Does Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder? How to Find the Balance of Time Together and Time Apart
Is space the key to healthy intimacy? Or is too much absence detrimental? Here are the arguments for whether absence truly makes the heart grow fonder.
In Symposium, Greek philosopher Plato offers a portrayal of love in which humans are split in two, and are forever destined to seek their counterpart. This image of love, one of union, two becoming one, is common. When you meet the love of your life, shouldn’t you crave to spend every second of every day looking longingly into their eyes, making the most of the time you spent together on the planet? Not quite.
Balancing competing wants and needs is an essential quality of a fulfilling, nourishing, long-term relationship. To avoid the pitfalls of codependency or a loss of self, that means cultivating time alone for personal development, hobbies, and activities outside of the romantic relationship. Paradoxically, time apart brings two people closer together.
But is it true that absence makes the heart grow fonder? How much time alone is necessary for relationships to thrive? And what are the signs that space is the quality your relationship needs, or is benefitting from the most?
Why Absence Can Sometimes Be a Good Thing in Love
Asking for or giving space in a relationship doesn’t have to be a red flag, but a practice is knowing what serves a relationship in the long-run. I’m someone who needs a lot of time alone, far above average, and my need for space is something I’ve had to communicate with my partner. Initially, it caused difficulty. But when this space was framed as positive for the relationship, it made it clearer time apart was an act of love.
Having time alone allows you to process emotions or events in your own time, to explore other activities and hobbies. For me, it allows me to focus on both my creativity and spiritual practices. I’m highly sensitive to other people’s energy, even a loved one, and time to myself is my way of regaining balance. From that place, I have more to give to the relationship.
It seems I’m not alone. In three decades of research of married couples, Dr. Terri Orbuch, a psychologist and research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, discovered that needing more time alone was an issue for 29 percent of couples. Other research backs this up. One study from 2013 found that couples in long-distance relationships had less frequent, but more meaningful interactions with their partners, including deeper levels of intimacy.
Where Did the Saying Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder Come From?
Back to the famous phrase, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Is this strictly true? Some research from MIT Technology Review points in this direction. The phrase is believed to have originated from Roman poet Sextus in Elegies (“Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows”). The study explored cold, hard data that looked at call records, which seems to suggest that humans invest more in relationships that have distance between them. That applies to both romance and platonic relationships.
Another question is how the phrase is interpreted. Being away from a loved one may increase desire, such as in a long-distance relationship, and lead to more investment in the relationship, but how much space is healthy? There can’t be a never-ending positive correlation. Relationships may grow fonder with distance, but grow together in proximity. So how is the balance formed?
How Much Space Is Healthy for Romantic Relationships?
Maybe it’s accurate to say: some absence makes the heart grow fonder, and finding how much absence you need is the biggest test of your relationship. It’s not quite as snappy as Roman poetry, but closer to truth. When it comes to discerning how much space is healthy, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, it will depend on a number of factors, mostly how much time you need alone, how much your partner needs, and how much is healthy for the relationship to thrive. If you’re in a long-distance relationship, there will be other constraints to consider, too.
- How much space do you need? In truth, this is a lifelong practice of self-understanding. At certain times, you’ll likely need more space than others. Within this exploration, break down three criteria: minimum, adequate, and ideal. Your minimum is how much time alone you need for your mental health. Adequate is “enough,” whilst ideal is if you had no other things to consider.
- How much space does my partner need? This requires your partner to follow the above steps themselves. The more you can gauge your personal preferences, the more likely you are to find a middle ground.
- How much space is healthy for the relationship to thrive? Let’s say you need three days each week away from the relationship, while your partner would like only one day each week. Clearly, if you were to only meet your ideal needs, the relationship would become one-sided. Eventually, it would suffer through a lack of emotional or psychological closeness, and your partner could end up feeling neglected.
Finding a healthy balance, when you have a good understanding of how much time alone each person needs, requires considering multiple factors. In my experience, I’ve been able to increase the time I’ve spent with my partner as I’ve got better at communicating my needs and setting compassionate boundaries. In effect, I’m less protective of my time alone, and trust we can find happy mediums, such as co-working, or being together whilst taking time away, such as meditating or journaling in a different room.
Signs Absence Is Making Your Heart Grow Fonder
Once you start this exploration, you’ll then be able to see the signs when absence is making your heart grow fonder, and when it’s stretching the relationship too much through too much distance. Some of the signs the space you’re experiencing is skilful and beneficial include:
- Inspired plans: in the time away from the relationship, you start to experience inspired ideas about the relationship. For example, you begin to imagine future plans or think of ways to make the most of time together.
- You feel seen and understood: when you do your own thing, you don’t feel as if it’s something to feel bad for, but actually feel that it allows you to be seen for who you are, and this level of acceptance makes you even more grateful for your relationship.
- You need less time than you thought: talking from my experience, the big sign is that, when you take time away, you end up missing your partner and wanting to spend time with them! The challenger at this stage is to communicate gently, and not expect your partner to be immediately available.
- You return with smiles on your faces: when you do meet-up, you both have a level of excitement, not only at being together, but sharing what you’ve both been up to during your time apart. That feeling of returning to each other also keeps the romance alive, and the fire of passion stoked.
We’ll end on a word of warning: certain attachment styles can mistakenly associate time apart as skilful, when it enters avoidance territory. Only you can truly know this with self-honesty and self-observation. Relationships do require you to show up, be accountable, work through the tough stuff. All of that requires presence. It’s completely natural, and healthy, to take time apart, but make sure absence is masking other issues in the relationship.
Unsurprising for a philosopher with such depth and genius, Plato was onto something in Symposium. Perhaps true love is the experience of union with someone else, feeling like we’ve found a home, that we want to spend all of our time with that person. But maybe the biggest act of love is the discipline to allow each of you to flourish, alone, to bring your fullest selves to the dynamic, enjoying the best of both worlds, together, and alone, each fuelling the beauty of the other.