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June 21, 2016

Why won’t my wife take time for herself?

A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude.
(Rainer Maria Rilke)

This past weekend I got to enjoy an annual guys’ golf trip. Eighteen of us left our work lives and loved ones behind to enjoy blistering temperatures, and even higher scores. It was three days of pure joy.
Over the years, I’ve heard from numerous husbands how much they wish their wives would take similar time for themselves.

“I’ve tried to suggest everything from a girls’ spa trip, a shopping & shows trip to NYC, or just a night away by herself in a downtown hotel, but she just won’t do it.”

Here’s what’s usually going on: In every relationship there is a balance of separateness and togetherness. We talked about that yesterday. When your marriage is working well, that balance is found within each partner; sometimes one is away (either emotionally or physically), sometimes the other. Sometimes one partner is longing for closeness, sometimes it’s the other. Even though there can be some discomfort when these patterns don’t match, this is a model for healthy marriage. It means both spouses are allowing their marriage to grow them up into full adulthood, teaching them to manage their own emotions while respecting their partners’, and teaching them to represent their desires clearly, without any demands or neediness.

If you don’t see yourself engaged in that kind of marriage, don’t fret. That kind of marriage is far from normal.
What is far more normal is to find that balance between separateness and togetherness divided between the partners: one spouse is the distancer, and the other is the pursuer. One spouse is striving to carve out some space, while the other is striving to create more closeness. And of course, these feed off each other. The more the distancer pulls away, the more the other pursues. The more the other pursues, the more the other wants to pull away.
If you are the distancer, for instance, then you will find yourself attracted to those trips away. And in an effort to create balance and fairness, you’ll encourage your spouse to do the same. But think about it—if he/she is feeling the pull of your distance, then the last thing coming to his/her mind is creating even more distance by doing the same thing! The ease of your separateness is evoking the dis-ease of your spouse, who instinctively feels the need to balance things out with more togetherness. This is not weakness or strength on anyone’s part—it is just your marriage struggling to find its balance.

If this feels all too familiar, please don’t get worried. This is not dysfunctional; it is all entirely normal. In fact, it’s better than normal—it’s good. This is how marriage does its work, if you’ll allow it.

See, if you’re the distancer all the time, then that means your marriage is inviting you to question why. Are you threatened by too much togetherness? Is there a fear of being smothered, or being asked to compromise yourself in order to keep the peace? Are you wondering if no matter what, your spouse will never be satisfied?

If you’re the pursuer, your marriage is asking you different questions: are you threatened by your spouse’s desire for space? Do you take it personally, as a sign of his/her rejection of you? Are you afraid that if you take space for yourself, you’ll feel selfish, or maybe worse—you won’t want to come back?

We avoid these questions, because they’re scary and uncomfortable. But marriage is relentless—it will constantly call you back to these questions because that’s how growth happens, on the edge of our comfort zones.

Can you imagine having a conversation with your spouse about all of this? Jenny and I talk about this stuff fairly frequently, because if we don’t we fall back into our default patterns. She’s a comfortable distancer, and I’m a comfortable pursuer, but neither of us is comfortable with that pattern anymore. The beauty comes when each of us, at our own pace and in our own way, challenges ourselves to willingly be uncomfortable, and strive to find the separate/together balance within ourselves. For me, this means sometimes, without guilt or misgivings, taking trips away like this weekend’s. It also means that sometimes, without giving in to my fear of rejection, boldly pursuing weekends with just the two of us.

What does this all mean for you?

One thought on “Why won’t my wife take time for herself?

  1. This is spot on! All the questions you list that a distancer asks are in the front of my mind all the time. And the answer to all of them is usually YES. What do I do with them? How can I take the first step to change that? What do I say? What do I do? As a pursuer, my husband has said that he takes it personally, feels rejected, and thinks it’s selfish to take time for himself, even in every day self-care.

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