Running on Empty: Seek quantity time over quality time in marriage

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As a therapist specializing in marriage and family counseling, I can tell you with a high degree of certainty what a couple will identify as ‘the problem’ in their marriage before they walk through the door. It’s usually a combination of two or three from the infamous Top 5: Communication, Intimacy, ‘My Needs,’ Finances, and Quality Time.

I say ‘infamous’ top five because these so-called causes of marital anxiety are actually closer to symptoms. If your marriage is struggling, of course you aren’t communicating well or satisfied with your level of intimacy. And while money is often a trigger for arguments, it’s typically the poor state of a marriage that leads to financial stress, not the other way around.

If you don’t work well together and can’t communicate effectively, how can you hope to successfully navigate a money-related problem?

And don’t even get me started on the ‘my needs’ movement. If you missed out on that one, it’s the latest in self-focused talk that reconceptualizes marriage as a medium for serving an individual’s perceived wants and desires. Of course, it fails to remember that marriage is a self-sacrificing partnership aimed at something greater.

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I suppose all of the top five are, in some way, self-focused, but the ‘my needs’ crowd is the only one that comes right out and says it.

But the idea of too little quality time together – of all the common misstatements about the cause of marital issues, that’s the one that really intrigues me. Probably because it’s the least helpful. Take, for example, a regular date night. When you’re being ugly to each other, dinner and a movie doesn’t give you a chance to heal or rebuild your marriage. It just gives you a concentrated time to be even uglier to each other (or indifferent, which may be worse).

When we dedicate time to focus on each other or our relationship, we magnify the current state of the relationship and our feelings towards each other. If your marriage is going well, it can be something that helps fortify it from harm. If it’s not…well, you get the point.

Here’s a secret. It’s not about the ‘quality’ of your time together. It’s about the quantity of it.

A good marriage is built on countless hours spent in the same room together, even if she’s watching football and he’s working from home. It’s built on shared tasks, especially the menial ones, like unloading groceries and folding towels. It’s built on dishes and laundry and Black Friday shopping. And it’s absolutely built on all those “Did you see this?” moments while you’re reading the morning paper.

Counselors today are leery of labeling any marriage ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but if the underlying goal of all marriages is to last, then the good ones are those comprised of two people so unified in their life experiences that they begin to itch when they’re apart for long.

Shared time – quantity time – is the gradual method that marriage uses to press each of you into unique pieces that fit so well together, neither of you can tell where one ends and the other begins. It’s lying in bed with knees and elbows in noses and rib cages. And sleeping somewhat soundly through it.

Don’t value your time by how you choose to spend it together. Value it by the impact it has on your marriage, and the most lasting impact on a marriage comes from piling up hours, days, weeks, and years together, and letting the weight of it shape you into something – one thing – that is nearly unbreakable.