As a child I remember my great aunt saying irritably, “I promised you ‘for better or for worse’ but not for lunch!” This was her main complaint about Uncle Joe’s retirement. For 49 years she had cooked daily breakfasts and dinners, but at lunchtime she had been on her own.
After my husband’s and my retirement, lunches together have been a treat. Our first jolt from our increased togetherness, however, came from our loss of uninterrupted time at home. Before our retirement we each had an office elsewhere and, because we worked on different schedules, we also had hours of solitary time at home. Suddenly, here was the beloved partner at home for most of the time.
For about a week, this added contact was a pleasure. But then we both began to feel crowded. Each of us felt free to make a comment or ask a question at any time, and we both felt inclined to say something whenever we walked through a room occupied by the other one. This tendency first seemed natural, but soon we began to get grumpy. We each wanted more uninterrupted time — time alone just for thinking, reading, writing — not behind a closed door, but with access to the whole house without having to be responsive or be polite. Fortunately, we found an easily arranged, cost-free, and nearly stress-free solution that changed things dramatically.
Our solution: a hat.
Whenever either of us feels a need for uninterrupted time, on goes the hat. This signals that, for all intents and purposes, the hat-wearer is absent. And it works both ways. The rule is that if you are wearing a hat you too cannot start talking or asking questions. First the hat must come off.
This device may sound silly but it has made a huge difference. Not only does wearing the hat create boundaries for the hat-wearer, but it also provides more space for the partner.
Initially my husband wore the hat more easily than did I. He was delighted to find that, even when I needed to go in or out of the room where he was working, he could ignore my presence and write on as if he were alone. My surprise was that whenever he wore the hat I felt as free as he did. I could walk past him without feeling obligated to ask how things were going or even to acknowledge his presence.
I have been somewhat less comfortable putting on the hat myself. Should I be utterly unavailable? When my husband comes looking for me but says nothing because of my hat, I feel twinges of concern that stem from my early training that a wife or mother is always available for anyone in the family, except perhaps for herself.
We now find that both of us do better if I too recognize my needs for control over my time and space. In case of urgency we will, of course, interrupt the other’s silence — hat on or not. But if a comment or question can wait, we are learning to let it wait. Because there are steps we can all take to learning to better communicate with our significant other.
Right now I’m ready to remove my hat and see what George wanted to ask when he walked by ten minutes ago. Maybe he had some ideas for lunch. Lunch together, a great idea!