Rushing out the door after my husband Russ, I stopped him before he got into his car to commute to work. “Wait!” I exclaimed. “We haven’t done our morning prayers yet!”

His deep sigh revealed how he was coming to feel about that ritual we shared. “That right; I forgot,” he replied in a listless tone of voice. Then he closed his car door and dutifully followed me back into the house, where we said a few brief prayers that felt like we were simply crossing off an item on our daily to-do list.

Well, actually, praying together every morning was an item on our to-do list. Ever since the first day of our honeymoon, we’d made sure that we prayed together every single morning without fail (even calling each other to pray over the phone when Russ was on business trips) because that seemed like an important part of spending time together, and many people had told us that the key to a strong marriage was spending as much time together as possible.

The problem was, we were starting to feel smothered by each other in the process. We were starting to resent the time we spent together – even our prayer time – because we felt obligated to be together so much.

Whenever the urge to spend time apart crept into my mind, I suppressed it, rationalizing that taking time to be away from Russ would somehow harm our marriage. Yet as time went on, I found myself wanting time apart more and more – and I suspected that he did, too, since he often seemed restless around me.

Married couples in the United States typically spend lots of time together.  On average, married Americans spend about four hours with their spouses in a typical day, excluding the time they spend sleeping or working together, according to a U.S. Health and Human Services research study from 2009 called “Spending Time Together: Time Use Estimates for Economically Disadvantaged and Non-disadvantaged Married Couples in the United States.” 

What do married couples do with their time together? Most often, the report says, they watch television. The activities they spend the most time on together after that: eating, recreation, household chores, child care, and errands.

So for all of the quantity time that American couples spend together, there doesn’t seem to be a strong focus on making it quality time – time when they’re intentional about building a stronger bond, rather than simply letting time pass by while they’re together. And despite all the time American spouses spend together, they don’t seem to be getting closer as a result. Various studies show the divorce rate for first marriages in the United States at between 45 and 50 percent, with the divorce rate increasing with each subsequent marriage.

Conventional wisdom says that married couples should spend as much time together as possible. But doing so isn’t improving their marriages. Although it’s counter-intuitive, what Russ and I found was that spending time apart led us closer together. 

By freeing ourselves from the pressure of forcing time together as an obligation, we gave ourselves several gifts that strengthened our bond:

Freedom: We stopped expecting each other to engage in activities that felt forced – even valuable activities, such as our daily prayer time. Freed to pray on our own, our prayer lives grew deeper because we were able to pray in the ways that worked best for us each personally.  Freed from the pressure of doing activities or attending events together that really worked better for us individually (from visiting an extended family member on one side of our family to going to a church event that only interested one of us), we were able to relax more around each other, which drew us closer together.