“I need space.” Hearing your partner say that he or she wants space is probably one of the more stress-inducing conversations to be had in a relationship. Certainly such a conversation leaves us reeling with questions and anxiety: Why does my partner want space? What does this mean about our relationship? Whenever we are the recipient of the request for space, it is important for us to not only hear our partner’s needs, but to be aware of our reactions and feelings as well.
First and foremost, you must give your partner the space they desire.
Although it may feel completely at odds with what your heart and mind tell you to do, you must acquiesce. It is important for you to respect whatever boundary your partner is putting in place, though you may not agree with it. Remember that in doing so, you are communicating to your partner that you not only hear their needs, but are willing to respect them as well.
Check in with yourself.
As the partner who was asked to give space, it is very common to feel anxious, unsure, and longing for more connection from your partner. Though, what you must keep in mind is how your anxieties about the space impact how you respond to your partner. In order to do this, is it very important for you to check in with yourself. How does your partner’s request for space make you feel? What thoughts come to mind? If you are feeling anxious, how do you experience and cope with anxiety?
If your anxieties drive you to seek more attention from your partner, think about the impact this will ultimately have on the relationship. Acting out on your anxieties by trying to bring your partner back around may only push them away more. It is very important for you to not only be aware of your own anxieties, but how they impact how you address and respond to your partner. You must find ways to self soothe instead of taking out your feelings on your already distant partner.
Place self-care at the top of your list of priorities. Rather than focusing on what is happening in the relationship, try to focus on what you need in order to calm your fears and anxieties. Whether it means spending time with family or friends, traveling, going for a run or attending a yoga class, or meditating; make sure that you are putting your mental health first. In doing so, you not only preserve your own well-being, but also allow yourself to take a break from the stresses surrounding the relationship, thereby giving your partner the space they desire.
Understand the “Distancer-Pursuer” Dance, and why your partner needs space.
Oftentimes when one partner pulls away, we see what therapists call a “distance-pursuer” dynamic. What this means is that the partner who asks for space (or distance), might do so out of feelings of being smothered or controlled. (Keep in mind this is based on the distancing partner’s perception, not necessarily the fault of the other partner.) The other partner then responds by seeking more attention or affection, causing the distance to continue pulling away.
This becomes a cyclic pattern of reinforcing each person’s behaviors: the more one partner pulls away because of feeling smothered or controlled, the more the other seeks attention out of feelings of alienation or fear of abandonment. This becomes especially toxic if your partner specifically asks for space, because the distancing partner may interpret the pursuer’s actions as being a reinforcement of the very reason they are asking for distance, and interpret the pursuer as being unable or unwilling to meet their needs. As the pursuer, it is very important to challenge your automatic thoughts and feelings about your partner’s distancing behaviors.
Your automatic reactions may tell you to continue pursuing and pressuring your partner to re-engage in the relationship. It is of extreme importance for you to communicate respect and understanding by not acting out on your desire to seek more attention from your partner.
Defining what “space” looks like will be important for both partners to understand in order to have the need met. Does space mean taking a thirty minute break after an argument? Having a few hours alone on the weekend? Or having a period of separation that lasts a few days or months? Having a conversation regarding boundaries is beneficial in two ways. First, letting your partner know that you are interested in boundaries on their terms communicates that not only are you willing to acknowledge their request, but also a genuine interest in meeting their needs. The second benefit is that knowing the expectations will (hopefully) give you some clarity and help to alleviate your anxieties regarding their distance.
Communicate Understanding and Respect
Above all, remember that a partner requesting space is asking for you to be understanding and accepting of their needs. Though you may not understand their request, in order to preserve the relationship it is important to think about how you can manage your own anxieties while communicating understanding and respect to your partner. Remember that healthy relationships do not seek to possess, but rather to understand.