If your partner utters the words “I need space,” don’t assume your relationship is doomed. People ask for breathing room for many reasons, says Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a research professor in social and health psychology at Stony Brook University. And they’re not all bad.
A little space can even be healthy. “It’s probably good to have some strong connection and interaction with your partner but also some other space in your life,” says Aron. “In fact, that’s good for the relationship because you then bring to the relationship the growth, change, and things you’ve learned and experienced in other parts of your life.” Here’s what it might mean if you’re having the “space” talk in your relationship:
Your partner might feel lost.
“Normally, it’s a good thing to be connected, and the more connected the better, but there’s a certain extreme point where you feel like you’ve lost who you are,” says Aron. “You’re completely absorbed in your partner, and at that point it becomes uncomfortable and you may want to have some room to be an individual.” Spending more time with friends, playing music, meditating, or pursuing other interests on your own can bring some diversity to your life that can make you happy and enrich your relationship.
Your partner might have trouble getting close to anyone.
Like many other topics in psychology, this issue goes back to childhood. A person who grew up with parents who were unavailable or abusive can end up with an avoidant personality, which means they’re just uncomfortable with too much closeness, says Aron. When two partners both have avoidant personalities, they might both need lots of space.
Your partner might just be in an exploration phase.
“Our theory and one of the main theories in the field is that one of our main goals in life is to explore and expand oneself, and it’s really good to do that with your partner, but not all the opportunities are with your partner,” says Aron. “You want opportunities to do it on your own.”
Some people just need alone time.
For example, “some highly sensitive people need downtime,” says Aron. “They need breaks from everything, including from interaction with their partner, just because they get so easily overwhelmed.” Introverts might need extra alone time, too, and extroverts might crave more time in larger groups instead of one-on-one.
How to figure out how much space you need in a relationship.
Each person defines space a little differently, and the amount needed can vary from couple to couple and from time to time, says Aron. For example, if you travel a lot for work, then when you finally see your partner, you might want to be attached at the hip. But if you and your partner started working side by side from 9 to 5, then your Saturday morning routine might start to involve solo time. Your hobbies might also diverge at times. “There are new opportunities that open up that are interesting to you that your partner doesn’t share or that wouldn’t make sense to do with your partner,” he says, “and there are other times when you’re feeling lonely.”
How to tell your partner you need space.
If you feel like you need space, tell your partner “it’s not that you need to be away from them so much as you need time alone or to do something that doesn’t make sense to do together,” says Aron. Make it clear that you are pursuing opportunities that will benefit both you and the relationship. “You want to build your life stronger so that you’ll have more to share with your partner,” says Aron. Reassure them that you’re not looking for an opportunity to cheat or end the relationship.
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