Needing Some Space Doesn’t Need to Lead to a Breakup

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Supernova explosion in the nebula

One of my friends recently lost his Boston apartment due to an electrical fire and was forced to move in with his girlfriend. Another friend’s boyfriend is living with her while he’s in between places in Brooklyn. While they love their partners dearly, both of these friends are introverts with a capital I. They need alone time, and it’s really hard to get alone time when half of your relationship is homeless. I can practically hear them hyperventilating as they send me panicky texts about how they just need some space.

Once upon a time, I dated a guy who we might refer to as a stage five clinger if we trafficked in movie quote cliches. We went on our first date and within days were spending all of our free time together. One morning about a month in, he outlined what he had planned for our day – and then continued with his plans for the four days after that. Upon hearing this plan, which included zero time for me to spend by myself or with my friends, I realized that I was in way over my head and told him I needed a day to myself. He asked if he could “keep me company.” I repeated that I needed time alone, and he again asked if he could join me, apparently not understanding the meaning of the word “alone.” I dumped him very shortly thereafter. I needed some space. A lot of space. Galaxies worth of space.

At some point, everyone’s going to need some space. Maybe not a galaxy of it, but being surgically attached to your significant other is probably doing you more harm than good. Still, asking for space is scary: you don’t want your partner to take it personally, or to feel like you are rejecting them or pushing them away. It’s especially hard for 20-somethings, who are really good at feeling feelings but not always so good at recognizing when those feelings are actually needs, and then translating those needs into boundaries.

If you’re feeling drained by your relationship, odds are you should spend a little less time together, and there’s a way to go about it that doesn’t involve panicking and dumping them — which probably seems obvious but took me many, many years to learn. (This is assuming it’s an otherwise healthy relationship – if you’re feeling drained by what might be abuse, get out of there ASAP. If you suspect your partner is going to flip out if you bring up taking more alone time, that’s a sign that you should not be asking for space so much as demanding it. Possibly with a restraining order.)

But in general, needing some alone time doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with your relationship. One psychologist even says having enough space in a relationship is more important than having good sex. Dr. Terri Orbuch has been conducting a long-term marriage study over the past 25 years, following the lives of over 350 married couples. She found that “29 percent of spouses said they did not have enough ‘privacy or time for self’ in their relationship, with more wives than husbands reporting not having enough space (31 percent versus 26 percent). Of those who reported being unhappy, 11.5 percent said the reason was lack of privacy or time for self. This was a greater percentage than the 6 percent who said they were unhappy with their sex lives.”

If you’re feeling drained by your relationship, odds are you should spend a little less time together, and there’s a way to go about it that doesn’t involve panicking and dumping them— which probably seems obvious but took me many, many years to learn.

Orbuch also makes a key point when she says, “Your need for time for self has little to do with your relationship or how much you love your partner.” All together now: your need for alone time does not mean you are in a bad relationship or that you don’t love your significant other. Needing space is also not a personal failing. On the contrary, recognizing and respecting your own needs is mature and healthy and something your therapist would be proud of. If you don’t have a therapist, well, my therapist is proud of you.

So how to go about broaching the topic? The actual words “I need some space,” might set off panic sirens in your partner’s mind. It sounds pretty intense and the kind of thing Steve Martin would say before dumping someone in an ’80s rom-com. If you just need a night to yourself, say that instead. As an introvert who is well-versed in asking for space, I’ve had success with saying I need “a Jessie day” or “me time,” which makes it about my needs and not anything my partner has or hasn’t done.

Orbuch suggests that you tell your partner exactly “why more space will make you happy,” which is excellent advice. Time apart doesn’t necessarily need to be alone time, either. If you’re feeling uncomfortably domesticated by the takeout-and-Netflix routine, schedule a night to go out with your friends. If you’re missing your family, take a weekend to go home.

That old saw about absence making the heart grow fonder is true: rather than weakening your bond, time apart will make you and your partner appreciate your time together more. Writing for Elle, Jen Kirsch points out that that “It’s more likely that you will arrange special dates and activities rather than just flaking out on the couch after work.” If you see each other less, you want to maximize the quality of the time you do spend together. If you’re slipping into couch addiction, as lots of long-term relationships do, scheduling a couple of nights apart plus an actual date night might break you out of your rut.

In the handful of days after moving in, my electrical-fire-plagued friend from Boston and his girlfriend broke up. While it wasn’t directly because they were spending too much time together, being on top of each other 24/7 can’t have helped and might have amplified any underlying issues. Now he’s single and has nowhere to live – I’d invite him to move in with me, but besides the fact that I live in Brooklyn, I’d probably kill him after a few days of cohabitating. What can I say? I really need my space.

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