Coming home after a long day to a loving partner is a gift in this godforsaken world. But often – and especially now, after two years away from the office for many – that period where you go from separate to united can be… tricky. Maybe one of you is all pent up with the energy of working from home alone all day, while the other has just received some bad news and you can’t match the energy. Maybe one is absorbed in a work problem and uncommunicative, while the other wants to talk about who does the dishes. Maybe – to choose a random, not torn-from-life example – you are all socialled out from commuting and from constantly being around people and you just need to sit quietly in a room before you talk to your partner about literally anything. For example.
It’s like you’re on two separate tracks, trying to catch up with each other. And it makes the relationship feel off, even if just for a bit.
If you’ve ever experienced this, get ready to be validated. It has a name – relationship jet lag – and psychologists have begun researching how it impacts people in relationships. A new study published in the journal Couple and Family Psychology has delved into the common but underreported problem of couples being out of sync, and explored ways to navigate it. To learn more, R29 spoke to Danielle Weber, a postdoctoral researcher now at the University of Georgia who led the research as part of her PhD; Holly Roberts, a counsellor for the relationship support charity Relate; and Jodie Cariss, therapist and founder of Self Space, a pioneering organisation providing on-demand mental health services on the high street.
What exactly is relationship jet lag?
First, some definitions. Danielle says that jet lag isn't just physical but emotional and can arise whether you are going from couple to individual or individual to couple. "Basically, whichever way the transition happens (either into time with your partner or out of it), 'relationship jet lag' is happening if you feel mentally and emotionally 'out of sync' with your current state because you are still stuck in that last phase."
Jodie adds that the tension that emerges reminds her of the early attachment phases that we have as children to our caregivers. "As adults in romantic relationships, we will revisit these experiences, mostly unconsciously [and think] what has emerged in this period of absence and what will it bring to our relationship? Am I able to trust that the other has held me in mind, even unconsciously while we are apart, and do I feel reassured when we reunite?"
Similarly, Holly says that the term 'jet lag' might be better understood as 'attunement'. "When we don't feel attuned to our partner, we're not in sync with them; we're struggling to find that connection with them. Noticing that helps you to understand that you're feeling a bit distant from them. And being aware of this helps you to work out if you can or want to do something about it."
As for why it happens, according to Danielle, a lot of this jet lag has to do with the fact that our mental processes are not perfectly automatic. "We often get distracted when doing a specific task so it makes sense that as we are transitioning across settings and people, we may not always do that perfectly. In our research around these relationship transitions, we have thought about how the extent to which you are looking forward to your upcoming transition might matter. For example, if you miss your partner, then you might spend more time thinking about the upcoming time you have with them and that mental prep work of sorts might help you transition more smoothly. If you’ve had a recent conflict with them, maybe you are not anticipating that reunion and it might be a little more challenging." However, she says that more research is needed to fully understand what is happening.
Why is it important to identify?
According to Danielle, everyone can experience a degree of relationship jet lag "but it’s only a problem if the prolonged transitions are getting in your way. Are you so focused on your most recent interaction with your partner that you really struggle to get started in your work day, maybe to the point that your boss is unhappy with your performance? Are you so focused on your own individual routine that you are distracted when talking to your partner and this leads to misunderstanding and conflict? Again, everyone might experience this to some degree but you might label it as a problem for yourself if you experience it frequently or don’t like the consequences when it does happen." Danielle's research also found that the transitions are harder and the jet lag more impactful for people in long distance relationships as the transitions are less frequent and you are more likely to experience a sense of loss at parting.
Additionally, Jodie says that what and how the relationship jet lag manifests can be telling of the state of the relationship. "If you and your partner are authentic, it shows up mostly within the relationship, how you share your inner world to some extent and express how you are feeling. What emerges in the time you are apart should not be surprising, scary or unnerving and if it is, it might be time to question how authentic you both are when you are together."
If the ways in which you deal with being out of sync are volatile or unhealthy – perhaps developing separation anxiety or expecting the worst from a partner – that can be indicative of significant issues around the quality and security of the relationship.
How to deal with relationship jet lag
Danielle advises paying attention to your own experiences in these transitions and seeing if patterns emerge that make them easier or harder. "Often we struggle in transitions because we are just continuing on autopilot from what we were doing before and we then enter into the transition unprepared. So it can be helpful to make any reminders that bring the transition back to current awareness." This could include calendar reminders or notes in your phone. If you have a particularly tough transition, you can ease it by occupying your mind. "For example, if you’re in a long-distance relationship and dread the time that you leave your partner, try to avoid repetitive or mindless tasks right when you get home – instead, prioritise activities that will positively engage your mind."
As ever, communication is key. "Be open to honest communication as much as possible and try to notice the repeating patterns and talk them through together," says Jodie. "Taking responsibility for yourself in the situation by asking your partner how they feel loved, how you can support any issue that might be at play and have them do the same, and working on your own self-care and self-soothing and understanding what you need to feel equipped."
Holly adds: "If we're feeling happy and secure in ourselves, then the natural breaks in attunement and physical proximity with our partner will be easier to manage. But if we are feeling insecure or fearful about the strength of the connection of our relationship, then the periods of separation will feel much harder to handle. The way we react to periods of reunion and separation will say as much about our own attachment styles as it does about the relationship. Exploring this in therapy will help people understand how to navigate the impact our childhoods had on us and what we then bring to our relationships."