Busy bodies: Modern-day couples struggle to keep the pace
Fast-paced couples. They're as American as ma, apple pie and Prozac. Today's twosomes partake in a busy blur of 40-plus-hour work weeks, car pools, kids' soccer games and other obligations.
Fast-paced couples. They're as American as ma, apple pie and Prozac.
Today's twosomes partake in a busy blur of 40-plus-hour work weeks, car pools, kids' soccer games and other obligations. That leaves room for little else -- including couple time.
Two years ago, Ann Burnett and her graduate-level interpersonal communication class at North Dakota State University theorized this unrelenting pace could eat away at a couple's relationship.
While much research had been done on how hectic living affects health, little has been written on its effects on interpersonal relationships.
Burnett, an associate professor in communication/women's studies, has found a strong-enough link between busy lifestyles and marital satisfaction to suggest pace of life issues should be addressed in marriage counseling, if they haven't been already.
In fact, she and graduate student Abby Gold plan to present a paper on her research at the National Communication Association convention this fall. They also have sent it to the Journal of Family Communication for review.
For naysayers who think a glutted schedule is simply a "normal" part of modern life -- hence, something we should blindly accept -- Burnett has a ready answer.
"I think it should be looked at as a factor in determining how a marriage is going," she says. "And if people are reporting that they're not very satisfied -- like they don't laugh together, they don't calmly discuss things, they don't work together on projects, they're too tired for sex, they don't show love, they consider themselves fairly unhappy -- maybe part of that is how you're dealing with your pace of life, and maybe you ought to be dealing with that."
Not so easy in a culture in which a frenetic pace seems woven into its very fabric. After all, this is the land that spawned McDonald's and drive-through blood-testing clinics.
Researching the problem
Some modern families have revolted against our oh-so-American obsession with time, scorning their high-powered jobs to live in communes. Entire villages in Italy have grown to reject this Westernized pace, insisting on marathon meals and siesta-like breaks.
But not everyone can afford to move overseas or start a goat farm in Idaho.
For the rest of us, knowledge is the life raft. And that's where Burnett's work comes in.
When her class started its first round of research, it found no measures even existed to gauge pace of life.
Through trial and error, they created their own gauge. That questionnaire now invites participants to agree or disagree with a variety of statements, such as: "Our lifestyle is more hectic now than it was five years ago," "I get plenty of sleep every night," or "Our relationship is strained because my spouse and I don't have time to talk."
Burnett's most recent research will examine results from that questionnaire, but will also look at how respondents handle their pace of life and how that affects their marriages.
While she awaits results, Burnett's past research -- a combination of 35 interviews and 220 returned surveys -- has already revealed multiple common themes:
- "I want to be alone": Many respondents said they sacrifice "alone time" for the sake of work obligations or family duties. In fact, "time with children" was chosen over nearly all other aspects of life. Consequently, there was little room for individual relaxation and revitalization.
As one respondent phrased it: "Personally, I don't get much time by myself -- When Adam can schedule it, he will watch the kids and I will go to the library. That is my night out."
- "All work and no play": Time and time again, work seemed to encroach on all other aspects of people's lives. Couples reported the demands of work often stressed their relationships. Still, some saw work as an escape outlet, and said it helped them express their individuality outside of the couple dynamic.
- "Spontaneous combustion": The constant juggling of work, adult obligations and kids' activities could present a logistical nightmare.
As a result, couples had to forsake spontaneity for a predictable, highly scheduled life. While the stability of reserving Friday nights as "date nights" could be reassuring, it also could be dull.
"It gets so boring," Burnett says. "You want some spice. You want flowers every once in a while."
- "It takes two": Not too surprisingly, time-strapped couples often had little time for each other, according to Burnett's research. Some pairs reported even being too busy to fight.
"In a lot of respects, we found the marriage could really suffer," Burnett says, "because when you're not connecting on a daily basis, and you're not even talking about little things -- 'What did we get in the mail?' 'How was your day?' 'How did the meeting go?' -- all of a sudden, you become estranged from each other."
Fortunately, the human animal is highly adaptable, and many of the respondents found ways to deal with the stingy clock.
Some respondents did so through "selection" -- prioritizing and making choices over what mattered the most to them. For one couple, that meant devoting weekdays to work, but reserving weekends for their faith.
Others coped through creative scheduling (a husband and wife took turns going to work early while the other watched the kids), stringent planning (another twosome reported a daily agenda that would intimidate a lieutenant general) and constant communication with each other.
Still others handled it all through a technique Burnett calls "reframing" -- basically twisting the traditional definition of "couple time" to fit their needs.
In one situation, a couple bought season tickets for the community theater.
They acknowledged their theatrical jaunts weren't technically "couple time," because they also brought their kids. Still, they insisted on sitting next to each other at the theater, so they still deemed it to be a togetherness activity.
While it was hardly a romantic get-away to Jamaica, for them, it worked.
The worst cases were when people weren't coping at all, Burnett says.
"They were just saying -- I shut down. I cry. I don't cope. I don't know. I'm just horribly, horribly stressed," she says.
Those people concern Burnett the most.
"We're arguing health issues here," she says. "Some people might say you're not really proving that in the data, but it seems to me if you're not coping at all, that can be very unhealthy."
Women seemed especially vulnerable to schedule overload. One respondent was so distressed by a constantly working husband, she admitted it might be easier to be a single mother.
Now Burnett hopes her work will help both women and men. And it's just the proverbial tip of the iceberg: She envisions a research consortium, which would bring together interested NDSU scholars from business administration, sociology and health to talk about pace of life and its impact.
All these ventures could remind everyone from families to researchers that, when it comes to relationships, time is truly of the essence.
Swift is a feature writer for Publications Services at North Dakota State University and a contributing columnist for The Forum. She can be reached at email@example.com