Is Being in a Relationship a Time Sink?

Many people focused on building their career view being in a romantic relationship as a time sink. Several entrepreneurs have told me that they don't have time for a relationship. To evaluate whether this is true, we need to look at the three possible relationship states pre-marriage.

1. In a Relationship. A relationship takes a lot of time. You may spend every weekend with your significant other and one or two days during the week. During much of that time you are 100% with the other person. Sometimes you are able to double book time by watching movies, buying groceries, washing dishes, etc. but mostly this is maybe 15-20 hours a week (sometimes much more) of time you'd otherwise have free. (Obviously the "maintenance level," as they say, of the significant other affects time commitment.)

2. Single and Looking. You're dating around, or sleeping around. You're going on first dates, trying to impress, and following up on leads. (Using your preferred CRM system, no doubt.) You'd like to be in a relationship so you spend a bunch of time thinking about your ideal mate, comparing and contrasting the various folks you're meeting, and pining wistfully for the relationship of old or idealizing the relationship you someday dream of having.

3. Single and Not Looking. If you're not trying to go on dates and you're content being single, you'll have tons of free time. Weeknights and weekends are yours, and you profit from the power of low expectations.

My thesis is that In a Relationship is just as much of a time and energy sink as Single and Looking. There are various reasons, but one big one. With Single and Looking there's a great deal of emotional energy spent contemplating your lack of dating success, there's stress around existing dates, and of course, wondering, "Is she interested? Am I interested? Do I play like I'm interested?" You spend a lot of cycles thinking about your dating life even when you're not going on dates. The energy spent for In a Relationship, by contrast, tends to be concentrated to the time you're actually spending with the person. There's more certainty, less general / random anxiety and wondering. Easier to focus on work when you are working. So even though the "scheduled time" for a boyfriend or girlfriend is greater, the total energy commitment is about equal to the single but looking person.

Single and Not Looking is the best for those who want as much as time as possible for professional projects. Emotional wonderings are minimal since you're expecting to be single anyway. This is sustainable for a few years or so, or for lots of smaller chunks, but ultimately not a realistic long-term option unless you cut off your penis.

Bottom Line: Being single and looking takes just as much time and energy as being in a relatively low-maintenance relationship.

(thanks to Andy McKenzie for helping brainstorm this.)

15 comments on “Is Being in a Relationship a Time Sink?
  • Single and looking may be even more time consuming than in a relationship. I know plenty of people who see their significant other as a source of energy, not as a time and energy sink–these people are probably thinking back to their lonelier single days and the time and energy spent chasing prospects.

  • This post strikes me as being almost entirely beside the point — like writing about whether canvas makes an efficient insulation material for the walls of a museum, or sex is an efficient form of aerobic exercise.

    I love you, Ben, but I sure as hell am glad I’m not in love with you.

  • Now try to think this through from a female point of view. Relationships become even more complicated when it’s the woman who has a significant career. Suddenly, you’re in the middle of a completely different topic: declining birth rates.

  • It seems to me the inverse of this post would have worked just as well — instead of asking which of the three relationship statuses take away from more productive work time, it could have just as easily been asked which of the three work statuses (employed, unemployed but looking, unemployed and not looking) take away from more relationship time.

    The central point is which uses of time *matter*, and I would say both relationships and work do, and it’s up to the individual to decide the optimal mix.

  • Whatever situation, it’s a matter of prioritizing time. In a relationship, it becomes a negotiation between two people and not just a matter of self-discipline.
    The real fun begins when children come along. Again, it becomes a new negotiation of time (and an increased importance of self-discipline). When you’re younger, you can replace focus with time spent, as responsibilities expand, focus becomes real important.
    It has become very important for me to get up at 5:30 and put in real high focus, high quality work before the family wakes.
    Of course part of the key is a partner who is understanding and supportive.

    PS – It’s worth it! You cannot regain your youth and a relationship is just another form of friendship (i.e., don’t neglect your friends also).

  • A couple months ago, I asked my readers whether being single helped or hurt their careers:

    The answers were mixed. One commenter noted that having a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend (now wife) after college gave him time to focus on work at the beginning of his career.

    Even if being in a relationship is the same energy-intensity as being single and looking, the relationship’s relative stability and certainty makes it a less exhausting experience.

  • The real question is, why do either? A reply to the answer, “You should seek happiness in life” could be that one should have ambition, vision, or better yet, seek to add and build society and the economy as opposed to being a drain of resources.

    But then what is the point of society (the economy, all that man has built)? Isn’t the point to have improved the quality of our lifestyles, doing this by the increase of lifespan, the decrease of infant mortality, the improvement of education, greater access to water and food, infrastructure, high-tech economy, etc.

    But when do we stop improving and reap what we sow? Enjoy the fruits of our labor? Punch in the time cards and go fishing with our sons on the boat we bought with the money we earned working at the plant that made the fiberglass and steel to make the boat in the first place. Or do we work longer hours to make a better, cheaper boat and never sail on it?

    When do scientists say, “The universe is filled with infinite mysteries. But we’ve solved enough in the last thousand years to next thousand. And there’s more information regarding the position of the atom’s in this glass cup here than in the sum total of every book ever written.”

    When have we done enough to make life good?
    Or as love life/career might make it seem, you must choose between making your life good and making life good for others, if that is what career you choose.

    PS. What if a motivated, career driven man used drugs instead of women to “lighten up”?

  • Good relationship is continuous, hard work. It pays you back exponentially for what it has taken away from you during the formative stages. It’s all about the choice of partner that you get, that depends a great deal on the choice that you are to that significant other.

  • Ben, honey, I love your stuff and you’re terrifically smart and everything, but when people say they don’t have time for a relationship it means they’re not looking, either. There isn’t much of a point here.

    We all go through stages when our career is more importante, then we settle down and look for a partner. The fear (for a lot of women at least) is that we’ll miss our peak reproductive years or that by the time the dust settles most of the good ones will be taken.

    My girlfriends and I sometimes bitch that good relationships can actually help men, careerwise (alec baldwin said it better: ), but it doesn’t work the same way for women. And you get, like tina said, declining birth rates

  • I broke up with my boyfriend for about fifteen minutes at one point during the summer and indeed, one of my first thoughts had to do with the *time* I could now funnel into work/my writing. Still, I can’t help feeling that the “don’t have time for a relationship/too dedicated to work” line is usually a cop-out of some form or other. It’s easy to escape into work, not have to deal with the difficulty of intimacy, whether it’s looking for it or developing it or even surviving it. Relationships teach you things about yourself that work does not, and those lessons can be tough.

    If you work as many hours as I suspect you do, Ben, then you require a woman with a rich inner life and need for solitude (so she’s not constantly on your case about spending time together), work of her own, and a flexible schedule that she can adapt around yours (otherwise you’ll hardly ever see each other). Go for an artist. 🙂

  • I spent much of my late 20s, early 30s Single and Not Looking (dated seriously maybe 5 years out of 12). And it was a great time! I had a fulfilling career and on the side I wrote essays, stories, even a novel. I had a dog and spent lots of time with friends. I read huge amounts of books (and blogs). I did wonder if I was making a huge mistake, romance-wise, but I was pretty happy that way.

    Then I met my now-husband at the airport and started a Long Distance Relationship. Maybe that kind of relationship takes less time for some people, but we spent pretty much every night on the phone–started with my drive home from work and talked until we went to bed. However, I’d say in retrospect that I’d practiced in my romantic life what Cal Newport talks about for school: Keep your options open and your time free so when something interesting comes along, you can immediately and deeply concentrate on it 🙂

    Eventually I relocated and we got married. And we’re very, very happy. But we’ve both had to adjust to how much time a home life takes, if having a strong, happy, nurturing home life is important to you. Yes, my husband is most definitely a source of energy for me (and vice versa, I hope), and I can’t imagine living without him. We’re also fairly independent–both travel for work–and so spend a fair amount of time apart.

    Still, I have nowhere near the time I used to have–to exercise, to write, to hang out with friends. (Same goes for him and guitar, skiing, mountain biking, etc.) I’d argue that it’s a fair tradeoff, but if I were really passionate about my artistic life, it would really be a compromise. (Right now, I fantasize about concentrating full-time on writing in retirement.) And that’s before kids. (And yes, the comment about the declining birth rates is true–and at 36, it’s possibly a consequence of my thoroughly enjoyable early adulthood. But since both my husband and I are interested in adoption, whether or not we can have kids, I kind of get to dodge that bullet.)

    Oh, one final comment: With the other two guys I dated seriously in the 12 or so years we’re talking about, giving up time for the relationship was a huge compromise, and I really resented it. With my husband, it was an easy choice. I feel some minor regret, but it’s not like suffocation, which is how it felt before. So the right person makes a difference, too.

  • Time aside, If you are in a relationship that is an energy sink, you are not in a good relationship. A good relationship produces energy (net, of course) rather than uses it.

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