Stay in view of your partner, but keep to your own path.
Many years ago, when a friend of mine fell for a guy she’d recently met, one of the main things she liked about him was that he had a lot of interests. In fact, they could hardly find enough time to get together at first because he was off to the gym or heading to practice with his garage band, or having coffee with one of his many friends. It wasn’t long after they started dating, though, that my friend realized her new beau was gradually giving up all of his extra activities. When she asked about it, he explained that because he had an intense job, he really wanted to concentrate his spare time on hanging out with her. She was flattered, but fairly quickly it got to be too much. Suddenly, he was focusing mostly on her and their relationship. They eventually broke up and, although his lack of a life away from her wasn’t the only reason, it definitely contributed. When we meet someone new, someone to whom we are attracted, we usually like more about them than just that great haircut or the way they smile. Part of the draw is the life they are living separate from us.
Of course, that gets hard to balance once we’re in a relationship. Like with my friend’s boyfriend, there is only so much time in the day. We work, we have responsibilities and, if we’re just starting a relationship, we don’t really want to spend a lot of our free time away from that person. Then, if the relationship continues as we often hope it does, we get married, have children, buy houses and find ourselves with many mutual interests and concerns. We have jobs, kid-chauffeuring duties, meals to prepare, yards to care for, homework to help with, and houses to clean. We’re lucky if we have the time or energy for any separate interests, even if we could figure out what those might be.
Still, despite such full plates, we all long for our own activities and our interests—and we need them. Even if it means reading a new book every couple of weeks, we all need something that belongs just to us. For years, my partner had a horse that she kept at a ranch six miles from our house. She would stop there after a busy day at work and ride her horse for an hour or two. In many ways, the activity reset her, let her think through what had happened that day, and anything else she might be processing. By the time she got home, she was ready to interact with humans again. In the early part of our relationship, my processing time came when I went out to run in the mornings. We learned early on that having separate activities strengthened our relationship. We had both been in long-term relationships before this one, though, and we learned a lot about ourselves when those relationships ended.
One thing we realized is that our individual paths need to be mostly parallel—near each other, and occasionally intersecting. For us, this works better than trying to fit everything about us onto one shared route. We definitely have mutual activities, including traveling, dogs, our home and mutual friends, but we also have a good share of separate interests. We love talking together about those independent activities, and sharing what we’re doing, but we also love it that we are each growing and developing separate from each other. It’s like always getting to be with a new, exciting person.
Granted we are not rearing children, and Jodi would be the first to tell you that traveling on separate paths would have been tough when she and her husband were raising their two children, but we both still think it’s important to try. When everyone’s energy is focused on the exact same things, it can be stifling. It can feel as if there isn’t room for both people to grow. Most (not all) of the cells in our bodies are continually replacing themselves, and studies show that we tend to make big psychological changes every seven to twelve years, so it makes sense that our interests change as well. We all want our partners to stay open and excited about the world, so encouraging new ideas, hobbies, and even new careers can only deepen what you share.
About five years ago, when I was about a year from retirement, I decided I wanted to re-commit to my writing. I had started out as a writer many years ago, but ended up teaching instead because it was a much easier way to make a living. When I told Jodi I’d like to go back to school to get an MFA, she cheered. I knew we could pay for it without breaking the bank, but she would have been happy to help me figure out the finances even if that weren’t the case, because she could see how much I wanted it. It was a low-residency program, which meant I took week-long trips across the country twice a year for two years. It proved to be an amazing experience that opened a whole new world of friends, mentors, and projects. It was exactly what I needed at that point in my life and it had absolutely nothing to do with Jodi.
Of course, I encouraged her to find a school program of her own since mine was so stimulating, but she was happy with her horse and her job and every-other-week visits with her son and his new daughter. But then, a year or so later, she did find a program that interested her—this one in graphic design, her career field. When I talked to her on the phone during her first residency, I could hear immediately how excited and happy she was. No gift I could ever give her would be as meaningful as encouraging her to head out on this new path.
Admittedly, we could both be jealous of the other’s newfound friends and undertakings, but we aren’t. With the room to explore in our own lives, we actually end up more attractive to each other, and more attracted. There is nothing more fun than seeing your person doing something that thrills them. I fully imagine that this won’t be the last turn in our individual roads for either or us. I traveled to Paris alone this year while Jodi was at her residency and she is looking forward to having some time by herself in our house when I head to a writer’s conference in a couple of weeks.
Separate interests actually bring us closer. They give us each a strong sense of ourselves, and a feeling that we’re getting to live our lives on our own terms. The selflessness that comes from encouraging your partner to do their own thing comes back to you in a million ways when you see them so happy. I love the joint path we share in terms of our families and close friends, our home, our travels together. But I also love feeling my own strength separate from her. It teaches me things and makes me so happy to come home and share my discoveries with her.
Writer Ginny McReynolds is a retired community college English instructor in Northern California. She blogs at Finally Time for This: A Beginner’s Guide to the Second Half of Life.