Close: there's no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to a happy relationship. Photo: Getty Images
A perfect couple holds hands while strolling down the beach on holidays. They clown around while eating ice-cream. And each night, after they remove all those extraneous pillows from their big fluffy bed, they sleep nestled in each other's arms. But that kind of traditional set-up, where a couple fuse into one unbreakable romantic unit, does not guarantee happiness. Which is why some are discovering that time apart may be the best antidote for all that togetherness.
"Time apart may give a couple the opportunity to defuse from the daily grind and the 'little things' that can end up taking up an awful lot of relationship space," says clinical psychologist Lara Winten. When a couple does everything together, it also means they share life's stresses and chores – or, as Winten aptly calls them, "conflict triggers and energy drainers".
Time apart also means more time to yourself. And with this breathing space, you're better able to meet your own needs of "self-care, self-nourishment and self-compassion", says Winten.
Jennifer Adams and Fraser Mackay. Photo: Glenn Hunt
Another bonus is that, if your time together is limited, you will value it more. So instead of bickering over whose turn it is to unstack the dishwasher, you're likely to spend your time as a couple in more enjoyable ways.
Finding space in a relationship doesn't have to mean living in separate houses. There are other ways, such as holidaying separately or having separate rooms. Here's how three couples carve out "me time", and why they're all the better for it.
"We sleep in separate rooms"
Jennifer Adams, 48, and husband Fraser Mackay, 46, have been married for seven years but haven't shared a bed since shortly after moving in together.
Lucy Cook and Wes Pope. Photo: Glenn Hunt
"One week after Fraser and I moved in together, we were both wrecks from sleep deprivation. Fraser is a ceramic tiler, so he's up at 5am each morning. Having to negotiate that – plus the fact he's a fairly accomplished snorer – led to us both blurting out that we needed our own beds to get a good night's sleep.
"After a few tears from me – I mean, who lives with a boyfriend and doesn't share a bed? – we came to the realisation that while the rest of the relationship was fantastic, we were an 'epic fail' at bed sharing.
"Heading to separate rooms each night was definitely strange at first, and took some getting used to. But because everything else in the relationship – including the physical aspects: hugs, kisses, sex – were all 'normal', we just made it work.
Alice and Cam Nicholls. Photo: Simon Schluter
"We have some rules around the separate rooms. After Fraser dresses in the morning, he comes through and gives me a kiss, and I always pop into his room at night and, at a minimum, give him a kiss goodnight.
"Because we both really like each other and are still physically attracted to each other, we don't find that we have to plan time together, because we want to be together. But we are very mindful about keeping physical contact a priority. If one of us feels that 'cuddles' are down, then we will say so, and the perpetrator has to fix the situation. The truth is, we have all the romance and physicality that both of us want and need.
"Also, our bedrooms are always open to each other. There is certainly some spontaneous sneaking about, although I must admit, probably less as we are getting a bit older and have been together so long. We also spend a lot of time in the other's room, lying on the other's bed to chat, just hang out, or see where a kiss may lead.
"You don't always have complete compatibility with your partner - food, movies or music taste can all be points of difference. We had to accept that ours was not being able to share a few feet of real estate every night. I sincerely believe that if Fraser had been traditional and insisted on a bed together, we may not have made it this far.
"Many people I have talked to baulk at the idea of not sharing a bed. But there is no one size fits all for couples, and the way Fraser and I 'do' our relationship is no less valuable, valid or real than any other relationship."
"We live in separate houses"
Lucy Cook, 40, and her partner Wes Pope, 45, have been together for four years and live in separate homes.
"The decision to live separately evolved over time. Wes has his children part-time [he has three children from a previous relationship], and I have my four boys full-time. So when we considered living together, there were the sheer logistics of trying to find a house for seven children!
"But it was more than that. We both like our own space. Also, having been divorced made us a bit more wary [of living together]. Besides, Wes is more introverted than I am, so living separately gives him time to have some peace and quiet and do his own thing.
"A lot of the time, I think couples' issues are around parenting – who's doing the lion's share, things like that. With us, we automatically know we're responsible for our own kids, and any time we parent the other's, it's done as a nice gesture to the partnership.
"Because my life is really busy, I like not having to worry about my relationship dynamics. When times are crazy, we just spend more time apart. It gives me space and independence. And, as opposed to when I was married, I can function and parent largely independently.
"Besides, even when he's not around, I know Wes is there as emotional support if I need it, as I am for him. I'll be honest, if we spend a night apart, it's nice to have the bed to myself and I do sloth about a bit more! But when we've had a few days apart, I miss him and it's really nice to see each other again.
"Wes visits a number of nights a week [when he doesn't have his children]. As he is a tennis coach and often works mornings and evenings, we may catch a mid-week lunch together or walk the dogs. We make a conscious effort to spend some child-free time together, too.
"Living apart is not always easy; at times, I need to make a conscious effort to reconnect. On nights when I've had a hard time with the children, it would be great to sit down and have a cuppa together. He is a good listener and it'd be nice to debrief and have a laugh.
"However, I'm in no hurry to change our living arrangements. While this is not a situation I would advocate for everyone, for us it works well. I guess after four years together, we've worked through most issues. Besides, I actually think our set-up is quite romantic, because we don't share all the mundaneness of everyday life all the time. We do share some, but not every minute of every day."
"We holiday separately"
Alice Nicholls, 32, and her husband Cam, 33, have been together for five years but holiday separately.
"Cam and I have very different interests. I love meditation, yoga and spirituality, Cam is a cyclist. Because we have two young kids, it doesn't make sense to both compromise on what we want to do most in our time away, so we split it. While I go off – like, to a retreat in Bali – Cam looks after the kids. And while he goes to cycling camps, I look after the kids.
"Cam also travelled the world when he was younger and I didn't, so when I can, I book trips for the places that call to me. Holidaying alone allows me to renew, reinvigorate and energise; I find out so much about myself. Cam is very supportive of my trips because he gets to be with someone who is enriched, fulfilled and, ultimately, happy.
"I used to think the fact we wanted different things out of our holidays put us on separate paths. However, we've actually become closer, because we follow our passions and support each other's dreams. We both know that when you find something you enjoy, it's important to continue cultivating that sense of fulfilment.
"I don't believe you can 'have it all'. I believe that when you find someone you connect with, who gives you freedom to grow personally as well as being there for you, you find a lovely, peaceful place in the relationship.
"While I don't miss Cam much when I'm away, there are times when I am surrounded by beauty and I'd love him to be there with me. Neither of us is possessive or jealous, which means we are able to relax and fully enjoy our experiences apart. And it's always great to reunite after; though when you walk into a house with two toddlers after time away, it can be more of a whirling dervish than a romantic reconnection!
"It's really important to find yourself without having to be joined at the hip all of the time. The world today is so crazy-busy. Individually, it's easy to get lost. When this happens, we typically look to someone to blame and that tends to fall on our partners, when it really is an inside job. Taking time for ourselves has become a life-changer."