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Suffocating in a Relationship?

How to get the space you need? And where does "us" end and "I" begin?

Janet, a self-described "Martha Stewart type," was in her kitchen putting the finishing touches on the hors d'oeuvres for a dinner party when her husband Tom came in.* Janet barely looked up. As she was chopping carrots, Tom wrapped his arms around her from behind. Janet whirled around, grabbing Tom by the arms. "I love you, but you have to give me some space!" she snapped. "You need to back off!" Stunned, Tom stepped away. The next day, Tom pouted and withdrew and made sarcastic comments like, "I'm just giving you the space you need."

Space issues plague just about every couple at one time or another. For many, it's an ongoing source of contention. The most common sticking points are how much time to spend together, and how much physical affection feels right to each partner. But regardless of the details of the dispute, the same question is at the core of most of these conflicts: Where does the "us" end and the "I" begin? Experts agree that couples need to find a balance between togetherness and individuality.

Cut the Cord

Time apart can bring your togetherness new life. "Differentiation in marriage means that instead of two people paddling the same canoe, each person paddles their own, side by side," explains Wendy Allen, a Santa Barbara psychotherapist. Each partner should strive to be a whole, healthy individual who can make positive contributions to the marriage. And space, says Allen, "encourages the solid, cohesive sense of self in each person."

Physical and emotional space is a basic human need, explains Christopher Knippers, author of Cultivating Confidence. "But when two people assume all their needs are going to be fulfilled through each other, the relationship is set up for disappointment, and ultimately failure," he says. Having a variety of friends is a route toward developing—personally, socially, and spiritually. Participating in a variety of activities makes you well-rounded, and gives you more to talk about with your partner.

But how does striving for these ideals play out in real life? Negotiating time together and apart can be tricky business, triggering a host of negative feelings: rejection, insecurity, jealousy, mistrust, and resentment. Solutions come when couples recognize each other's needs and create workable compromises.

Choose Your Words

Get specific, be direct, use "I," not "you."

Explanations can go a long way toward a peaceful compromise. Reassure an anxious partner by making the issue as neutral as possible, advises Allen. "Say, 'This has nothing to do with you. It's just the way I'm made.'" Making alone-time a part of your routine can also help your partner feel less threatened. Knippers recommends first reiterating your commitment to the relationship, then explaining why you want more alone time.

Compromising about time can be difficult, but negotiating physical affection is touchier still. We expect some autonomy over our own personal space. And even if you love your partner, hugging, kissing, or other contact when you're not in the mood can feel intrusive rather than loving. "There's a fine line between being affectionate and being needy," cautions Kathryn Alice, author of the forthcoming Love Will Find You. "Neediness actually pushes people away."

If you're the less affectionate one, proceed with kindness, counsels Joseph Rydell, a psychotherapist in Brooklyn. "A gentle, direct approach is advisable. Constructive, noncritical communication is essential." It also helps to keep reminding yourself that the touch was intended with love, and not as an invasion.

Couples Not Clones

Recognize individual needs.

"Many couples wrongly believe they should have the same needs and desires because they're a couple," says Rydell. He says it's essential that couples acknowledge that each of them has different needs. "Giving permission for those differences is key to productive communication."

Patricia Farrell, author of How to Be Your Own Therapist, suggests partners learn to read each other's nonverbal cues. "It sounds hokey, but agree to provide each other with a signal that it's OK to cuddle," she says. "Body language is useful. It takes time, but it's worth it and avoids misunderstandings and hurtful put-downs." If you're the more affectionate one, keep an eye on your motivation.

If you ignore your partner's signals to back off, you're effectively being inconsiderate, not loving, warns Molly Barrow, author of Matchlines. "If someone throws their arms around you and it gives you pleasure, they're demonstrating their love. But if it makes you uncomfortable or you hate the closeness, then that very same act is not giving love." Backing off is best, not only because it's respectful, but also because your partner will be more likely to then reach out to you.

Push-Pull Dynamic

Take three steps back, not two steps forward.

"The more one person does of something, the less the other will do of that thing," explains Michele Weiner Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy. That means the more space the affection-hungry partner gives, the more likely the less-affectionate partner is to reach out. Talking openly about what's going on can help. But choosing the time and place is crucial. Often, she says, it's best to "strike when the iron is cold." Wait till you're calm and centered, and have the ability to measure your words to be sure you're coming across in a loving manner.

Janet could have used that advice. After the blow-up, it took days for her and Tom to cool down enough to have a calm conversation. She apologized, and the two agreed that the next time Janet needed more space, she would tell him in a kinder, more loving way.

* Names have been changed

Space Jockey

If you need more space, choose your words—and your timing—carefully.

  • Reassure your partner that this isn't a rejection but something you need to do for yourself to be the person they fell in love with.
  • Be specific about your needs and goals. Talk not in terms of what your partner is doing wrong but rather in terms of what you need.
  • When you are spending time together, give your partner the undivided attention they crave.

If you're the one who wants more closeness, remember to respect your partner's boundaries.

  • Check your motivation. By offering affection, are you actually giving or taking?
  • Read your partner's non-verbal cues. Are they ready to receive affection? Are they likely to return it?
  • Consider pulling back instead. It may be the best way to draw your partner closer.

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