“Well, there were three of us in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the famous (or perhaps infamous) Panorama interview that Princess Diana gave to Martin Bashir and that answer, in response to his question about whether she felt Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, was a factor in the breakdown of her marriage.
Relationships can be crowded enough with just two people in them, never mind an unwanted interloper who sucks love and mutual respect from them. But it’s not always other people who overcrowd a marriage or long-term relationship.
Sometimes it’s obsession.
We all know someone who’s discovered a new passion. Their enthusiasm for whatever diversion they’ve stumbled across converts them into instant experts – crusading evangelists for whom every road leads to Damascus and the conversion of others.
They are the animated, gushing advocates for their new-found hobby who seem to harness more power than the most tyrannical of fire and brimstone preachers. We might even have been that person ourselves.
We probably admire their dedication, but we wouldn’t want to live with them because the thought of having to live with an apparently unending dialogue about fishing or cycling or macramé is just too awful to contemplate. Yet if that person is in a relationship, that’s the fate that befalls their significant other.
Now, for most people a new hobby becomes all-consuming (and, let’s be honest, really irritating) for short time and then it relaxes into something more considered and reasonable and that person is once again able to find a balance between the interest they have and the need to be able to engage more broadly with life.
But for some people, the obsession grows until it dwarfs – and then obliterates – everything around it. In this sense, the hobby becomes an addiction which can be every bit as destructive to a relationship as alcohol or drugs.
Personal fitness and sports are common examples, largely because of the naturally addictive ‘drug’ – endorphins – exercise produces. The more people exercise, the more they need to exercise in order to get the natural ‘high’ that comes with it.
But there are others – golf, music, travel … anything that captures the imagination has the potential to become an obsession. And when this happens, there’s a danger that we’re entering into a new relationship – only this time the relationship is with a hobby rather than a person.
This is time and energy we could be potentially taking away from the ’emotional bank account’, a term coined by renowned couples’ therapists John and Julie Gottman which describes the daily moments when we connect with our romantic partner, talk about our day, express affection.
Adding a hobby into the relationship mix – one from which the other person is excluded (whether intentionally or through their own lack of interest) – we can end up generating unresolved feelings of resentment, of being left out and of jealousy.
If these feelings are left unexpressed, they can potentially wreak havoc in a relationship as resentment and the pain of exclusion builds up over time.
What follows is a domino effect. We end up arguing over who used the last bit of milk, or who left the toilet seat up (or down) or who didn’t put the bins out, when really it’s got nothing to do with those things at all.
Ultimately that turns into regular conflict and the creation of distance in the relationship. The more we fail get to the root issue, the more likely it is that the conflict increases or the distance and sense of leading separate lives grows.
But what is it that causes us to develop an excessive relationship with a hobby? There are a few possible reasons.
First, it feels good – like when we release endorphins during exercise. We’re spending time doing something we enjoy and that gives us a sense of achievement.
But if we begin to indulge a hobby to the exclusion of other parts of our lives, it’s a sign that unconsciously we may be avoiding intimacy. We may be using our hobby as a distraction from what’s really going on.
There could be underlying issues in the relationship that need to be spoken about but we don’t know how to approach those issues or start the conversations we need to have in order to resolve them. This is where seeking support and advice could be the essential next steps in moving forward in your relationship.
One option to find a way forward is to take some time alone or with someone we trust to talk and reflect on what it is we may be avoiding or distracting ourselves from.
Did we already feel the relationship was faltering, making us want to spend more time outside of it? Were we experiencing an increase in conflict that was not being addressed or resolved? Maybe we felt our partner was also spending time and energy elsewhere and so we felt forced to do the same thing and develop our own hobby?
We can look at creating the time and space when their partner is in a good space to listen and talk things through.
That means letting our partner know there’s something important we want to talk about and then creating the right context for that conversation – no distractions, phones off, kids in bed, both feeling as prepared as possible to have an important discussion free from interruptions.
If you initiate a conversation without warning it can lead to defensiveness and the person feeling like they are under attack. And when we feel like we are being attacked, our decision-making, logical-thinking pre frontal cortex brain literally goes offline. So, at this point it will be very difficult to have an adult, calm and respectful conversation.
Then there’s the actual process having the conversation. Communicating with each other. Giving space to each other and when the partner is sharing what’s going on for them – allowing them to share freely without reacting immediately to what’s being said.
The conversation is an opportunity for both people to share how the hobby is impacting on the relationship and also for the person with the hobby to share any underlying issues they feel might have contributed to their excessive relationship with the hobby.
Sometimes it can be really difficult to have these conversations, and this is where working with someone such as our Love, Relationship & Sexuality Coach Emma Spiegler, can not only be the provision of a safe space to explore the issues lurking behind the conscious or unconscious avoidance of intimacy, but also a good place to discover how to resolve these issues and turn towards their partner with openness and love and invest into the emotional bank account.