11 Nov Personal space in marriage and relationships
It’s one of the most common underlying issues that couples bring to therapy.
Not necessarily the presenting problem, but certainly an underlying and very powerful influence on how whatever is going on is being handled. And it’s a crucial dynamic of all relationships that couples must learn to navigate well if they want relationship success.
I’m talking about personal space. More accurately, about how partners in a relationship often have conflicting needs when it comes to how much space (separateness) and closeness (togetherness) they need their relationship to provide.
These respective (and often opposing) needs create a constant “tug of war” that all couples find themselves wresting with (whether they realise it’s happening or not), and with varying degrees of collaboration and success.
If you’ve ever worked in an air conditioned office, you’ve probably experienced what happens when different people share the same air conditioned space. Someone sets the thermostat to a temperature that feels “just right”. Then someone else feels too hot or too cold, and adjusts the thermostat up or down. Then the first person feels too hot or too cold, and adjusts it again. It’s hard to find a perfect temperature that keeps everybody feeling “just right”.
In relationships, personal space is similar: you have your own unique “thermostat setting” that determines how much personal space feels “right” for you. And so does your partner. Marriage researchers believe it’s all about reducing anxiety and feeling safe. And often, your respective needs don’t completely align.
You’re most likely to notice this when your relationship gets a little tough, and stress levels rise. This is the time when each of you will automatically seek out the closeness or distance that, for you, feels most comfortable and “right”.
You may feel squashed by your partner and feel a strong need to withdraw from the relationship and find more space. Or you may feel unsettled with too much distance and feel compelled to pursue him or her, because your partner is too far away. This might be in a literal sense (physical space) and also most likely in a less tangible sense (emotional space).
For partners to build relationships that thrive, they need to navigate their way through their respective needs for “separateness and togetherness”. The most important first step is to appreciate that neither partner is right or wrong. You’re just different.
Talk about it. Be curious about what your partner needs (his or her behaviour will be already telling you, as you’re probably aware). Look inside yourself and become more aware of how personal space works for you. Respect this. Respect your partner’s unique “thermostat setting” too.
Talk about it again. Make adjustments to how you both do things. Let go a little, even if you don’t usually do so. Move closer, even if you’d normally pull away. Changing patterns is essential for couples who want their relationship to thrive. As a couple it’s your shared task to navigate a way forward that helps both of you meet essential needs, whilst developing mutual courage to compromise when you can.