems we were facing are common for couples who spend too much time together.

“Spending all of your time with your partner neglects other vital relationships in your life that are needed for health and balance,” Dr. Fisher tells Bustle. “Another reason to not spend all of your time together is you don't have enough time for your own self-care and personal development. A third reason is we tend to take one another for granted the more we spend time together and vice versa. Fourth, the more couples spend all of their time together the more irritated they tend to become with various quirks both of them have.”

Emma McGowan

And so our relationship suffered. Plenty of couples go through ups and downs in a long-term relationship — that’s common. But our cycles were much, much shorter than I thought was healthy. We’d be in love for a couple weeks, a month, two if we were lucky. Then we’d dip into an out-of-love trough, and I’d be miserable. It was emotionally stressful for both of us, but I like to think we stuck it out because we saw something in the other that made it worth the turmoil. And part of me always suspected that a lot of our troubles were due to the fact that we spent the majority of our time together.

Then, a year ago, we stopped traveling full-time. We moved to San Francisco. We signed a year-long lease, the first of my adult life. We bought furniture. And, most importantly, he went to work in an office and I went to my own co-working space. After spending four years sitting across from each other all day and retiring to the same bed at night, we were finally able to lead separate lives. And nothing could have been better for our relationship.

Now when he comes home at the end of a long work day, the first thing he does is come cuddle up to me on the couch. I stroke his hair while we tell each other about our (respective, separate) days. When we spend more substantial time together, we both know that the other has taken time out of a busy schedule to be there, which makes it feel special. And we also have friends now — separate friends — so that when I want to do something he doesn’t (like spend all day in the hot sun at a flea market), he doesn’t have to come along and pretend like he likes it.

Emma McGowan

The end result? I can honestly say I’ve been consistently in love with my boyfriend for a full year. I’m excited to see him when he comes home, and to spend time together on the weekend. Our sex life has improved. We have things to talk about. And the majority of my insecurities and the near-crippling anxiety that haunted our relationship for years are almost completely gone. I feel better and stronger as a human being who exists separately from my relationship, and I can see that he is drawn to this stronger, more independent woman. Most amazingly of all? He truly feels like my life partner now.

We were lucky to come out on the other side of four years of 24/7 togetherness stronger than ever, but there were a couple of moments when it looked like we wouldn’t make it at all. All living things — including relationships — need space to breathe. Make sure yours has it.