“I need space.”
Whether you have been on the receiving end of these words or you have uttered them to your partner, they are three of the most uncomfortable words in a relationship. They are loaded words, filled to the brim with uncertainty and fear. They may signal a time of transition and renewal or they may be the death knell of the relationship.
The words themselves are simple. Three short syllables.
The feelings and motivations behind them are complex. Multifaceted.
And often left undefined and unspoken.
I want out and I’m too scared to say it.
This is the response that the recipient of these words often fears and sometimes it’s accurate. A request for space can mean that the person is already done but instead of giving a clear, “No,” they are clouding the issue with a muddy, “Maybe.”
I feel like I’m losing myself and I need to take a step back to define myself again.
When couples are together for an extended time, the lines delineating one from another can blur. A request for space can be a sign that interdependence has slid into dependence and one partner is seeking more independence.
I want to be able to have some parts of my life that are separate from you.
Sometimes this is motivated by a desire to hide things from a partner that they would disapprove of (affair, addictions, porn, etc.) and other times it is simply a need to have some areas of life where the partner doesn’t have influence. Not telling your spouse everything is fine. But not if it’s something you are actively hiding.
I’m overwhelmed and I need room to breath.
This overwhelm can come from anywhere – work, school, kids. Some people require more alone time than others, especially when life’s demands become too much. This is a plea for quiet.
I am feeling panic about increasing intimacy and vulnerability and I need space to acclimate.
I often describe increasing intimacy in a relationship like coming up from a deep dive. You have to pause and acclimate occasionally. If you climb too far, too fast, it will make you feel unstable. This is one of the 7 reasons that people may withdraw in a relationship.
I need to direct my energy to other things for a time.
Maybe it’s an ailing family member or a huge project at work. When something is pulling all of our energy, any additional requests for attention can be too much. A relationship can survive attentions that are directed elsewhere for a time. But it cannot last forever.
I feel like you’re making me responsible for your happiness and it doesn’t feel good.
Repeat after me, “It is not my partner’s job to make me happy.” And if you try to make it their job, don’t be surprised if they decide to quit.
I’m reminiscing about a more free period in my life and I’m trying to decide if commitment really is for me.
Ahh…the hallmark of the so-called midlife crisis. We look upon our youth with rose-colored glasses. And sometimes, we try to return.
I’m trying on the idea of life without you to see if fits.
This is the spouse that hasn’t shut the door on the relationship but they are not convinced of its viability either. This is the partner that wants the security of home base and a little space to wander outside its fences before making a choice.
If you’re the one asking for space, be aware that the mere suggestion of these words may incite panic in your partner, causing them to grasp you ever-tighter, thus creating the opposite of the space you requested. Be honest and forthright in your underlying motivations. Be as comforting as you can. If you are not contemplating leaving, reassure your partner of that. If you already have one foot out the door, do not give your spouse false hope.
Being on the receiving end of, “I need space” is a scary world, a land in limbo where you watch and wait from afar. It’s easy to see this declaration as the first step off a cliff and respond by gripping with every fiber of your being. Easy, but also counter-productive. Your partner isn’t saying they need to know you want them. They’re saying they need you to loosen that grip and let them fall or fly on their own.
Also, understand that sometimes the words have nothing at all to do with you and with the relationship. Be open to idea that the pressure may arise from an external source or from prior history. Ask questions to see if you can get to the root cause and be patient as your partner tries to sort it out.
If you find yourself in this place, turn your attention to your own well-being apart from your partner. You cannot control his or her actions and decisions, but you also don’t have to stand idly by as you wait for information. Invest in yourself; it pays dividends.
“I need space” is a landing between floors. It is a brief period of stasis before you either climb to another level or exit the stairwell of the relationship.
It’s a time to catch your breath.
To see your journey clearly.
And decide which direction you will go.