“True closeness respects each other’s space.” ~Angelica Hopes
It was a Friday, the workweek had ended, and I was excited for my boyfriend to come home. (Okay, I’m talking about an ex-boyfriend—these steps took me time to implement…)
I’d gone grocery shopping and had two steaks to grill, with asparagus and a bottle of wine chilled.
I heard the garage door and the dog ran to meet him. I knew he would drop his briefcase and come to the kitchen to give me a hug. Then, he would take off his shoes and find the couch to decompress for a few minutes.
But I couldn’t know prior what mood he’d be in—no way to predict before that ten-second greeting if he’d had a hard day and would need some space or if he was ready to be close.
And vice versa. He could have found me cheerfully setting the table or on the couch instead, watching Housewives on Bravo, curled up in a blanket.
I have to admit that I’ve had a lot to learn about relationships. And it’s all because at times I wanted to be close, and at times I needed distance.
Depending on where I was within my own self-security, I could be terrified of entrapment or at times wanted to dissolve in another.
We all want closeness in varying degrees. And depending on daily life circumstances, we want different things.
Yet, at times we act out certain patterns in our various needs for security in our relationships:
We can be anxious: We can cling, be needy and dependent, or complain. We grasp, wanting the other to relieve our fear of abandonment, loss, or rejection.
We can be avoidant: We can push away, shut down, criticize, or refuse to communicate. We find other things to put our attention on to come between us and our relationships.
We can be ambivalent: Depending on how we feel, we can flip between anxious or avoidant—all due to the uncertainties of intimacy. We either crave closeness and grip or cut off, perhaps unconsciously.
And lastly, we are secure: We feel safe in closeness and also have loving boundaries when we need space for ourselves.
Oh, how I’ve wished my MO were more secure at times. But in truth, it’s normal and natural in relationships to be anxious, avoidant, or ambivalent. We’re human. And it takes practice.
There are also those wonderful, easy moments of self-security shared.
I was having lunch with two friends of mine who are married. She was away on business a lot of the time. He was visiting her on one of her trips to New York City. It was understood that on some days she would be working and on the days she wasn’t, they’d be doing fun things together.
They showed up to the lunch irritated. As a bystander, it was easier to observe.
He was frustrated because as they were having coffee that morning, she was catching up on her social marketing on her phone. He wanted quality time with her. After all, he’d flown in to see her.
She was frustrated because she felt like he wasn’t having compassion for the small things she still needed to do for her job. Besides, they’d just had two days together, touring around New York City.
What I saw was the simple pattern: She needed some space. He wanted closeness.
But then he said to her, “If I knew you were going to be on your phone, I would have gone to the gym instead.”
It seemed he wished he had taken care of his own needs. He didn’t really mind that she needed to do some work—he was actually regretting not grabbing some time for himself.
I learned so much from that lunch, watching them. It reminded me of times I wanted to be close and have some space after being close for a while, but didn’t know how to ask for it and how guilty I could feel about it.
Here are the three steps to create a relationship that works:
1. Recognize when space or closeness is needed either in yourself or in your partner.
2. Gently communicate your needs and respect the other’s desire.
3. Compromise by seeing the dance of space as an energy trade. If you pushed away last, perhaps you could make an attempt for closeness. Or if last time you asked for closeness, it’s your turn to offer space.
It’s also important to realize that our partners may not be able to give what we need all the time and to accept that.
I couldn’t depend on my ex-boyfriend to always come home from work relaxed, happy, and excited to see me. Nor could he depend on me either.
But what I can depend on is being aware of my needs and communicating them, lovingly.
Honey, I need closeness.
Babe, I need some space.
Aside from communication, there’s also an inner responsibility:
If we tend toward anxiousness, the trick is to rest in the discomfort of spaciousness without needing someone else to complete us and fill it with our own self-nurturing instead.
If we lean toward the avoidant, the trick is to be aware of our fear of closeness and open. To take a risk to receive, soften our heart and let love in.
Obviously, there are relationships where there is too much dependency or too wide of a gap—where the other is no longer present. When this happens, therapy is a good thing. (Haven’t I known it!)
There’s this story about a horse in a large field. He has his favorite place grazing in a corner. If you put a fence around him, nine times out of ten he bucks up. If you take the fence down, chances are you still find him peacefully chewing in his corner.
The same goes with relationship.
One two three, one two three, we waltz. You step forward. I step back. But in each other’s embrace we dance.
How might you offer your beloved a sense of closeness or some space today? How might you get your needs met on your own regardless?
Couple silhouette via Shutterstock