“I need some space!” is a familiar expression to most of us, either from the giving or receiving end. I suspect that more women have heard this expression from men than vice-versa. This is probably because more men adopt the evader role in the pursuer-evader dance of boundary-troubled relationships. “Space” is the word that many of us use to describe the sense of being separate, independent, and most especially, not responsible for meeting another person’s needs and expectations. Actually, the desire for that sense of relief is very natural and healthy. It gets tiresome to have to work so hard and to be so considerate in a relationship. Unfortunately, many of us are so unskilled at negotiating for this relief that we eventually feel totally overwhelmed and engulfed. When this stage is reached, it is all too common for a partner to reach for drastic measures such as an affair, a long-term physical separation, or a total cancellation of commitment to the relationship.
The first step for creating a more flexible strategy is to realize that the “space” you’re seeking is not outside in the physical world as much as it is in your own head. A sense of being separate may be helped by being physically apart, but its really the sense of being separate from responsibility and its inherent loss of freedom that you desire. With this in mind, it becomes possible to negotiate for periods of time when you and your partner both understand that neither can expect the focused attention and consideration of the other. For example, it’s possible for one partner to negotiate for an afternoon or an evening when he/she will be focused on other friends or activities and during which he/she will not be emotionally available. This is not a difficult concept.
The second step for devising a better strategy is to give yourself explicit permission to separate emotionally. Many “co-dependent” partners expect this permission to come from the outside world instead of generating it themselves. Unfortunately, it won’t work that way and the engulfment stage is eventually reached with its predictable impulsive acting-out.
If you have reached steps one and two, it is very important that you use some tact in your negotiations for “space”. Here are 3 useful guidelines that I have found to be helpful to couples:
Give as much advance notice as you can. Advance notice gives another person time to adjust expectations and to start his or her own emotional separation from you. It gives him time to plan how he will take care of himself while you’re unavailable, and he will be much less likely to feel abandoned. If possible, try to allow your partner to have some say over when the period of separation will begin. Asking him or her if there is a better time period is one example. Following this guideline helps the other person to feel like an equal partner because his schedule is not being subordinated to yours without consideration. Pride is less likely to be injured. It is especially important to suggest and negotiate a specific future time when you and your partner can come back together and be available to one another. Suggesting a future time, whether it’s in two hours or two days, is an effective way of affirming the other person’s importance to you and your commitment to the relationship. It will go a long way toward reducing the perception of abandonment if your partner hears that you are looking forward to being with him or her again. The guidelines I have suggested are very general but they can make a dramatic difference. Unfortunately, tact does not develop immediately and repetition over time is necessary. If you are successful in refining these skills, you will be more likely to create your “space” within the relationship instead of breaking out of the relationship in order to find it.