When it comes to structuring time in my family, my wife and I don’t exactly see things eye to eye. The kids wake us up each morning, and she takes in the day, visualizing a blank slate that can be filled with adventure or just chilling on the couch — whatever she feels like doing spontaneously. For my part, I like to have our days — or at least mine — plotted out. Sometimes I spend hours researching family expeditions so our weekends are booked. My wife? She sees plans as fluid.
For years, this has bewildered me. I would memorize my wife’s schedule, reminding her of her plans, thinking I was doing her a favor, only to then find myself on the verge of tears when she forgot about important things I had planned. It was hard for me to understand why she wouldn’t speak to me some weekends because my over-planning sucked all the fun out of her days.
It’s not just my wife, though: My big sister has never been on time for a family gathering, and I’ve cut off friends who would text me, swearing they were around the corner, only to amble in an hour later, offering a smile and a shrug.
My wife, my big sister, and me — we all run on different clocks. On the surface, that might not seem like a big deal, but what happens when it starts to affect relationships? And, more importantly, are there ways that out-of-sync couples, friends, and family can meet in the middle when it comes to scheduling and planning?
Elizabeth Earnshaw, a Philadelphia-based licensed marriage and family therapist and the author of I Want This to Work: An Inclusive Guide to Navigating the Most Difficult Relationship Issues We Face in the Modern Age, explains to Shondaland that we’re all unique individuals, so it’s expected that we’d navigate life differently. “Some of us might prioritize things in terms of time, and others might prioritize things in terms of enjoyment or productivity,” she says. Another reason people view time differently may come down to how they process information. But ultimately it’s not people’s incongruous views on time that are a problem in a relationship. Earnshaw says, “It’s how you navigate that difference together.”
First off, find the fear
Earnshaw asks her clients to search for their underlying fears about how they view time. Someone who is strict with time might fear missing opportunities or disrespecting people, while someone who is more fluid might fear making mistakes when they rush or missing out on enjoying the moment.
When you understand your fears, Earnshaw says, you can ask, “What do we want to do in our life together so that you feel like there’s time to enjoy life and so that I can feel like you’re going to work with me to make sure that we’re respecting other people’s time?” Then you can negotiate, recognizing when it’s important to run on a schedule because it’s crucial to one person and when you can be more relaxed because it’s important for the other.
Create win-win situations
If individuals are constantly tallying who is right or wrong, they struggle. “Whereas when people can start to try to find common ground or create win-win solutions, they’re able to move forward regardless of the difference,” says Earnshaw. So, when disputes arise, the goal is to learn to assume the best. “We tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt when we aren’t good at something, but when somebody else isn’t good at it, we tend to think the worst. So, try really hard to remember, what is it that my partner might be struggling with right now? Maybe they were trying their best.”
My wife and I needed to seek help from a therapist to help us navigate our problems — we weren’t giving each other the benefit of anything. We’d forgotten how to listen, how to show we cared even when we were frustrated. Rashly, I pointed out every minor event my wife forgot about or every time we ran late. I felt personally attacked. With that, I realized it was time to …
Check emotions at the door
Before having heavy conversations about time, Michelle Nguyen, a New York City-based licensed clinical social worker and relationship expert, advises being in tune with your emotions and, especially, noticing when you are in defensive mode. “That’s when we can’t solve a problem, because we’re in the animal survival brain. We are literally in fight-or-flight mode.” Instead, wait till you are calm and grounded, then initiate any talks about why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.
Be willing to say sorry
Mistakes will be made, so it’s important to learn how to repair the relationship. “You have to be able to say, even if you didn’t intend it, I’m sorry, and I want to repair this with you,” says Earnshaw. “You know, I get that for you it really hurts when I’m late, or I get that for you it’s really upsetting when I’m pushing you and I’m not giving you the time to finish what you need to finish.”
Accept that some friends will always be late
“If it’s a friend that you love and you care about deeply,” Nguyen says, you should ask yourself, “how can I manage what comes up for me instead of spiraling and saying, ‘This person is doing this to me purposely.’ Remember this is just a part of this person’s personality. They do it to probably everyone in their life.” If you are the one often waiting, prepare. Go to the bar knowing your friend will be late, and instead of sitting around stewing, invite another buddy, bring a magazine, or catch up on the news on your phone, then when your friend arrives, you’ll be happy to see them.
Have the hard conversations
“It’s okay to state our needs with our friends and family and to figure things out together,” Nguyen says. Doing this shows how much you value the relationship. “Instead of saying, ‘you’re always late’ or ‘you’re too fluid with time,’” provide empathy and explain that you know that you both have different relationships with time, but you want to work together so no one is left waiting for the other, and no one is lying about when something starts. “Then put it on them. What should we do about it?” Remember to validate your friend’s experience also. “Maybe they are really a single dad or maybe they work a lot.” There is always context to consider, and some people may not be in a place to discuss or be honest about that until you ask or create space for them to do so.
It’s also good to set firm boundaries, says Earnshaw. That can mean that the person who is often left waiting makes it clear to their friend that when dinner gets there, they are eating whether their friend has arrived or not. It can also mean you leave if you’ve waited too long. When it comes to scheduling activities, if a friend or family member is waffling on a commitment about, say, going to a restaurant or doing something together on a weekend, it’s okay to let them know that if they aren’t providing input, you’re going to step up, take the reins, and make a decision whether they like it or not.
Recognize that it’s okay to let go of friendships you can’t invest in
With friends, sometimes it’s worth asking yourself how dedicated you are to the friendship. “Maybe if it’s a new friend,” says Nguyen, “especially now, with the pandemic, time is so precious, and everyone’s kind of doing the best they can to stay slightly sane, you might not be able to invest in that kind of friend.” If it’s a long-term friend, remember dynamics between people change as we get older. Recognizing that and readjusting to new or long-held behavior is normal so long as you communicate your position rather than make abrupt changes that may leave someone confused or hurt.
Have faith: It gets better
Remember, you aren’t the only couple or friends who have struggled with varying views on how to manage time, Earnshaw says. “It’s a common problem, and you just have to find a way to solve it together.”
My wife and I desperately wanted it to work. Our therapist helped us go from barely being able to look at each other during difficult conversations about time to using reflective listening while holding hands and making eye contact.
The biggest changes we made include that when I have an important event, I put it on a Google Calendar invite, and my wife does the same. If I know my wife is overwhelmed with an overloaded plate, I prioritize her needs and am more flexible — or at least I try to be. I realized my scheduling has strengths: I’m in charge of the kids’ morning hygiene, making sure everyone gets their vitamins, and filling their days with activities while my wife is at work. I’m in awe of her ability to not stress about everything, to accept what life gives her, and to live in the moment — things I’ve always struggled with. It turns out that once we discussed our differences and set boundaries, we complement each other perfectly.