‘Giving Space’: Good for Relationships or a Red Flag?

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“Stuart needs ‘space’ and ‘time’, as if this were physics and not a human relationship.” Kathryn Stockett, The Help

For most of my young life, I believed that if you really love someone, you don’t need space from one another. I believed that love was synonymous with unlimited togetherness with no upper boundary as defined by “together sickness” (or more simply, getting sick of each other). As I’ve matured, my interpersonal relationships have done the same, and I have learned that my previous notions of love and space are not entirely true. Personal time and separate interests actually help relationships thrive.

Still, I believe that when you care about someone in a particular way, you (obviously) want to spend more time with that person. If I was in a relationship in which my significant other needed space for the majority of the week every week, even if it was to pursue other interests, even if he swore he loved me, I would not be able to put 100% of my trust and effort into that relationship. I would question his feelings, as the inclination to spend more time with your significant other is natural. If that natural pull is not present, does that not mean that something is off there? So the question remains: When is the phrase “I need some space” a deal breaker, and when is it the sentence that will save your relationships?

person needs space sitting alone in bleachers
Credit: Georgie Pauwels on Photopin

Legroom in a Physical Space

This applies less to the situation of living with a significant other and more to those living with family or a roommate. It’s a little more cut-and-dried in this case, as boundaries just need to be set. When living with family, if doors are closed, take the hint. The same applies with a roommate: temptation to befriend her and hang on for dear life can be tempting, especially if you get along with ease. But your roommate does not necessarily want to spend every waking moment with you. It might be a good time to accept that you may not be able to text her every time you are bored and want to watch Orange is the New Black…and get dinner…and want her to talk to you from outside the door while you shower. Choose one out of the three. Maybe two.

If you feel that you are not seeing as much of these loved ones as you would like, that might be detrimental to the closeness and communication within your household. Consider asking housemates to leave doors open when they are willing to be more sociable. This way, you will establish a rule-of-thumb for interaction without risking pushing someone away. Similarly, if you need space from someone you are living with, asking them to not interrupt you on certain days of the week or when your door is closed is a good way to keep your space without seeming rude.

In the Context of Romance

You might be relieved to hear that space can be great for relationships. If you live together, you’ve already made a commitment to spending the majority of your daily lives together (to clarify, it isn’t enough to just set up camp in an apartment then never see each other except at a running-out-the-door breakfast stop). Spending some time writing at your favorite Starbucks (they are not all the same, okay?) or taking a Friday night to see a movie with friends can actually prove the age-old advice: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Furthermore, pursuing activities that you love will help you maintain a sense of self while committing a large part of your life to someone else. Furthermore, if you break up, you won’t have to scramble to “find yourself”—you’ll already have other activities that make you happy besides cuddling up with someone who, for instance, hums while he pees.

But what about when they tell you that they “need space,” but want to remain in a relationship? Frankly, I don’t believe that this is a good thing. Often this is misconstrued as, “after they get their stuff together, they’ll come back and be better.” Unfortunately, this may just mean they’re not prepared for the time commitment of a relationship. Frankly, if someone wants to be in a relationship with you, they will put in the time. If they need their time to themselves, you will be included in that decision. Frankly, telling someone to back up is purposefully creating distance. Whether they realize it or not, this may be a sign that the two of you are not compatible in terms of your own values for relationships.

Red Flag Terms

  • “You’re being clingy.”
  • “You’re not a priority.”
  • “Leave me alone.”
  • “You’re always so annoying.”
  • “I want to take a break, but don’t see anyone else.”

Remember: the people you love should never make you feel bad about yourself or self-conscious about your intentions. In part, my initial conception of love and space in relationships was correct: you don’t force away someone you love. Instead, you communicate your needs. If they care for you as they say they do, it will work out, even if it takes some maneuvering on both ends.


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