Fear and doubt. Those are usually the first two emotions that course through our brains when our partner tells us they need more space.
Is this just another way of attempting a soft breakup by letting us down slowly? Is this just the natural byproduct of attempting to shed some stress and revitalize? Or is it something else?
In other words: Is this about the relationship or not? And if it is, what can we do about it?
Common Reasons Your Partner Needs Space
When Needing Space Is A Psychological Need
Some partners require a timeout for reasons completely unrelated to the relationship.
If your partner is feeling overwhelmed they may instinctively retreat to a safe place to recoup their strength.
No problem, I hear you say, if that’s what they need then that’s what they need.
But there is a problem. If communication in your relationship is opaque, then you’re going to question whether space is what they actually need, or if this retreat is a codeword for something more sinister. Namely, a loss of interest or attachment.
That’s when a vicious cycle begins.
If They Run, Don’t Chase
Our first, panic-driven, reaction is usually giving chase. The more distance our partner accrues, the more security we’re going to need to placate our fear — and this often means trying to close the distance.
This is a mistake, and sadly somewhat ironic, given that their need for space can lead to further suffocation as we rush forward to “mend” a problem that might not exist (but now does). This fear of abandonment is a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow it to consume us.
If our partner’s newfound need for time alone is a much-needed reset for them, the only real choice we have is letting them claim it. The alternative is making their need for space even more desperate.
The good news is that if it’s a stress reset they’re looking for, some time alone will likely do the trick. And let’s be honest, you could probably use a refresher too!
But needing space isn’t always just about catching one’s emotional breath. It can be a sign that our partner feels suffocated. So how do we tell?
How To Tell If It’s Just Stress
Some people require their “Batcave” more than others. If it’s a way for your partner to deal with stress then you can expect these episodes to repeat over time. If it has happened more than once, then it is likely a psychological mechanism your partner needs and isn’t a sign the relationship is crumbling.
When Needing Space Is A “Soft” Breakup
Sometimes space is just a way of breaking up without confrontation. That’s right, it’s the dreaded soft-letdown.
Unlike using space as stress relief, seeking time alone as an excuse to drift away from the relationship differs behaviorally in several ways:
- It might involve some preparation (for instance, you might discover they’ve already started to move their stuff out).
- It will feel out of character. Your gut instinct will know something is up because your romantic connection has been severed.
- Your partner will not give you a timeframe for their timeout.
- You won’t get any hard answers, particularly ones relating to the relationship’s future. This leads to a feeling of being in limbo.
Time Alone Versus Space
Up until now, I’ve used these two phrases interchangeably, but needing space and needing time alone can mean different things.
- Needing space means needing distance and offers no timeframe.
- Needing some time alone implies that this retreat has an expiry date because the focus is on time, not distance.
A soft letdown will focus on creating space rather than claiming time. Has your partner offering you a timeframe for their time alone? Or is it just a way to create distance?
How To Tell If It’s A Breakup
The entire purpose of the soft letdown is to avoid confrontation and to slip away with a minimum of drama. Your partner’s answers will reflect this. They will avoid directly engaging you regarding what’s going on, and may push to create a grey area where they can slowly fade into the background over time.
It never quite pans out this way, however. Because the confusion will only push the dumpee to press for answers. And this soft-letdown becomes more dramatic and long-winded than any clean-cut ever would have been.
When Needing Space Is A Sign Something Needs To Change
Most of the time asking for time alone isn’t the shadowy prelude to a breakup but is a sign that something in your daily routine has become unsustainable. The difference between this and the other points is that by identifying and fixing the issue, the need to seek a time out will likely subside (not that time alone is a bad thing).
This stress may be unrelated to you as a partner, or the relationship as a whole. Perhaps it has to do with work. Maybe it has to do with financial stress or annoying acquaintances. More than likely, it is a combination of several things.
In this case, the difficulty lies in identifying the culprit. In a perfect world, your partner would know what is stressing them out and communicate it. But if they fear you would misunderstand, get defensive, or simply don’t know themselves, their only course of action is to temporarily detach themselves from the relationship.
How To Tell If It’s A Problem With Your Routine
There is no easy way to tell if your partner is unable to communicate their need. You will have to rely on being ruthlessly objective and scanning your daily routine for things that may be overloading your partner. Once identified, negotiating a change will improve your relationship’s outlook.
When Your Partner Says They Need More Space
No matter what the reason for asking for space is, we have little choice but to comply. If we allow our fears to pull our partner back, it will only double their need to pull away. And if this does happen, and there wasn’t a problem to begin with, there is one now (we’ll be accused of being controlling or possessive).
Allowing space and time can come with structure, however. It doesn’t have to be a free-for-all. In fact, I would argue that some sort of communicative timetable is a sensible meeting point between not only your partner’s needs but yours as well.
The act of seeking time alone should also be communicated clearly because the risk of misunderstanding is high. So, if you have questions, you should definitely ask them. The only caveat I would suggest is to avoid attempting to argue them out of their need to be alone. As a core need, it is not something that can be objectively argued against.