Why Space Matters in RelationshipsLet there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. ~Kahlil Gibran
If my life had been perfect, I probably never would have learned anything. Or at least not anything important.
I used to have a naïve view of relationships. I believed wholeheartedly that if two nice people got together and made a real effort to treat each other well, then everything would work out fine.
Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
A Personal Story
I met my sweetheart in graduate school. We fell madly in love and were married within seven months. He was the nicest guy I had ever met, and he treated me like a princess.
Our bond was so intense that I was convinced that nothing could ever come between us. Within a year of our marriage, I gave birth to an adorable baby boy.
Fast-forward three years. My husband said that we needed to talk, so I swiveled around in my chair. “Sure, what’s up?” I asked casually. Within seconds, I realized that matters were, in fact, very serious.
“Do you still love me?” I asked, gasping for air.
“I don’t know,” he replied quietly.
My head began to spin. Nothing made any sense. I experienced a full week of panic attacks.
I had no idea what had happened to cause him to doubt his feelings for me. To make matters worse, he didn’t know what the problem was either.
Looking for Answers
Then began the intense search for what had gone wrong. I read every single book I could get my hands on. I desperately searched the web for an answer. I asked everyone, from therapists to waiters, for their advice. My family was my world, and I was not going to let it fall apart if I could help it.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that our relationship was in trouble long before it finally hit rock bottom. The excitement had faded. The passion had dimmed. Even our friendship had become more cordial than enthusiastic. Our marriage had actually been in decline for years leading up to that dreadful night.
Pretty much all that remained were the usual habits of commitment — and even those were fading away. All this time, I tried to convince myself that this was exactly how marriage was supposed to be.
“The honeymoon doesn’t last forever,” I kept telling myself.
Despite our best intentions, my husband and I didn’t know how to sustain a marriage. It’s not that we didn’t make time for each other or had stopped going out on dates. Quite the contrary.
We got too close. So close that we no longer could appreciate each other for the separate individuals we are.
I think this was the root of all our problems.
We studied at the same graduate school. We shared an office both at school and at home. We cooked together and cleaned together. We went almost everywhere together. We asked each other’s opinion on everything.
But perhaps most importantly, we adjusted our entire lives for each other, and each of us was willing to sacrifice just about everything for the sake of keeping the peace. We had both compromised to the point that it was no longer clear where one of us ended and the other began.
One of the most important lessons I learned during our conflict was the crucial role of personal space in romantic relationships.
When it is missing, we begin to feel crowded — even intruded upon — and eventually, we become resentful of the other person. The technical term psychologists use for this phenomenon is “inundation.”
What is Inundation?
Put simply, inundation is the feeling that someone is cutting into your personal space and freedom. It may be more easily explained when the example pertains to someone we are not in a close personal relationship with.
If you were lined up at the grocery store and the person behind you was standing so close to you that they were almost touching you, chances are that you would move away. But before that, you would most likely feel very uncomfortable. That’s the feeling of being inundated.
For most of us, the sensation of someone cutting into our space, or our lives, is all too familiar.
Everyone has boundaries, and everyone has had these boundaries challenged at one point or another: People who stand too close to us, colleagues who don’t respect our work space, friends who try to monopolize our time, or relatives who tell us how to run our lives.
Inundation in Romantic Relationships
But then, there is him. He is in a category all by himself. You love him. Of course you don’t mind if he stands close to you. It’s OK if he leaves his stuff on your desk. He can’t possibly take up too much of your time, because you love every moment with him.
When he gives you suggestions on how to run your life, you think it’s sweet because it shows that he cares. How can he possibly cut into your space, when you love him so much?
Love can blind us to the fact that we are being inundated. It makes it difficult to admit that we still have a basic need for our own space.
But, the fact is that no matter how much we love our partners, they can, and often do, cut into our space more than we would like. Boundaries will be crossed unless clear communication takes place.
Too often, we are feeling inundated and we don’t do anything about it. Maybe we feel that we need more time alone. Maybe we want to take up a hobby that our partner isn’t excited about. Something about the relationship is limiting us, and makes us feel a little suffocated.
When we have been inundated for too long, we may start to feel trapped in the relationship and our feelings toward our partner might be affected.
Sometimes, we don’t even realize how badly we need space. Or, we may realize that something isn’t working, but let it slide for fear of disturbing the peace. Deep down, many of us are so afraid of being abandoned and alone that we trade all of our personal space for the illusion of relationship security.
It often takes the equivalent of an earthquake to realize that you have needed space for far too long.
Why Space is Healthy in Relationships
If someone had shown me this subtitle a couple of years ago, I would have closed the browser. To me, relationships were all about closeness. Space was almost a dirty word — one that’s usually used right before a breakup: “I need some space right now, so maybe we should stop seeing each other for a while.”
But now I realize that personal space is as important for our relationships as air is for our bodies.
We all need time to relax, to engage in activities that we enjoy outside common interests and to associate with other important people in our life. Space is also absolutely essential for individual growth and personal development.
But perhaps the best part of personal space is that it reignites the magic in a relationship. When you no longer feel like one being and the resentment from inundation is gone, interactions between you and your partner become much more interesting.
You are genuinely excited to see each other after a little time apart. Something in the air feels like those early dating days. Suddenly, you can really feel the love and not just the attachment.
Space, Time and … Money
Let me break it down. Personal space doesn’t only apply to physical space, but let’s start with that. My husband and I used to share an office. This meant that neither he nor I had any physical space to call our own.
I always knew that I appreciated privacy. But when it came to him, well, I made an exception. It was only after that dreadful night that I realized how badly I missed having my own space — both metaphorically and literally.
After some consideration — and much furniture rearrangement — I turned the rec room into my studio. Now each of us had our own space, and I loved it. It was amazing how much of a difference it made to have my own physical space.
Having your own space automatically helps you get your own time. But you will still need to be clear about when you want time alone. Simply tell your partner when you would like to spend time by yourself.
If you are not used to doing that, then it may be difficult at first. But it is well worth the effort to get into the habit of asking for what you need, before resentment starts to build.
Finally, there is money. There are many reasons why a couple might want to share finances, especially when children are involved.
But did you know that money is the number one reason that couples fight? I think the problem isn’t that they share their money. The problem is that they share all of it.
For some of us, it can be very liberating to keep a percentage of our pay check. In fact, some marriage courses for engaged couples recommend doing exactly that.
Our money is the result of our time and energy, and using at least some of it as we please without having to justify, explain or account for it can help contribute to a healthy sense of space.
We all know that relationships are complicated. However, they are also the most rewarding and worthwhile parts of our lives. They are well worth the effort they invariable require.
It isn’t always easy to tell your partner that you need more space — whether that’s an evening alone, a vacation with your girlfriends, a room of your own or simply permission to make a decision without his input. On the flip side, it can be just as hard to give space when your partner asks for it.
Think of it as a long-term investment. When space is taken out of the equation, all that remains is commitment. Are you willing to settle for a relationship devoid of passion and excitement? Few of us are. The good news is we don’t have to settle!
Take the chance, for both yourself and your partner. Give each other room to be unique individuals who bring different things to the relationship.
Give each other permission to enjoy this gift of life not only together, but also separately. Give each other some space, and you will be rewarded with a love that’s more passionate, more powerful, and more deeply, intensely alive.