I noticed something weird about a year ago. All day, while I sat at home, I had a million different things buzzing in my head that I wanted to share with my husband. I was dying for someone to talk to. But by the time my husband walked through the front door, that part of me shut off with the click of the closed door.
“Hi,” I’d say.
“Hi,” he’d say back. “How was your day?”
I thought of all the million things I had wanted to share with him. There were too many. It was too hard to catch him up. I was too tired. “I don’t actually feel like talking about it.”
And that’s how our evening conversations went. Those three boring sentences, followed by parallel lives.
What on earth was wrong with me? I never stopped talking. I always wanted to blab on in detail. There was no conflict or hostility in our relationship. My desire to connect just dried up the second I saw him.
Clearly, yeah, I was burnt out. Some sleep would help, for sure; some alone time. But I’d been alone all day. I’d had plenty of “me time.”
As we’re both introverts, my husband and I naturally made space for each other’s need to be alone and separate — so much space that we couldn’t easily reconnect. When we forced conversations and dates on a burnt-out soul, we just got more frustrated with each other.
After awhile, I realized that it wasn’t just solitude and separateness that we needed. The fix wasn’t indiscriminate together time. We needed meaningful self-care.
Sarah Bessey says self-care is what makes you come alive, “what fills the well of your soul.” It’s the opposite of self-comfort, which she describes as “numbing”: “the Netflix binges, the bad food, the laying on the couch for a day of reading” (though those can be soul-filling in moderation).
This was our problem: we spent our “alone time” doing numbing things, and came up empty during our “together time.”
Why Date Night Doesn’t Work for Introverts
Have you ever scheduled a date night and found yourself wanting to do nothing instead?
Scheduled date nights are made for extroverted couples — couples who easily come alive just by being together. Together time for burnt-out introverts ends up exasperating both parties: the burnt-out introvert feels irritated by the energy and talkativeness of the other spouse, and then the “filled and alive” spouse, ready to connect, feels rejected. It’s like the classic husband-wants-sex-but-wife-says-ugh-please-no situation, except with everything instead of just sex.
Actually, female sexual desire is a great way to look at the introverted couple dilemma. According to Emily Nagoski, author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, every individual (even the guys) possesses a sexual “brake” and a sexual “gas pedal.” Sexual brakes are things that turn off sexual desire, even if your sexual gas pedal is held to the floor.
That’s exactly what was happening with poor old introverted me: I was gunning my relational gas pedal, what with all the excitement to share my thoughts with my husband — but unbeknownst to me, other things were slamming the brakes. Emotional intimacy felt nearly impossible, and the thought of trying to fight those brakes exhausted me.
More Then Solitude
I’ve thought for a long time that simply being away from people would release those brakes. That’s what worked in college, when we started dating. But what I didn’t realize is that the college setting provided me the stuff that filled my soul in a way that sitting at home alone with a sink of dishes did not.
When I was away from my then-boyfriend during college, I was having amazing conversations with my girlfriends, thinking about interesting things, and involving myself in activities I loved. Those conversations, relationships, and activities filled me up, helping me come alive and ready to engage with my then-boyfriend.
Now that we’re married, lots of things I did hit the brakes on emotional intimacy: working full-time, the stress of adult life, housework, small talk with coworkers or hardly any interaction with adults at all, and, ironically for an introvert, spending too much time alone or alone with a non-communicative infant.
Thinking I just needed more alone time, I spent evenings mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or bingeing Netflix. Those things numbed me from the exhaustion I felt, but they weren’t restorative.
For both my husband and me, unregulated screen time is the thing we turn toward as a numbing agent. He plays his computer games, I putz around on the internet. It not only fails to fill the well of our soul, it saps our desire for intimacy even more. It messes with our headspace, to the point where all I’m thinking about is drama on the internet and all he’s thinking about is Fortnite. Great, we think. We live the lamest lives, and we don’t feel like sharing those lame lives with a lame person who just does lame stuff all day.
Trying to connect with burnt-out, boring person is a big emotional brake in itself — as is trying to share your burnt-out, boring self.
The biggest thing we’ve done for our marriage is prioritizing self-care — not self-comfort, but meaningful self-care. We prioritize it individually, and we prioritize it as a couple.
So far, that looks like a few different things:
(1) Before launching into a deep conversation or another meaningful attempt at emotional intimacy, we check in with the other spouse about how they’re feeling. “Are you able to have this conversation right now?” I ask a lot (because I’m the talker in our relationship). Sometimes my husband will say no, not really, he wants to do this thing right now. I know that he means he’s burnt out, and trying to focus on a really intricate and involved thing like his wife’s conversations (cough) will not fill his soul. Sometimes he does his own thing all evening, and I put off the conversation until the next day. Sometimes he does his thing for a while and emerges a little later, refreshed and ready to interact. On rare occasions, sometimes he’s engrossed in a project for most of the week.
I respect his assessment on what he needs and is able to give. If I really need to talk to somebody, I either communicate to him the importance of my needs and let him reassess, or I find somebody else to talk to.
(2) Even though I respect his final assessment of his needs, I’ll check in to see if the activity engrossing him is really filling his well, or just numbing his burn-out. I can tell the difference between long hours that result in a buoyant attitude, excitement, and productivity, and long hours that result in grumpiness, irritation, and even more exhaustion. Part of prioritizing meaningful self-care is holding each other accountable to actually do meaningful self-care.
(3) Even though I think it’s important for couples to hold each other accountable, I take responsibility for filling my soul well. I know that I can’t function in relationship with my husband if I’m burning myself out with busyness or meaningless “me-time.” I’m (trying to be) really intentional about knowing my limits, setting my boundaries well before those limits, and doing the things that make me come alive. I count meaningful alone time — intentionally not doing housework or playing with the baby — as part of the wife-and-mother job description. If I’m trying to be the best wife, mom, and human I can be, pooh-poohing meaningful “me-time” as selfish seems absolutely irresponsible to me.
(4) On Thursdays, we turn off screens. It’s not a date night, per se, and we started it simply as a way to kick our screen addictions, but it’s evolved into a night where it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll connect well. Our headspace is free, there are no distracting people or things via the world wide web, and we naturally gravitate towards each other. It’s almost too easy: merely removing screens puts us in a mental space where we share deep conversation, quality together time, and lots of laughs. I look forward to Thursdays every week.
Of course, since it’s not strictly a date night, sometimes being untethered to screens results in working on separate projects — that is, we get in meaningful self-care. Either way, it’s a good mid-week reset.
(5) Our introvert date night is technically Wednesdays, but we don’t call it date night, and we’re not really consistent about it. We just do not have the energy to plan or do the stereotypical date nights — dress up, go out, get away, or even plan a more structured night in. That’s not our style and never has been. Instead of fighting that, we’re embracing it. We’ve been trying out a date night at our speed — watching documentaries and discussing them. Mostly it’s not working, and I fall asleep halfway, but it’s a good thought. We connect more on the weekends when my husband isn’t trying to squeeze in his refueling time between family time, dinner, chores, and sleep.
That’s the care and keeping of an introvert spouse.