Reader question: What if my spouse and I aren’t on the same page with time?

Recently I received a reader question from a gentleman who noted that he’d been implementing advice from my books. The one time challenge he was unable to overcome? His wife. “I like tracking my time, prioritizing getting to bed early, etc. My wife, on the other hand, prefers a much more relaxed approach to time.” She was not interested in tracking time and “is more OK with sleep deprivation and believes I should also accept this as a given with small kids.” He noted that they had a few hours a week of housework help, which he would double if he could, but his wife didn’t think they needed it. She loved having long conversations at night, which he also enjoyed, but after putting the kids to sleep and doing the housework, it seemed to be 11:30 and another conversation was going to leave him frazzled in the morning.

This difference in attitude was creating a lot of tension in the house. He said he’d discussed why he wanted to pay closer attention to time — to make sure they were spending it how they wanted, and not doing things (e.g. housework) that they didn’t want to do, and that they were getting enough sleep — but she was resistant. “I know why,” he noted. “She hates living like [she’s] watching the clock every minute. I also do not enjoy that but the alternative is that I don’t get to do everything I want.”

He knew that they were different people and it was unfair to expect her to manage her time exactly as he would, but he wondered if I had tips for resolving this not-uncommon challenge.

I agree that it is not uncommon for spouses to handle time differently. Indeed, shortly after receiving this note, I got another note from a woman who felt that her husband was spending time in disagreeable ways. In this case, he said “yes” readily to all sorts of things that she knew were not top priorities for him. As a result, he wasn’t getting to do stuff that she knew he did want to do. He accepted this as the way of the world, but she didn’t like this defeatist outlook. What could she do to convince him that he could make time for the things he wanted to do?

The funny thing is, these differing views of time were probably among the things that drew these readers to their spouses in the first place. I’m guessing that the man who wrote me once loved his wife’s free-spiritedness. It was probably all kinds of fun to date someone who’d be like “hey, let’s go to Atlantic City tonight just for kicks.” As for the woman who wrote about her husband, she probably loved how agreeable he was. She wanted to go for sushi — they’d go for sushi! Especially if she’d dated really stubborn sorts in the past, that could have been a breath of fresh air.

Then you get married, and live together for a while, and realize that these differences can become really annoying. People like us (and if you are reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re in the “us” camp here when it comes to time) can know that, rationally, we are on solid ground. If you want to live a fun life with small kids, you have to accept a certain amount of planning and structure. Babysitters don’t just randomly drop by to work when you want them to! You also eventually must learn that going to bed early is how grown-ups sleep in. It’s tempting to tell the free spirits to just grow up. Likewise, it can be frustrating to listen to someone whine for YEARS about how he just can’t get to the gym and then watch him say yes to some community organization committee that you know he doesn’t care about, because he’s telling himself the story that busy people like him just CAN’T go to the gym. Meanwhile you, who know how to say no, are running marathons.

However, if there’s anything I’ve picked up from all the relationship books I’ve read over the years, it’s that saying I’M RIGHT, YOU’RE WRONG is not a winning argument. It has probably not won an argument in human history. Instead, if you plan to continue to be in the relationship, you need to do a few things.

Focus on your own happiness. Our spouses’ quirks most irk us when they prevent us from living the lives we want. So make sure you get what you need to be happy. I can argue that my husband should not agree to do things for work that I don’t really think are necessary. But it’s more effective to make sure we have enough childcare that I can exercise, and read, and sing in my choir. Then he can deal with the consequences of his obliger nature. So for the two readers mentioned in this post, in the woman’s case she should just keep pursuing her goals, and maybe her husband will at some point come to be inspired by her. She could also sign the two of them up for a race as a way to give him accountability, or schedule joint sessions for the two of them with a trainer. As for the man who wrote, he is a grown-up who can decide his own bedtime. Spouses do not have to go to bed at the same time every night. Maybe 2-3 nights per week he could stay up late with his wife, and go to bed early the other nights. Alternately, he can say “listen, I will stay up late talking with you, but then you need to take the kids tomorrow for an hour so I can nap. I seem to need more sleep than you.” She might not view this as a great trade-off.

Think in terms of the other person’s interest. For the man with the free-spirited wife, I think he hated feeling like a nag, constantly trying to get her to agree to talk about plans. This inspired her resistance, since she wanted to feel off the clock. I suggested proposing a time every week to talk about the schedule with the agreement that he would absolutely NOT talk about the schedule at any other point, as long as she agreed to that one planning meeting. In other words: “If we can figure out what we’ve got coming up during a 30-minute chat on Sunday night, I will not keep asking about it.” She might resent the 30-minute meeting. But it’s probably better than the constant nagging.

Play to your strengths. It’s quite possible that the free-spirited wife didn’t want to hire extra cleaning help because it would mean organizing it and arranging it and scheduling it, all of which might make her feel weighted down. Her husband could simply announce that he would handle all such logistics. Then it’s just a matter of cash and I got a sense that this was not the problematic variable.

Appreciate your spouse’s nature. While a spouse’s differing personality can be a source of tension, it can also be a source of joy. I shop from lists and never deviate. My husband will come home from the grocery store with gorgeous bouquets of flowers. I love the flowers! But I would never buy them. If we are hosting a party, he will actually go back to the store after I’ve gone to re-shop, because he thinks I’ve underbought. He’s probably right. I’m the one demanding the Sunday night planning meetings. He hates the Sunday night planning meetings, and grumbles about them. But then when we have them, he gets excited about the restaurant reservations we make for date nights. Ideally, these things can complement each other.

Do you and your spouse have different approaches to time?

8 thoughts on “Reader question: What if my spouse and I aren’t on the same page with time?

  1. I wonder if the male reader can use compromise and flattery to sway his wife to outsource the housework (on top of offering to arrange it). I.e., “Honey, the reality is that in order to function, I need more sleep than you. One thing has to go, either our evening conversations or some of the house work. I love our evening conversations and would much rather sacrifice a little money to be able to spend that time with you and not feel anxious about the state of the house. I would be happy to take care of all the logistics so you don’t have to worry about it.”

  2. I resonate with this reader’s question a lot, but I think I have less angst about it. I wonder if there is also a gender roles aspect to the question? I’ve hired help, and blown off things that were low priority, but (right or wrong) these were my emotional labor to begin with so it wasn’t as awkward as it feels like it may be for the question asker.

    My husband says things like “You need more free time than I do” while he watches TV or browses the internet to ‘wind down’ for 1-2 hours every night. (Note: he does work really hard on all types of household tasks, other than this time period). He says this evening time ‘doesn’t count’ as free time because he’s lonely. This screams as a time management issue to me.

    I go to bed at 9:30 every night because I need the sleep, and with a toddler that goes to bed around 9:15 and still wakes up early, there are some days where I don’t get any free/personal time at all. The above combination is really frustrating sometimes. Laura’s advice is good though, what helps is keeping focus on what I need and not worry as much about his self-awareness.

    I have never been able to make the point about where if we rebalance our collective free time, we might get everything we need done and have room for a little time together at the end of a day before I need to go to bed. So, time management for me is a single-person exercise with hubs as a fixed quantity. (Again, I want to emphasize, he does a LOT). But, these things, and especially marriage, are all a work in progress, right?

    Last thing, I also think good time management by an individual can influence others in the family. Just not overnight.

  3. This post really resonated with me, especially your comment about appreciating your spouses nature. My husband does the same thing, bringing home flowers, chocolate or any number of indulgent treats I would never dream of buying. His whimsy offsets my strict adherence to my grocery list. Is the difference in our approaches frustrating at times? Absolutely. But we have a happier home precisely because we’re not both extremely regimented individuals.

  4. OMG thank you for this post! Hahaha! I’ve been dealing with this question recently because in my case, I’m the time-management geek and he’s not. I love it! It’ll be very helpful

  5. This post was perfect timing for me. My problem is that my husband works at nights. He doesn’t get home until midnight or even 2 am, depending on the night. I can stay up and go to bed with him (after we talk/he winds down… ugh) or I can wake up when he comes in because that always happens! Or worse, just lay there in bed not able to sleep because he’s not there and not using that time. Living on fumes, but I have decided to try going to bed early until I get used to sleeping without him and find a way to not wake up when he comes in. I’m getting too old for this. Ha! Any tips welcome.

  6. I appreciate this post- I recently started following your work and felt like I found a long lost time tracking soul sister. But what of the husbands that are always “working” but also frugal and refuse to support outsourcing? I have a lucrative career and actually make more than he does in our day jobs. He moonlights in politics, a passion of his, which also generates a very small amount of income for the home. The politics results in him being out at least one night a week, usually 2, and up to 4 during the busy season. On weekends he is working on the yard or other things and when I ask for either a. Him to handle bedtime when he’s home or b. The ability to outsource to a babysitter or cleaning service he insists we can’t afford it and questions why I need a break. He feels his time away from home is justified because he’s WORKING and we “need the money” where my time isn’t because it’s not for work. He doesn’t prioritize hobbies or a social life (unless you count the politics as that!) and I do. In the end the result is that I’m the primary parent and despite loving it I would love for him I share in the fun and responsibilities with me. What to do?

    1. @Lori – So glad you found me! I think all you can do is tell him exactly what you just told me. Add that this is not sustainable and that you welcome his thoughts on how to improve the situation. We may think that our spouses know how unhappy we are, but they don’t always. So have another serious conversation. And if he completely balks, then you have to figure out what you can live with.

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