My wife and I got into a “discussion” the other day that has me baffled. She’d read that Tiger Woods and his girlfriend, Lindsey Vonn, said they broke up because they didn’t spend enough time together. I said that obviously wasn’t the real reason because no one actually breaks up over that. I’m not excusing the man’s past behavior, but it seems a little over-reactive to ditch him after several years just because you’re both busy. But somehow, that remark didn’t sit well with my wife. She went on quite a rampage about how important time together is saying “even I should be able to see that.” Of course that got me thinking: Does my wife feel neglected or abandoned when things get busy at work and we can’t spend a lot of time together?
–Busy and baffled
I can tell your job is not as some sort of an investigator, because you’re not picking up on your wife’s clues very well. Although I generally agree with you about the Woods/Vonn breakup (I wouldn’t be surprised if his previous infidelity somehow tainted this new relationship), it is impossible to overstate the importance of spending time together as a couple.
It turns out that in the best relationships, the partners either consciously or subconsciously work to maintain their friendship first and foremost, rather than take it for granted. And it also turns out that the most important factor in maintaining friendships of any kind is geographic proximity. Those in the happiest relationships are simply around each other a lot, and relationships weaken quickly when you don’t spend much time together. So if you aren’t around your wife a lot, you’re getting a strong signal from her right now that this is a need you should attend to. Quickly.
Academic studies have confirmed the importance of shared time. In my research about what makes the happiest marriages, I worked with Dr. Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia to dig into one of his extensive surveys of married couples. He asked, “During the past month, about how often did you and your husband/wife spend time alone with each other, talking or sharing an activity?” When we crunched the numbers for my book research, we found that those married couples who spent some sort of time talking or sharing an activity at least once a week were five times more likely to be “very happy” in their marriages than those who didn’t!”
Do you see the surprising shift in cause and effect? The happiness doesn’t come first–it happens the other way around. Just as proximity leads to the closest friendships, proximity in marriage leads to the closest couples. The cause is spending quality time together; the effect is increased happiness.
The good news for the romantically challenged is that quality time together doesn’t have to center around sharing our deepest secrets over candlelit dinners. The happiest couples I interviewed for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages told me they did all sorts of stuff — tackling home projects together, taking evening walks after work, supporting their kids’ or grandkids’ sports, or even simply running errands together. The key was the word “together.”
Of course, there were also exceptions; military families come immediately to mind. I have conducted research with many military couples, and those who travel a lot for business, who had to get creative in order to meet the goal of “together time.” One woman whose husband was in the special forces told me that although her husband was sometimes out of all contact for a month at a time, that when he was on a base, somewhere in the world, they made a point to send at least one email or WhatsApp text messages about something they were doing every single day. The key was to be purposeful.
It sounds like the key for you is to be purposeful too – and part of that means recognizing the importance of proximity and connection. Even when you are extra busy or traveling a lot, there are ways to compensate. (Several wives with deployed or traveling husbands have told me, “Skype is a beautiful thing.”)
But the other part of being purposeful is sending a signal back to your wife. Because it sounds like she needs it. She needs you to demonstrate the priority you place on your marriage via time together.
All marriages have potential for greatness; and all marriages have hurdles to overcome. But it is a lot easier to overcome those hurdles when the two of you are best friends.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, the groundbreaking The Good News About Marriage, and her newest book, Through A Man’s Eyes. A Harvard-trained social researcher and popular speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.