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The Case for Love-Life Balance

The Case for Love-Life Balance

If you have a romantic partner, maybe you’ve noticed that you two spend an awful lot of time together—and that you haven’t seen other people quite as much as you’d like. Or if you’re single (and many of your friends aren’t), you might have gotten the eerie feeling that I sometimes do: that you’re in a deserted town, as if you woke one morning to find the houses all empty, the stores boarded up. Where’d everyone go?

Either way, that feeling might not just be in your head. Kaisa Kuurne, a sociologist at the University of Helsinki, told me she was “a little bit shocked” when she started mapping Finnish adults’ relationships for a 2012 study, investigating whom subjects felt close to and how they interacted day to day. Subjects who lived with a romantic partner seemed to have receded into their coupledom. When Kuurne asked them to rate, on a scale of one to seven, how close various relationships felt, they’d frequently give the highest mark to only their partner and their children, if they had them; when subjects illustrated their social networks, they’d commonly put those other connections—friends, co-workers, siblings—on the outskirts of their map. People outside the household, for the most part, weren’t “woven into that everyday life,” Kuurne told me.

Relationship trends can vary across cultures, but Kuurne told me that the pattern she noticed isn’t limited to Helsinki. Researchers in the U.S. have made similar observations. Katie Genadek, an economist who studies Census Bureau data, told me that the amount of time the average couple spends together has actually slightly increased since 1965.

Finding love is a beautiful, lucky thing. And some research suggests that shared time, at least up to a certain point, can make partners happier (though the strength of that link is up for debate). But there is only so much time in a day, and the minutes you spend alone with your partner are minutes not spent deepening connections with friends and relatives or building new bonds, not spent relishing the pleasures of solitude or enjoying whatever interests are uniquely yours. If you build a life with your relationship at the center, everything else gets pushed to the perimeter. There’s a way to maintain what I think of as “love-life balance,” to preserve your identity and autonomy while nurturing a caring partnership. Losing that balance can be damaging for a person, for a relationship, and for society.

You might not think that in 2023, partners would still be deeply interdependent. Perhaps more than ever, people are talking about the ways friendship has been historically undervalued; community is an overused buzzword, and alternative relationship structures—nonmonogamy, “living apart together” (sharing a life but not a home), communal living—are growing more common. And of course, women have gained more financial and social independence over the past decades; largely for this reason, according to Sean Lauer, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia, many researchers assume that marriage has become “individualized,” with spouses free to pursue their own identities and goals. But the reality is more complicated.

According to Genadek, partners today tend to be entangled, in part because parents spend a lot of time watching their children together. Although parents in the 1960s might have been doing their own thing while the kids were off playing, they’re now much more likely to be jointly engaged in child care. But couples are spending more leisure time together than they did in 1965 too. And the pandemic further disconnected some couples from their social networks, Benjamin Karney, a UCLA psychologist, told me. He and his colleagues found that couples’ interactions with other people plummeted when the pandemic hit, especially for the low-income study participants who weren’t as likely to use video-chatting platforms; about 18 months in, when vaccines had been available for some time, those connections hadn’t come close to recovering.

Partners do of course need quality time—but the question is how much, and what it’s coming at the expense of. Erin Sahlstein Parcell, a University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee communication professor who studies long-distance relationships, told me that partners who are rarely together in person can keep up very strong relationships; they can even benefit from developing other parts of their lives, having their own experiences to then share with their partner, and cherishing the precious shared time they do have. More and more time isn’t necessarily better and better.

For one thing, couples who lose a sense of love-life balance are at risk of forgoing important support. Studies indicate that married people are, on average, less connected to their friends, siblings, parents, and neighbors than single people are. That lack of connection can leave them vulnerable, Karney told me, particularly if they end up needing help: if they have a baby, for instance, or if one partner loses a job or gets sick. No couple can do everything on their own.

Even beyond sharing time and resources, family and friends offer different kinds of emotional care than partners do. In one study, participants who reported meeting different emotional needs with different people in their life—say, having fun and blowing off steam with a college friend but talking through problems with a sibling—showed greater well-being than those who had a similar number of close relationships but fulfilled emotional needs with a smaller subset of them. No one person can realistically be good at responding to all different types of feelings or giving advice on every subject, yet some experts believe partners today are likelier than ever to lean primarily on each other for their psychological needs. Even worse: If the relationship ends, people can be left without anyone to rely on in a time of distress.

Not only can your relationships with others suffer when you’re too focused on your partner; so can your relationship with yourself. Some researchers refer to this as a lack of “self-differentiation,” or a clear sense of who you are. More “differentiated” partners can support one another without losing sight of their own desires. But if you’re not doing the activities you would do, seeing the people you would see, or pursuing the goals that you would if you were single, those untended parts of your life can start to wilt. That lack of differentiation might be hard to avoid if you’re spending all your time as a couple; partners can start to match each other’s negative moods and even cortisol levels when they’re together. You might really feel like a “we” more than a “you” and “me.”

Patricia Marino, a philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo, told me this is the danger in romanticizing the idea of two lovers merging into one. If two people’s interests conflict, whose get swallowed up? Historically, Marino said, “the we was created when women’s wills were made subservient to men’s.” Today, that inequality isn’t so explicitly assumed. But the question of whose self is disappearing is still relevant, even on the simplest everyday level—say, deciding what you want to do for the evening. In one study that followed straight couples for more than a decade, researchers found that the link between shared leisure time and marital satisfaction wasn’t strong at all—largely because the subjects were spending some of that time on activities that only one of them enjoyed.

That underscores something important: Love-life balance isn’t just good for individual partners. It’s good for their relationship. Depending on only each other is too much pressure; spending time with only each other is constraining—and, frankly, boring. Even just including others in couple activities, Karney told me, can provide partners with “new experiences, new insights, new perspectives” that keep the relationship interesting. He mentioned one study that found that couples that discussed personal topics on a double date seemed to feel more “passionate love” for each other afterward, especially when the other couple responded affirmingly. It can be appealing—and illuminating—to see different facets of your partner come out with different people. If you spend the bulk of your time alone with your partner, you might not be understanding them fully; you might also feel your own personality isn’t being fully expressed.

Some psychologists believe that in order to truly have their needs met, apart and together, couples need to balance two elements: “relatedness” and “autonomy.” Relatedness is a sense of connection and intimacy; autonomy is the degree to which partners are free to follow their own will. Sometimes that might mean choosing to spend time together, Richard Ryan, a psychology professor at Australian Catholic University, told me—but given that partners won’t always have the same interests, autonomy eventually requires some independence.

Partners who feel more autonomous may be able to communicate more openly, and are more likely to respond to partner transgressions with forgiveness and accommodation and to feel satisfied after disagreements; those with less autonomy are likely to feel their sense of self depends on their relationship, and that can leave them more emotionally reactive. In one study, the partners with the most constructive responses to conflict were the ones who felt their relatedness and autonomy needs were fulfilled. Those two elements might seem like opposites, but Ryan told me it’s difficult to truly have one without the other. That suggests that the healthiest relationships don’t involve a merging of selves at all, but rather allow intimacy and independence to coexist.

The biggest obstacle to love-life balance is probably just time. There’s never enough of it to do everything you want to do and see everyone you want to see—especially if you have children or other loved ones to care for, or a job with long hours and little flexibility. The issue isn’t just individual but structural: Low-income couples are less likely than affluent ones to have access to child-care services and more likely to have jobs with more fixed, longer hours outside the home. Regardless of socioeconomic status, though, plenty of partners would hypothetically love to spread their time more evenly—but struggle to do so in reality. Karney told me that even when couples want roughly the same degree of autonomy and relatedness, “it doesn’t mean that minute to minute you are identical … We might say, ‘Oh, we both want to be together four nights a week,’ but we don’t always want the same nights.” In that sense, he said, love-life balance is a “coordination issue.”

But it’s also a values issue. Kuurne believes that many people, if only subconsciously, think of intimacy as exclusive by definition; a romantic relationship is special because it’s prioritized more than anything else. Finding a better love-life balance in the everyday would mean creating what she calls “inclusive intimacy”; it would mean imagining a world in which the things that give life meaning don’t need to be placed in such a strict hierarchy.

That’s not a task that can be fully achieved by any one couple, but there are steps toward love-life balance that everyone can take. Karney told me that couples should intentionally negotiate time apart—make a concrete plan for it, and compromise if necessary, rather than argue about the more abstract question of how entwined partners should be. (“A negotiation is better than a debate,” he told me. “Ten out of 10 times.”)

For Kuurne, opening her life beyond the nuclear family has meant accepting limitations. She can’t always host formal get-togethers or clean the house before visits, but she has a whole set of people who pop in whenever, regardless of how messy the house is or how much she’s prepared. Her dad comes by and helps take care of her daughter. Her neighbors pass through; “the kids play, and maybe we open a bottle of bubbly.” When she does host more official gatherings, she tries to keep a low barrier to entry—no pressure, and certainly no gifts.

And she tries to keep in mind what she’s learned in her research: To stay connected to people, you have to share. That might mean concrete resources, but it might just mean sharing little moments of honesty and vulnerability. The other day, she told me, she called her close friend while eating lunch, because that was the time she had to check in; her friend’s son had just moved out, so she asked how her friend was feeling—and she also gave updates about her own day. All the while, she was inelegantly chewing her food. When it comes to intimacy, she told me, “you can’t just put it in a nice little box and control it.” You just give what you have.

The struggle to balance all the different pockets of life will probably never end; every day requires a new negotiation, a new set of things clamoring for your attention. But widening your focus isn’t just about you and your partner—it’s also about all of the other people in your life who might otherwise get shut out. That’s the flip side of Kuurne’s 2012 study: The couples had built walls between themselves and everyone else. And the subjects outside couples’ fortresses were left there when the drawbridge pulled up.

The partners probably didn’t mean to leave anyone out; they just only had so much time. But whether intentionally or not, everyone—always—is making choices about how to spend their hours. When I asked Karney if he had any wisdom for couples trying to find love-life balance, he told me that he’s not in the business of giving advice. But he did pause for a second, considering what he could say with certainty. “As a scientist of relationships,” he told me, “this much we know: Relationships need to be nourished. Your relationship with your partner does. And all of your other relationships do too.”

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