Q: I’m in college and have had a serious boyfriend for the last two years. Being at the barn is my zen time, and I really need it to manage the stress of school (and life in general). As soon as I’m done with classes, I drive immediately to the barn and when I’m there, I barely look at my watch or my phone, so sometimes I get back really late. My boyfriend is complaining that I don’t spend enough time with him. What should I do?
Katie, I’ve never been a big fan of the word “should”, with all its implied moral certainty (when uttered by someone else) or self-reproach (when uttered to oneself). Most of us are doing the best we can from day to day.
That being said, I believe that there are certain areas of our lives where we need to be more mindful regarding the impact of our choices on the people around us, and more reflective about our roles in the difficulties we experience in our relationships with loved ones.
What you should do regarding your boyfriend’s complaint that you don’t spend enough time with him depends upon how important the relationship with him is to you, and the kind of partner you want to be. People respond in a wide variety of ways to the spoken dissatisfactions of someone with whom they’re in a committed relationship; it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. What feels gracious and generous to one person feels like being a “loser” to another. Others are so stuck on being right that they can’t allow themselves to see the other’s point of view; they know only how to shadowbox a torrent of perceived offenses that may never have existed at all.
I would like to believe that were I in your shoes, I would sit down next to my guy and say, “I’m sorry I haven’t been around as much and that you’re feeling I’m not spending enough time with you. When I’m done with my classes, I just shoot straight for the barn and don’t pay attention to the time. It’s the one place in my life where I can unplug from everything, and it means the world to me. But I’m unplugging too much, and I see it leaves you waiting and wondering every night when I’ll get back, and that’s not really fair to you.”
And then, I would wait and listen for what comes up, for what my boyfriend says. It’s easy to get so busy explaining yourself that you forget to let the other person respond.
It’s also easy to slip into a defensive mode: Why should I rush back? Whenever I do, you’re always with your friends anyway.
Or a righteous mode: The problem is just that you don’t have anything as important in your life as riding is to me.
Here’s something to think about, though. Riding is an incredibly heady sport. It exhilarates and intoxicates us, and draws us into a world where everything revolves around our horses, and where everything about them is important. There are times, though, when I feel riding becomes almost too sacred—as in, inviolate and untouchable.
And what does that mean for the people in our lives who are not as affected by the sport, who don’t rely on it for their zen time or emotional sustenance or anything? They sometimes end up battling our entitlement to indulge ourselves in the name of show jumping, eventing, dressage, etc. We might be saying, I need this, don’t you see how important it is to me? Riding can indeed be that important to us, and that’s all good—as long as our boyfriends or girlfriends or spouses or other loved ones don’t end up feeling that they aren’t.
One way to make sure your boyfriend knows he matters to you, Katie, would be to take his complaint at face value, and explore solutions together. Maybe a few evenings a week you stay late at the barn, while you make a point to get back earlier on other nights. Given what you said about losing track of time, he might appreciate you simply keeping him posted about what time he could expect you back. Does he have any interest in coming out to the barn with you? Would it help if he understood more about how you care for your horse, or about what you’re working on when you have lessons? Hanging out at a barn can be really boring to someone unfamiliar with the sport—
I think, honestly, the most important thing is that your boyfriend feels heard and taken seriously. That might even be more important than coming up with good ideas for spending more time together. So many arguments between couples can be traced back to one or both parties just wanting to know they really matter to the other. That’s why I believe some of the kindest and most loving words one can say to a partner who’s been hurt are: I’m sorry. You matter to me. I can and will do better.
Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette is a clinical and sport psychologist who has pioneered the application of modern performance enhancement principles to the equestrian industry. She is also the author of two books: “Heads Up!: Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Families, and Their Trainers” and “The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming the Psychological Challenges of Riding.“
Feature photo by Yasmina Bello.