“I think I need space.”
It’s one of few phrases a person in a relationship hopes they never hear from a partner, which is understandable. Relationships are foundational to our lives and mental well-being. When we hear those words, we often think of the worst case scenario: a break-up.
It’s true that sometimes when a partner asks for space from the relationship, it’s just a soft way to set up a break-up. However, in many cases a request for space is just that—a desire for temporary time apart so that one partner can gain clarity on their feelings and the role of the relationship in their life. Sometimes “space” means not having to focus attention on the relationship through a very difficult personal period.
The fear of impending relationship doom can make this request feel even more daunting, especially when so much else is already going on in the world, like coronavirus. So many of us are struggling to maintain our mental health and lifestyle right now. But, there never really is a right time to ask for space.
Separation Can Lead to Better Relational Health
Deep intimate relationships require us to merge with another. It’s no easy task and certainly requires a lot of exploration and compromise. The rewards are great, but can also lead us to feeling “lost,” especially if we are prone to being overly accommodating to our partners. In these situations, taking some space can provide a dependent partner with the ability to further explore their own needs and desires without outside influence.
It’s called the amygdala hijack: When we are experiencing high emotions, the areas of our brain responsible for thoughtful decision-making don’t function as well.
Breaks Can Us Help Heal, Too
Many people are afraid to ask their partner for space because they think it would be too hurtful. But, as a therapist, I’ve also seen the opposite happen many times—a couple stays attached at the hip through tough times, continually picking at old wounds and unable to step out of the ongoing war to identify productive paths forward. The ongoing chaos creates more and more resentment, eroding the relationship over time until all that’s left is pain and hurt. None of us wants, or deserves, a relationship that makes us feel that way.
What To Do If You Need Space
It’s not easy to be the person who’s asking for space in a relationship. The request will likely cause your partner to have an intensely negative response in the moment. That’s understandable, especially if there’s been no apparent indication to them that you needed some time away. While we like to think our feelings and needs are rather obvious, as a therapist I can tell you that most of us spend a lot of time fighting our own internal demons and miss out on our partner’s emotional experience.
None of this means that you’re doing something “wrong.” Relationships are difficult, complex beasts that we (hopefully) wrangle with in good faith.
Take a Gut-Check Moment
Asking for space sometimes looks like the result of an argument gone horribly awry, or in a moment of crisis. If the impulse comes up, try to take a pause (whether that be an hour or a day, etc.) to regroup before reconnecting with your partner.
When emotions are running high, we don’t often make good choices. It’s not your fault! This is a natural process called the amygdala hijack. When we are experiencing high emotions, the areas of our brain responsible for thoughtful decision-making (the frontal lobe) don’t function as well. This is why taking time to “cool off” is so helpful. By doing so, you give your brain time to reset and process information more rationally.
If you’re asking for space, have a solid plan to check in. No one likes to be left hanging.
You should also make sure you take time to think through whether you need space to simply reflect or if you’re just avoiding a break-up conversation. The distinction is hard to discern, so you may want to consult with a licensed therapist to help you sort through your thoughts and feelings.
Be Assertive and Honest—Even if it Hurts
Try your hardest to be open and honest with your partner. Being assertive can help sort through the emotionally murky waters, and sometimes it’s even helpful to journal out what you might say beforehand to emotionally rehearse and make sure you get your point across clearly.
Assertive communication is often H.A.R.D. Meaning, you’ll know you’re doing it right when what you’re saying is: honest, appropriate, respectful, and direct. Assertive communication offers clarity and a feeling of stability in any challenging conversation.
Make a Plan
If you’re asking for space, have a solid plan to check in. No one likes to be left hanging, and while we rarely have all the answers in an exact time-frame, it’s critical to be forthcoming, and intentional, about the time you need to check in. Set a plan for a day, week(s) or however long you compromise on and stick to that check-in date. If things still feel confusing at that point, that’s a good time to recalibrate and discuss next steps, such as therapy.
While taking space is for you, it’s important to remember that you are, in essence, asking your partner to pause their life for you. It’s a BIG ask. As such, make sure that you’re being kind in your delivery and compromising on time-frame and follow up. This is also a good time to be explicit about the boundaries of being on a break, especially as it relates to other people. Will you be spending your space alone? Would you be OK with your partner going on dates or otherwise being sexual or intimate with others? These are all important factors to discuss openly and honestly. Without doing so, you’re likely going to be setting your relationship up for further harm.
Asking for space takes a lot of courage to do. It’s hard to hold yourself accountable for your relationship desires when you know taking time for yourself might cause your partner pain. But, as long as your communication is assertive and without malice, know that you’re taking a necessary step for your mental health and wellness moving forward, whether you remain in your relationship or not.
Have Your Needs Met
Learn helpful tips to establish healthier communication in the on-demand workshop Couples Communication, led by Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC.