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Getting space in a relationship

spaceYou know those marriage ceremonies where they blend two candles into one symbolizing the couple becoming one entity instead of two separate individuals? Well it makes relationship therapists cringe. People are individuals. And healthy relationships need two committed but independent people pulling in the same direction and who share commonalities to flourish. Having the same interests and values are great. Feeling like you’ve lost your individuality is toxic to a healthy relationship. For many couples the reason that the passion and heat has waned in their relationship is that they are overly connected. What you say? Being too close can lead to a lack of intimacy, passion and sex. There is no mystery or spark. As Esther Perel says in her brilliant book Mating in Captivity, “fire needs air”. What Perel means is that you need space, tension, and a bit of unpredictability to create serious heat in the bedroom.

Harris O’Malley, the nerd love guy has this to say about space in relationships; “One of the things that people often don’t understand about relationships is that everybody needs their space at one point or another. We have a tendency to treat relationships like being The Defiant Ones: once you’ve agreed that you’re in a relationship now you are shackled together for all time, never to be alone again and the only thing you can do is learn how to work around it. You’re no longer an individual, you see; you’re now officially a couple – a gestalt entity forming feet and legs, arms and body that somehow still has a hard time agreeing on what to watch on Netflix, never mind agreeing which of you forms the head. This is especially true when you are young and/or new to relationships in general – spending every waking moment together is seen as proof of just how much you love one another and why you’re so perfect together.

Except… that’s not how people work. You don’t subsume your identity into the collective Matrix that is your union, exchanging your sense of self for a cutesy portmanteau couple-name that even TMZ would gag over. Just because you love somebody doesn’t mean that your need for time to yourself goes away, and wanting time to do your own thing by yourself and with your friends doesn’t mean that your love is any less “real” or “true”. For that matter, spending every single minute of every single day together doesn’t mean that your relationship is wonderful and all cartoon birds and rainbows and hot and cold running blow-jobs. In fact, by not making room for having some “me” time, you’re actually hurting your relationship.”

I couldn’t agree more. So how do you find some space amidst kids, cooking together and sharing a bathroom?

It starts with carving out time. I know it’s hard when life is as busy as it is. I really do understand crazy schedules. I’ve written in past blogs about how my amazing husband makes Monday Night Football evenings extra sexy by upping the foreplay before the half time frolic. We set that Monday evening aside for each other. Sometimes as a therapist the first thing I do is talk about child care. You have to make the relationship a priority or something will ALWAYS get in the way. Your kids are programmed to get between you and your partner. It’s your job to find that balance. And it takes consistent effort.

Once you have found time together, then you need to find time apart. Cultivate your own friends, do things that make you interesting (and allows you to have something to share at the end of the day). Find things that you are passionate about. Engage your brains and your enthusiasm. Then share that with your partner. You are far more likely to be enraptured by your sweetie if you are interesting and have a unique perspective.
I also believe that you need to reign in feelings of jealousy to give your relationship a healthy perspective. Jealousy isn’t just one emotion, it’s a whole bunch all rolled into an ugly green monster. It’s feeling threatened, being fearful, being worried about being abandoned or replaced, thoughts of loss or just plain anxiety. But it is your own mind messing with you and these thoughts can be managed or controlled. So let your partner go out with the boys or have a “girl’s night” at the bar. Encourage your spouse to have friendships with other people who have similar interests. It reflects positively on you and gives you the space to continue to choose each other.
Men and women often perceive the same situation completely differently. Moreover, no two people share the same need for togetherness. Neither would they require the same levels or intensity of intimacy. Balancing space in a relationship is an art, as fostering intimacy requires both togetherness as well as separateness. It is the magical formula we all keep striving for.

The last piece of the puzzle is the worry that if you are too individual then you might drift apart. That’s a real fear and can be managed by making sure you do things together. I’m a big proponent of adventures and finding something that bridges you. If the joint activity gets your adrenaline up, then it’s even more positively impactful. I just heard recently of one couple that does karate together and spars with each other. They both have busy jobs, and it’s their chance to mock fight, feel connected and do the “Mr and Mrs Smith dance” where they try to best each other. She’s been doing karate longer, but he’s stronger. They say that everyone stops to watch the match. And then he kisses her in the middle of the dojo.

Finding a balanced space between “joined at the hip” and “too distant” is a challenge for most couples. And relationships take work. But when they work, and you can find that happy medium, relationships can be absolute magic. So grab your sweetie’s hand and go find that sweet spot.