Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
I need some advice. Since I was a kid my mom and I have been best friends, always doing routine things together every weekend, like going to the movies or going shopping. She used to tell me to build relationships outside of our relationship, but my full focus was on her and I had no interest in anyone else.
Then, about a year ago, I met my now-fiancée in my graduate course. We started talking more last semester and going out. He proposed shortly thereafter and I have shifted my time to him. Here is where the problem arises . . .
My mom feels I’m not balancing my time. I go to work from 7 am until 5 pm., I come home, eat dinner, chat for a bit with my mother, and then I go upstairs to talk to my fiancée on the phone. I spend weekends with him. Admittedly, I want to spend time with him, and it’s not because I don’t wish to spend time with my mother, but I think she perceives it like this. Every conversation she and I have pertaining to how I am spending my time ends up making me feel absolutely awful.
Second, I’ve noticed (shamefully) that it bothers me when my fiancée spends time with his parents or when he tells me he’s talking to them. I may sound selfish in this respect, but I want to be the person my fiancée wants to spend the most time with. I consider talking with him my #1 priority.
He does live with his parents and I know he has to talk to them, but in my mind he enjoys spending time more with them than with me. Every time I know he’s speaking to them I get severe anxiety and sick to my stomach.
I really feel sick and split and like I am a horrible daughter.
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response
In the book I am currently writing on relationships, I discuss the 15 building blocks of relationships. One building block that immediately comes to mind as I read your situation is that of space: Space pertains to having the physical and emotional latitude to do things, be with other people, and pursue interests alone. Here is why I think space in a relationship is relevant to you.
Standard relationship advice from therapists, counselors, authors, and bloggers typically includes “Give the other person space.” Space in a relationship can be physical space (man caves, she sheds, separate trips) and/or emotional space (“I need to think about this before discussing it with you”).
Further, how one experiences space in a relationship, and how that space is achieved or negotiated, can be either positive or negative in nature, depending on the situation. The challenge for participants in a relationship is to find the balance between spending time together (“we-time”) and spending time apart (“me-time”) that is acceptable to both parties.
Me-Time Versus We-Time
Me-time is something that should be embraced and cultivated in relationships. From what you have described, it feels like me-time is something you and your mother have avoided.
Here are the ways me-time can enrich a relationship:
- Being alone with one’s thoughts can provide reflective and personal growth opportunities.
- There is satisfaction, freedom, and independence that come from pursuing interests, hobbies, and friendships that may not be of interest to the other.
- Doing things solo can make for interesting experiences and stories to share with the other during their we-time.
- Apartness can increase appreciation for we-time. There’s something to the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
It would appear that the longstanding relationship you and your mother have depends entirely on we-time, so much so that me-time is viewed as threatening, something to be avoided. I suggest that this exclusivity dynamic has created an either-or situation: either you want to spend time with me, or you don’t want to spend time with me. It seems you have transferred this same either-or dynamic that exists between you and your mother to your relationship with your fiancée.
Your Relationship Challenges Ahead
I suggest that these are your fundamental challenges going forward. You need to:
- Change your attitude towards me-time – that is, instead of viewing me-time as a negative in your core relationships, you need to appreciate how me-time is just as important as we-time.
- Define for yourself more appropriate balances between me-time and we-time and some specific activities you can do to support each.
- Communicate these desired balances to your mother and your fiancée and be willing to negotiate with them if they have suggestions to strengthen the balances and activities for we-time and me-time.
- Commit to and follow through on incorporating we-time and me-time into your core relationships.
Based on additional information you shared with me that space precludes me including, I suspect your fiancée will welcome the changes I am suggesting. That is, he will encourage more me-time in your mutual relationship; I daresay he does not want to feel guilty for spending time with his family, or with others. This kind of constraint on a relationship can feel suffocating over time.
Your mother may be less accepting of you making any relationship changes that decrease your time together. A major challenge for your mother is to encourage you, her daughter, to “leave the nest” and to build a new life in which she will play lesser and different roles – changes that can be very hard for parents!
In closing, I want to say that I am hopeful that making the kinds of changes I am suggesting will help lessen your physical and emotional anxieties, as well as help address you feeling overwhelmed, almost incapacitated, in managing your relationships with your mother and your fiancée.
If the journey ahead to make important changes in your core relationships feels too difficult, you may find it helpful to work with a professional therapist or counselor. He/she can be a valued partner to help you attain the balanced, satisfying, and healthy relationships you seek.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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