In yet another telling glimpse into "how married people live," The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein reveals what you already knew: People in relationships sometimes need time alone to do their own things away from the prying gaze of their significant other. After being married for a few years, we learn, Jessica Carr found a lunch receipt on her husband's desk even though he'd said he'd be in meetings the whole day. Flummoxed, worried about his apparent emotional distance, she confronted him about why he lied, and was surprised to find: "He'd just needed a little time alone," writes Bernstein.
This anecdote notwithstanding, both men and women in married relationships need space. Citing analysis from a federal longitudinal study, Bernstein notes that privacy and space are even more important to a couple's happiness than a good sex life, and that—brace yourself—"women tend to be more unhappy with the amount of space in their marriage than men." According to Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan, 29% of the couples she studied said they didn't have enough time for themselves, with 31% of wives versus 26% of husbands saying they didn't have enough space.
This would appear to turn the tables on certain stereotypes of allegedly clingy wives, although Orbuch points out that the reason for the discrepancy is perhaps more nefarious—women tend to be the primary caregivers and also might have jobs outside the home while maintaining more friendships and social obligations as well. So, they simply have less time in all to themselves than men.
Interestingly, though, is how this may play into single lives as well, a topic not really addressed in Bernstein's piece. Singles need space, too, obviously. In the much-discussed season finale of HBO's Girls, for example, we saw the character of Hannah reacting to feeling smothered under boyfriend Adam's attentions, his desire to move in with her, and even his sleeping habits. It was too much too soon, in her view, while Adam said that once he committed he was committed, and didn't seem to have any problem with constant closeness.
Neither of these characters represent any kind of perfect example of couplehood, not even close (if such a thing even exists, which it doesn't). But the fact is that having space and privacy—and most importantly, a level of desire for those things that matches on both sides—is key for singles as well as married people. Maybe even more so for singles, so many of them, or us, living alone for longer and longer (and developing our individual "single behaviors"), as we've seen in research and writing from Eric Klinenberg. People living alone, he found, were pretty happy being alone, at least in the time they chose to be. And one can imagine that as the way we live, alone or in couples, continues to evolve, we are likely to see a need for, and protection of, our right to space only increase. At a recent gathering I attended, for example, there was bemused yet serious talk of the "trend" of married people having separate bedrooms, and how, maybe, that was kind of a brilliant idea.
In her studies of the married, Orbuch found what one might imagine is (or should be) obvious: "When individuals have their own friends, their own set of interests, when they are able to define themselves not by their spouse or relationship, that makes them happier and less bored." But this may be a relatively new idea, at least different from, say, the Mad Men era we delight in watching on TV, where characters like Megan, Betty, and Peggy are struggling to define themselves outside of their husbands, or in Peggy's case, without one. We're beyond that, now, in a time of figuring out how to maintain that hard-fought individuality (and at least some of the freedoms we had as singles) as we enter into new pairings, living together or getting married, as we choose. This new exploration will have to exist on a case-by-case basis, with everyone figuring out what works for themselves, and that's sort of freeing. It will be interesting to see how far we can move apart, and still be together.
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This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.