My husband and I recently spent a month backpacking through South America. While it was a wonderful four weeks filled with paragliding, wine tasting, hiking in Patagonia and long city walks—time that definitely reinvigorated our relationship—we were both craving a bit of space when we returned home to reality.
Turns out this feeling is pretty universal: Research indicates that nearly 60 percent of individuals in romantic relationships crave more personal space than they are getting.
“Any time you have two people in a relationship, you are going to have this push and pull of dependence and independence,” says Gary Lewandowski, Chair of Psychology at Monmouth University in New Jersey and an editor at scienceofrelationships.com. “You want to blend with your partner, but you also don’t want to lose your own identity.”
This desire for space also creates one of the most difficult conundrums among couples—how to get the time alone you need without offending your significant other.
“It is a tricky conversation to have,” says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist at Harvard University. “People have different needs in terms of space. Someone that needs very little may not understand why their partner wants some alone time if it isn’t communicated the right way, and vice versa.”
Talk It Through
Psychologists believe that many people fear losing their autonomy or having their partner define their sense of self—both feelings that can be toxic to a relationship. Research has found that taking time for youself can actually benefit a romance.
Both Lewandowski and Lehmiller agree that open communication and total honesty is key to getting the space you and your relationship needs.
“Don’t sneak around to get it,” says Lewandowski. “Be open and honest about it with your partner.”
The Monmouth psychologist also says couples should try and set boundaries in the early stages of their relationship though he acknowledges this can be tricky. “In the beginning all you want to do is spend time getting to know the other person,” says Lewandowski, “but dealing with it early on will make it easier in the long run.”
Lehmiller suggests being very clear about why you need time to yourself. If you want an hour after work to decompress, tell your partner why and explain how it'll benefit the both of you (ie. it'll help you relax and log out of work mode). He also notes that the need for space doesn’t necessarily mean total alone time. It can also involve doing things like maintaining friendships or going to the gym—activities that you did as a single adult.
“There are no hard-and-fast rules,” says Lehmiller.
Lehmiller also suggests finding a partner with a similar “attachment style” to yours; the technical term psychologists use to describe how someone forms and behaves in relationships. Some people are on the “extreme end” and want to be with their partner all the time, needing almost no space, he says. Others are much more independent. Research indicates that partners with the same or similar attachment needs tend to have more successful relationships than those partners with opposite styles.
If you’re on the other side of the problem (you’re the person that doesn’t need as much separation), make sure to be open-minded about your partner’s plea for space. A 2004 study found that people craving more alone time from their significant others had low levels of satisfaction, passion and commitment.
Upon returning to the States, my husband and I did just that. We both caved and admitted to needing some time to ourselves. I headed out for a girls weekend. He spent some quality time with his PlayStation. When we reconnected, we talked for hours.
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