Forget sex ... try being together apart.
When our daughter was six months old and we were struggling with the pressures of being new parents, my partner Stephen asked me if he could join a mountaineering expedition to Pakistan.
Not only would he be climbing a 7,000 metre mountain in a very remote part of the Karakoram, he would be away for four weeks and out of reach by phone or email for the duration of the trip.
While most of my new mum friends saw this as a clear case of abandonment and advised against it, I disagreed with them and said he should go. I knew climbing this mountain was a challenge he had always wanted to try. As well as making him happy, I was certain I would also enjoy the space and challenge of fending for myself for a while. I also believed one of the reasons we had stayed together was because we always gave each other the time and space to do the things we loved.
Having enough space or privacy in a relationship is more important for a couple's happiness than having a good sex life, according to Dr Terri Orbuch a psychologist, research professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship.
Orbuch is an authority on marriage and divorce. Since 1990 she has been involved in a long-term US study of marriage called The Early Years of Marriage Project, which has been following the same 373 married couples for over 25 years. 46 per cent of the couples have since divorced.
During her research, Orbuch found that 29 per cent of spouses said they did not have enough "privacy or time for self" in their relationship, with more wives than husbands reporting not having enough space (31 per cent versus 26 per cent). Of those who reported being unhappy, 11.5 per cent said the reason was lack of privacy or time for self. This was a greater percentage than the 6 per cent who said they were unhappy with their sex lives.
So why is space so important in a relationship? "When partners have their own set of interests, friends, and time for self, that makes them happier and less bored," says Orbuch. "Time alone also gives partners time to process their thoughts, pursue hobbies and relax without responsibilities to others."
John Aiken, a relationship psychologist and author agrees: "Couples need space in a relationship so they don't suffocate each other. Having time apart is extremely healthy and keeps a freshness in their relationship. It encourages each person to maintain their own sense of identity while still being a couple, and it fosters independence and strength rather than neediness and clinginess."
One of the key factors that can influence your need for space in a relationship is your attachment style, he explains. "This relates to how you bonded with your parents during your upbringing. If they were consistently warm and nurturing towards you, then you have a 'secure attachment' and you can generally cope with being together and being apart from you partner. If on the other hand, you were raised with parents that were either anxious or rejecting, then this will mean you can have problems with being too clingy or needing space from your partner. In the end, how well you attach to your parents as an infant will influence how much space you need with your romantic partners as you move through life."
Orbuch believes that while both sexes need space and time for themselves in a relationship women are less likely to get it. "This is because women often have less time to themselves than men. Even if women have jobs outside the home, they are typically more likely to be caring for children, parents, friends, and others in the family. Women are more relationship oriented and they are more likely to have more friends than men, and often are the ones planning or organising the social activities for the couple".
She says that some couples pursue separate hobbies or engage in different sports or athletic events while others recommend space to go out with friends, family members, join clubs, participate in classes or go to lectures or workshops."
If you are feeling the strain of not having enough 'me time' but don't know how to fit it into a busy schedule, Orbuch says you can still find space and time for yourself in the same house. "It is merely time alone to think, process thoughts, and relax," she says.
Here are Orbuch's tips for getting the space you need:
Recognise that when you have space and time for self you can learn a new hobby or interest. That makes you more exciting and interesting, and you can bring the information or activity back into your relationship or to your partner.
Enjoy the time you have and don't feel guilty. Your need for time for self has little to do with your relationship or how much you love your partner.
Be specific when you ask your partner for time for self. Also, I would suggest not using the phrase – "I need space" – instead tell your partner why more space will make you happy. "I would love to take a cooking class on Tuesday nights. It would really make me happy and I could then bring the recipes home to make them for you!"
Don't keep secrets from your partner. Include them in what you did and where you went as much as possible.