Couples starved of social time, study finds

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The Independent Online

The average British couple spends just 15 minutes a day enjoying a social life with each other, figures published yesterday show.

A study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that most couples spend more time apart than together, with most of the time that they do share spent watching television. And far from bringing couples closer, children can drive them part.

The ONS Time Use Survey found that couples with children spend half as much time in each other's company as those without. It is the first time that statistical experts have tried to measure how Britons spend their days and, in particular, the number of hours that couples have together. The figures are based on 21,000 daily diaries and 11,700 interviews, which were then used to divide the average person's day into 10-minute slots. Experts then measured the time that cohabiting couples spent with each other, doing the same activity.

On average, and excluding sleeping, couples spend two and a half hours a day on shared activities, rising to three and a half at weekends. But a third of that time is taken up in what the ONS calls "passive activity" - watching television - rather than interacting with each other.

When they do turn off the television, they take just 30 minutes to eat with each other and 24 minutes doing the housework. Social activities and entertainment account for just 15 minutes of each couple's day.

Christine Northam, senior counsellor at the relationship organisation Relate, said: "The phrase 'quality time' is very much one for our age, but it is really important for couples to spend exclusive time with each other. Watching television is essentially 'triangulating' - it's you, him and the television, rather than you and him alone.

"For many people, the television can be a prop and a way of avoiding the fact that couples are unhappy with each other ... The lack of time together is a complaint I frequently hear during counselling sessions, particularly when couples have children. People think they are spending time together because they are physically in the same space, but that is not emotional time together."

Cohabiting couples spend 30 minutes a day less with each other than their married counterparts, a difference which the ONS study says is down to the fact that most of the retired couples in the study are married and therefore have more hours in each other's company. The worst off for quality time together are parents, according to the research. A couple with children spend just 78 minutes every weekday in each other's sole company. Even more depressingly for parents, the amount of quality time available does not increase as their children get older. The report concludes: "The presence of a child at any age reduces the amount of time couples share together. What has not happened is that as a child gets older, parents are able to share more time together."

Perhaps because they are in their prime child-rearing years, couples between the ages of 35 and 44 spend the least amount of time together out of all the age groups, at just 90 minutes a day.

While people do spend more time together at weekends, most of it is spent catching up on sleep. The average couple have an extra 45 minutes in bed, 36 more minutes cleaning the house and 22 minutes more in front of the television.

PHILLIP HODSON AND ANNE HOOPER

The psychotherapist and agony uncle Phillip Hodson, 58, has been with his partner, Anne Hooper, a writer on sex and relationships, for 28 years. Both work from home, and estimate they spend more than four hours together every day.

"You can't have a relationship if you don't see the other person,'' says Mr Hodson. "You need that time together, to learn what emotion is in the other person's mind.

"My partner and I are very compatible - we played sport together when we were much younger, we play cards together, do the crossword together, go walking. At the moment we've gone to a cottage in St Ives. But we're very good at taking time off.

"If you are only available to your family for 45 minutes on a Sunday then they'll know the pizza man better. If a relationship isn't growing it's dying."

CHRIS AND EMMA FACER-FLOATE

Emma Facer-Floate, 39, a music teacher, is married to Chris, 37, a TV vision mixer. They live with their children Lochlann, six, Sophie, three, and Evie, eight months, in north-west London.

Mrs Facer-Floate said: "Chris works at weekends and can be away with this job so we do not have a routine amount of time together. We spend about 10 or 15 minutes a day talking meaningfully on our own but we make up for it by having big catch-ups.

"When we talk, it tends to be focused on practical stuff about the children or reminding each other what bills have to be paid. It does change your relationship but it's also part of what marriage is about. Because things are so busy now, we do not take our catch-up time together for granted. I enjoy catching up a thousand times more now than I did.''

RORY BREMNER AND TESSA CAMPBELL FRASER

Rory Bremner, the impressionist, married Tessa Campbell Fraser, sculptor and landscape artist, in 1999. They have two daughters, Ava, three, and Lila, one.

He said: "I think it is alarming how little time couples spend talking to each other. The most demanding thing on anyone's time, much more than work, is children. We end up turning down a lot of invitations to rush back home to spend time with the children - in common with all couples with kids. Neither of us has a routine because of the nature of our jobs so the time we spend together is unpredictable - and not enough. We are both doing the work we love though; it is bound up with our identities.

"The best way of coping with the lack of time is to spend a night or two together, between holidays. We make sure we get away four or five times a year."

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