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Mastering the Art of Giving and Taking Space

How to stop digging when you're in a hole with your partner.

This post is in response to
How Sweet! You Remembered Our Inadversary!

Tonight they’re just not connecting. After months of easy intimacy, something’s not right.

He’s needier than usual, complaining about his life but in that self-stalemated way we all get into when we’re too upset to be silent or explore practical solutions. He’s churning, cycling and recycling the same frustrations. When she suggests solutions, he dismisses them as hopeless or unnecessary and returns to his churning.

She’s impatient, feeling the tug of other things she could be doing. He feels her impatience and takes it personally.

Their months of easy connection have built them reserves of love for each other. This is a small enough blip that they’re not wondering whether they should be together, but, truth is, they shouldn’t be together just now. Time to give it a break, a few hours apart.

But how? How, when frustrated do you give each other space without leaving a bad taste?

She could simply say, “I’m going to give you some space,” but he hears her mounting frustration and will take her exit as a vote of no confidence, maybe even her leaving in disgust, which is not what she means.

He could simply say, “You don’t need to stay here. I’m fine,” but she hears his disappointment. Maybe he’s releasing her just to test her commitment. If she leaves he’ll sit there thinking she doesn’t really care about him.

Ideally they would connect before disconnecting. They try that, but connecting is exactly what they can’t do at the moment. In their current funk, every effort to reconnect yields further evidence that they can’t connect, which digs them deeper into the hole.

Each has already demonstrated frustration with the other, and so hear recrimination in each other’s efforts to break out of their rut. She says, “I can see you’re upset” which he hears as her needing space because he’s being a pain. He says, “I can see you want to do other things,” which she hears as him saying that she’s cold, ungenerous.

Unable to find their usual ease or just take the break, they stew there, silent, restless, frustrated.

Time logged like this is dangerously dispiriting, corrosive to the bonds that connect couples. If only they knew how to take a clean break.

There’s an easy solution. It just takes a little planning. Sports teams, wrestlers and even S&M practitioners have their pre-established means for taking time out. There’s no stigma in asking for a break. No one loses points. No one has to explain or defend a choice to bow out of the action. Everyone needs a break sometime, so they expect it and plan for it.

Couples need a pre-established means too. When riding high on intimacy, they should hatch an escape plan for those dips into disconnect. To do so, they have to first recognize that disconnection is nothing personal. It happens to the best of couples.

Loving deeply doesn’t mean wanting to be together every minute. When we’re young and in puppy love maybe we think we could give each other our all 24/7, but that uber-romantic notion rarely survives even a second courtship. We’re soon sobered to the fact that even if love may conquer all, it can’t consume all. We have many other things to do, some of which at times become a higher priority than spending time together, and especially when time together isn’t going well.

Time together is certainly one gauge of how strong the love is. If a partner avoids intimacy all the time, there’s probably a systemic incompatibility. Still it’s dangerous to put too much stock in time together as the indicator of relationship health. An obligation to prove commitment with time can become oppressive, leading one or both partners to feel corralled, suffocated by the obligation to show up dutifully not for the fun of it but just to keep the other feeling secure.

My partner and I both have lots of uses for our minds, and have begun to cultivate awareness of mind-time as a valued currency in our relationship but also in our overall lives. “Can I borrow your mind?” we say when we want to talk. “Can I have my mind back?” we say when we need a break. We like “Can I have my mind back?” for its blunt practicality. It’s something we came up with some cheerful night together talking about people we know who consume more of our minds than we’d like to share. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. We each have to prioritize where we spend it. “Can I have my mind back?” may become our time-out, tag-out, safe-word way to take a time out.

Planning ahead is a start, but easy space-taking and space-giving is ultimately a product of repeated success, disconnecting and reconnecting later. The more times we’ve weathered a dip the more confident we become that we’ll weather dips again.

Also, the more balance there is between us on wanting breaks, the safer we’ll feel too. Take it as good news when your partner wants a break from you. It means you’ll be free to take a break from your partner when you feel like it.

Also, while it can be satisfying in the moment to take a little dig when disconnecting, expressing disappointment, disgust, or vindication through the evidence that your partner doesn’t care as much as you do, it’s really bad for relationship health to indulge in that momentary satisfaction. When your partner needs a break, give a clean, simple blessing. Taking a dig at your partner as he or she exits the room, digs you deeper into the hole. Demonstrate that you’re on his or her side, recognizing that there are times to sidle away, and that there will be a time to be at each other’s side again soon.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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