There are certain phrases that chill the marrow when you hear them in the context of a relationship. “We need to talk,” of course, is the great grand-daddy of them all, along with “where do you see this going?”. But few phrases ring in our ears like a banshee’s wail foretelling the death of a relationship like “I need some space.” We hear that phrase and translate it as “I’m working up the guts to dump your sorry ass.”
Except… that’s not the case. In fact, it highlights one of the most common misconceptions about relationships.
One of the things that people often don’t understand about relationships is that everybody needs their space at one point or another. We have a tendency to treat relationships like being The Defiant Ones: once you’ve agreed that you’re in a relationship now you are shackled together for all time, never to be alone again and the only thing you can do is learn how to work around it.
You’re no longer an individual, you see; you’re now officially a couple – a gestalt entity forming feet and legs, arms and body that somehow still has a hard time agreeing on what to watch on Netflix, never mind agreeing which of you forms the head. This is especially true when you are young and/or new to relationships in general – spending every waking moment together is seen as proof of just how much you love one another and why you’re so perfect together.
Except… that’s not how people work. You don’t subsume your identity into the collective Matrix that is your union, exchanging your sense of self for a cutesy portmanteau couple-name that even TMZ would gag over. Just because you love somebody doesn’t mean that your need for time to yourself goes away, and wanting time to do your own thing by yourself and with your friends doesn’t mean that your love is any less “real” or “true”. For that matter, spending every single minute of every single day together doesn’t mean that your relationship is wonderful and all cartoon birds and rainbows and hot and cold running blow-jobs.
In fact, by not making room for having some “me” time, you’re actually hurting your relationship. So let’s talk a little about just how you can have space in your relationship without sacrificing intimacy.
Everybody Needs Their Space… Even You
One of the most counterintuitive parts of relationship maintenance is that having space is actually critical to the success of lasting relationships. In fact, according to an ongoing federal study, having space and privacy is as important as a good sex life – if not more so.
Part of the problem is that we often define ourselves by our relationships. We assume a new identity – often one that replaces our own; we’re now “X’s boyfriend” or “Y’s husband”, and that can leave us feeling trapped.
By having space to do your own thing and pursue your own interests, you’re able be an individual again, not just part of a whole. It means that you have an opportunity to do things strictly for yourself, to connect with friends, enjoy hobbies or even just take time to decompress and relax. It lets you have a sense of privacy – a need that doesn’t go away just because you’re in a relationship with someone – and feelings of autonomy and self-determination. You get time off to relax without feeling as though you’re neglecting the responsibilities of being part of a couple. For introverts, it can be a way of recharging one’s emotional batteries; just because you love someone doesn’t mean that they can’t be draining on you. This can be especially important if you’re dating an extrovert – the extroverted partner’s need for company can be exhausting for an introvert.
Just as important, however, it helps take the pressure off us and our partners to be the only source of each other’s emotional and social support. No matter how much you love somebody, they can’t be all things to all people – and neither can you. One of the biggest causes of emotional strain in relationships is the feeling of being solely responsible for your partner’s emotional needs. That is an intense amount of pressure to put on somebody, even somebody you love to distraction, and it can be exhausting being the sole pillar of support. Taking time to yourself allows you both to foster connections with other people and widen your base of emotional support – taking the weight off of one person’s shoulders and leaving them feeling less overwhelmed.
Understanding The Different Needs For Space
One thing to keep in mind is that everyone has different needs for space and alone-time. The obvious example are introverts and extroverts – introverts recharge their emotional energy through solitary pursuits while extroverts get their energy through being around other people; as a result, the introvert is going to have a greater need for space than the extrovert.
But the need for space doesn’t just divide along lines of extroversion or introversion; more often than not it comes down to a mix of personality, feeling secure in the relationship and in the opportunities for personal time. In studies, women often tend to be the ones who complain about not having as much space or opportunity for solo time as men. In its own way, it’s not terribly surprising; on average, women tend still tend to shoulder the majority of the caregiving responsibilities with children. Couple this with jobs and housework – even when household duties are split between partners – and there just tend to not be enough hours in the day to get everything done and have time to themselves.
When dealing with relationships and negotiating to meet one another’s need for space, it’s important to understand the underlying reasons for wanting that space. Sometimes it’s a matter of fear; someone who craves space may fear over-investing in a relationship and being hurt, while someone who has very little need for space may have anxiety around feeling abandoned. Or it may be that one person wants time to pursue interests that their partner doesn’t necessarily share or like; giving them their time alone lets them feel that they aren’t giving up something they love in the name of a relationship – a guaranteed recipe for resentment. Or it just may be that they’re feeling suffocated and need time to blow off steam and come back after some time to remind themselves that they’re an individual as well as part of a couple. Understanding the reason for that need helps you and your partner to accept that your need for space isn’t a referendum on them or your relationship – it’s simply part of who you are.
And it’s important that both partners feel they are getting their needs for alone time met because otherwise they’ll make that space… by becoming more emotionally distant, leading to the eventual break-up.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Finding ways of meeting your need for space requires you to communicate with your partner… and that can often be the problem. We tend not to talk about our need for space until it has reached a boiling point – at which point we’re not exactly in the best mindset to explain why wanting to go away for a weekend by ourselves doesn’t mean we’re having an affair or that there’s anything wrong with the relationship. Ideally, the best time to talk about one’s need for space is early in the relationship, when you’re still establishing the new patterns that will define how you spend time together. This is especially true if you’re planning on moving in together. It’s one thing when you have your own place to retreat to. It’s another entirely when you’re now sharing a one-bedroom apartment and there’s no real sanctum sanctorum for you to decompress. Everyone has a set amount of distance that they need before they feel like they’re “alone” and this can be difficult to manage when your entire home is shared space.
When you’re explaining your needs, one of the worst things you can say is simply “I need some space.” This is entirely too general and vague; you may think that you’re just expressing a need for private time, but she is hearing that you’re sick of her and want time away because you’re distancing yourself in preparation for a break-up. Instead, you should explain what you want and why. You may say “I need time to recharge,” or “I want some time to just be by myself” or “I want to spend time with my friends” or even “I just need to decompress so I’m going to binge on some Bravely Default for the next couple hours, please don’t bother me unless something is actively on fire” – these are all about something you need for yourself instead of conveying that the problem is with your partner. Be specific – do you need an hour or two chilling at the library? An afternoon? A day? Explain what you’re going to do as well and where – you’re not conducting an affair, running a meth ring or spying on your nation’s enemies, you’re just carving out time for yourself.
It can be especially helpful to schedule your time in advance; this way you’re not going to be needing your space just as your partner’s expecting you to help run the cat out to her appointment at the vet or doing the much-needed yard work. This allows the two of you to work around your respective needs and reach a compromise that still means you are spending quality time as a couple as well. After all, as important as having your alone time can be, having couple time is just as important; too much space goes from needing personal time to “avoidance” and ends up weakening the relationship.
Ways of Getting Space
There are many ways of meeting your need for space in a relationship, depending on whether you’re looking for alone time or wanting to spend time with people outside of your mutual friends. A regularly scheduled event such as a poker night, a tabletop gaming session or amateur sports league can be a way of getting your space and maintaining your relationship with your social circle. Other ways include going to movies on your own, going for walks or drives or other activities that get you out of the house and on your own for a while. In fact, many experts suggest that one of the best things couples can do is to take separate vacations – not only does this guarantee that you or your partner aren’t getting dragged to do something that one of you loves and the other loathes, but those separate experiences bring novelty and excitement back to the relationship – things that are key to keeping the spark alive in any relationship.
But not all ways of getting alone time require physically leaving. If your home is big enough, having designated rooms – an office and a library, say – as individual space can go a long way towards providing a feeling of having enough space. Even spending time working on projects in the garage or a gaming room in the basement can help fill that need for space. Even if there isn’t room to physically have space, it’s possible to have emotional space. Having an opportunity to just chill out on the couch and binge on episodes of Lost Girl without being bothered or to hole up in the bedroom and listen to podcasts for a couple hours can make the difference between feeling trapped and having your needs met.
However you do it, carving out space for yourselves is a critical part of staying together. Taking the time to yourself to recharge your emotional batteries and do some self-maintenance as an individual makes it much easier to spend time together as a happy, excited couple.