It was about one year into our dating relationship when I sensed a difference in my boyfriend. My normally exuberant and passionate other half had become withdrawn, distracted, and disinterested when we were together. I scrambled to urge him back to his normal self by increasing the amount of time we spent together and being extra affectionate. I pushed him until he burst out with those three dreaded words:
“I need space.”
His declaration stopped me in my tracks as I racked my brain to try to figure out what I had done wrong. Fears of “maybe he doesn’t like me anymore” or “maybe this is the end” started racing through my mind. I decided to take a step back, as requested, and waited for his verdict.
For a few days we went from talking every day to sporadic texting. I feared the worst. So I was quite surprised when he cheerfully asked me out on a lovely date. Throughout the date I kept expecting him to bring up the conversation about space, but it never happened.
Sensing he must be hiding something, I finally asked him, “So, what’s wrong? Do you want space or not?”
He was flabbergasted that I was still thinking about it. Apparently to him asking for space was akin to asking to borrow a sweatshirt. Who’d have thought?
This episode made me realize that men and women have radically different needs when it comes to managing together time in a romantic relationship. For a woman, retreating in a relationship is a serious matter. According to psychologist John Gray, Ph.D., author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, women generally only pull away from their significant other when there is a breach of trust, hurt, or disappointment.
Men, on the other hand, usually have an innate urge to retreat in order to refocus, recharge, and come back to the relationship with new energy. As Dr. Gray puts it, men need to step away in order to really feel the desire to be together again. This seemed to be the case for us.
Of course, be careful not to confuse a need for a recharge with a man who lacks investment in and dedication to a relationship. If he’s constantly asking for space or has never seemed to care about spending time with you, you are probably dealing with a different sort of problem. But if you notice a pattern of his requesting space after streaks of constant togetherness, he’s probably just in need of a recharge.
Over the course of our relationship, there have been other times when my boyfriend expressed a need for a little time-out. But this didn’t mean that our relationship was destined for failure. In fact, here we are, six years later and happily married!
Instead of letting this be a source of insecurity between us, we came up with ideas to help us create natural space in our relationship to avoid him bottling up his need to recharge. We had to change to accommodate our natural differences in order to maximize the best parts of our relationship. It ended up having a great effect on me as well. Even though I didn’t feel the same need to step back, focusing on two things really helped both of us maximize the best parts of our relationship.
01. Make sure that the time you spend together has real quality.
Many people think of quality time as simply time spent in close proximity with your significant other. But there’s a reason we call it quality time; it’s not just any kind of time. I remember one moment in particular that struck me.
We had just finished a weekend of staying on campus and studying during our college years, and I was complaining about how we never spent time together. He quickly countered, “What are you talking about? We’ve been together all weekend.”
He was saturated, and I was feeling neglected. The problem was that we weren’t making sure the time we spent together had quality; it was just breathing the same air. We found that it was a lot better for us to do things such as studying, working, or other mentally consuming tasks apart. We chose to select less but more meaningful amounts of quality time over excessive time being together with no purpose.
02. Don’t think of it as a bad thing.
Needing space is not necessarily a reflection of his just not wanting to be with you. Marriage counselor Peter McFadden writes, “When my wife and I were having a conflict, my response was the silent treatment. My wife so hated the silent treatment that she would ramp up her efforts to get me to talk. Unfortunately, her increasingly frantic efforts to break the silence only made me more agitated and less likely to talk.” What McFadden is talking about is needing space during conflict, but the same principle applies when a guy just needs alone time. Demanding that he stay close might create conflict when there is none. Instead, set clear expectations as to how much space your guy needs, and proactively schedule it into the week.
It’s important to understand the value of his “space” and the function of the “nothing box.” When he’s spending time in that space, whether it’s sports, friends, or work, it’s actually there that he rediscovers all the reasons he’s dating you in the first place. Psychologist Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D., puts it well when she writes, “Men fall in love in your absence, while you fall in love in their presence.” Appreciating the benefit of your boyfriend’s time away from you, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is a great way for both of you to appreciate the time you spend together.
The next time he asks you for space, don’t panic. He may just be asking for a little room so that he can get a reminder of how much your presence means to him.