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Breathing Room

A Different Kind of Space Odyssey


By Elayne Savage, Ph.D.

Space is what keeps everything from bumping into each other.
—Wes (Scoop) Nisker

In our fast-paced lives, when we barely have time to breathe, how can we make room for romantic relationships? Balancing needs for closeness and distance is difficult, especially when one of you needs to have more space or less space. If you don’t get it, misunderstandings, hurt feelings,
anger, and resentments arise. Sometimes there’s too much closeness and you feel you can’t breathe — especially when you’re bumping into, stumbling over, or stepping on each other’s toes. Other times there’s too much distance, and you find yourself gasping and rasping—particularly
if your partner is emotionally unavailable, withdrawing, or threatening to leave.

Creating a Comfortable Space

Some of us grew up hearing that space is the "final frontier." But. where intimacy is concerned, space is the first frontier to manage. Respect for comfortable personal space is crucial, but finding the right balance can be a real challenge. This need for comfortable space in relationships has become strikingly clear in my twenty-five years of working with couples who often find themselves bumping into each other. We all need some elbow room, but what's sufficient? How much space is adequate? How much distance is enough? How much intimacy is enough? How much is too much? Why are "needs" and "wants" and "personal boundaries" so confusing? In Breathing Room I will present ways to work out these complex issues with your partner. You'll learn how to recognize both strengths and problem areas in your relationship, create enough objectivity to step back and observe your interactions, and develop skills to sidestep the hurt feelings that can often result from misunderstandings about needs for space.

But this is not a book just for couples. It's for anyone who hopes one day to be a couple but instead keeps bumping into those disconcerting space issues. Relationships are the best teachers for moving past that often-overwhelming fear of intimacy and all that goes along with it: fear of rejection, fear of betrayal, and fear of abandonment. As scary as they can be, relationships are great for learning about yourself and how you interact with people you care about. Once you can learn to stand back a little, you'll get some great practice at acquiring objectivity about your process of interactions. You can learn a lot both from what goes right and what goes wrong.

Couples in Space-How to "Orbit" Around Your Partner

Sometimes it seems as if we're from different universes because we orient ourselves to time and space in different ways. But why wouldn't we? Each person has a very personal way of approaching space issues because of our cultural differences, our attitudes toward intimacy, and the effects of childhood experiences on us today. These factors can add complications to your relationship even if you're unaware of their influence. This book will help you gain a better understanding of how these dynamics interact and work for or against you.

Throughout this book, you'll find many examples of cultural differences that affect personal space. These can greatly influence your romantic relationships-especially if you and your partner grew up in different cultures that place dissimilar values on emotional closeness and distance. All too often couples take these differences personally, feeling their partner is "unfeeling" or "overly dramatic." But often these are only cultural style differences, and understanding their origins can save lots of relationship distress.

How you view intimacy is also greatly affected by family customs and cultural differences. Because your "models" were not the same as those of your partner, your expectations of intimacy also may not be the same. Your experiences in your family of origin affect the expectations that you bring to your relationship. You and your partner may have different needs for space and different ways of taking it. All of this affects how you experience intimacy. Or, as the case may be, how you don't experience intimacy.

But just what is "intimacy"? Often we find ourselves describing what intimacy is not rather than what it is, talking about what's missing, rather than what exists, and reciting what we don't want, instead of what we want. It's easy to complain about how distancing someone is, or how they pull away, or how we feel left out because they need their own space. Yet, when asked, many couples are at a loss to define what space and intimacy mean to them.

Breathing Room takes an in-depth look at what intimacy is and isn't and how it's affected by personal space. Just as each of us has different needs for space, we also have different styles of taking it. This can have a great impact on the quality of intimacy in your relationship. Differences in style where personal space is concerned can lead to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, resentments, bitterness, and distancing. Feelings can flare up with lightning speed, damaging the feelings of closeness that exist.

Breathing Room unravels the mysteries of how our early experiences influence these misunderstandings. Looking back to these experiences can give answers to some to our relationship problems. I once heard a commentary about how salmonella in our bodies can lead to arthritis down the road, because immune system cells that fight bacteria sometimes attack normal cells as well. In other words, our bodies have an overreaction that does collateral damage to our immune systems. It's much the same regarding early experiences. They, too, can do collateral damage to our psychological immune system and lead to emotional inflammation down the road.

In most instances, words or actions by peers, teachers, siblings, or parents were not intended to be harmful, but sometimes they were. It's not the "intention" that matters as much as the perception of the child-how we explained it to ourselves. Even unintended hurts can last a long time and affect adult relationships. I know this firsthand, because I was extremely sensitive to rejection as a child. Words, looks, tones of voice, and even raised eyebrows all gave me shivers. I took everything to heart; I was thin-skinned rather than tough-skinned, and not very resilient. Some of you may have been highly sensitive as well.

Perceptions that you carry away from your past into your present affect your relationships. All too often space gets filled with misconceptions and preconceptions, affecting the way people see the world. And remember, both you and your partner have unique experiences that contribute to your worldview, especially involving fairness, trust, and expectations. As a result, each of you sees the world from a different, although equally valid, vantage point.

Inner Space or Outer Space?

There are probably times when you let your inner space be affected by outside influences, namely your partner's likes and dislikes, expectations, preferences, and opinions. This is a big-ticket relationship issue-making enough room to be a couple and to be yourself, as well. This means being in a relationship and still keeping your autonomy-your independence, freedom, and identity. It means honoring your uniqueness. Usually there are powerful dual fears involved in this attempt: the fear of being yourself vs. the fear of losing yourself. It may feel to you that you have to choose between one or the other, but you really don't. In fact, the most intimate moments are when you can experience a balance of "I" and "we." Breathing Room will show you how to be both an "I" and a "we" without having to sacrifice either.

Through the "space" lens, we'll be looking at more than cultural and family-of-origin influences on intimacy, personal space, and maintaining autonomy. We'll also explore how personal boundaries, anxieties, stress and fears, power and control considerations, and life transitions influence closeness and distance. You'll learn about dozens of "space fillers" and "distance regulators" that interfere with relationships, and you'll come to appreciate the multifaceted ways in which space influences both sexual and emotional intimacy. And, finally, through illuminating stories and step-by-step suggestions, you'll learn how to take notice, take a breath, consider your options, and strategize how to make changes in the quality of your intimate relationship.

How to Use This Book

Breathing Room is easy to navigate. You can open the book to any chapter that appeals to you, but by starting with the introduction and chapters 1 and 2, you'll receive a foundation in the basic terminology I'll be using. You'll notice that some sections are overflowing with information, while others are fairly minimalist. This difference results from my intention to offer a "jump-start" on some new ways to think about space issues and how they affect your relationships. It would be too much of a digression to discuss some of the more minor points in depth, but I want to present an overview to you. In addition, there are many books out there on some of these areas, especially gender style differences and all the addictions such as cyber, alcohol and other substances. So, I've included some good resources in the list of Suggested Readings at the end of the book for you to refer to if you'd like more information.

Breathing Room is a natural progression from my earlier book, Don't Take It Personally!: The Art of Dealing with Rejection. Rather than finding ways to respect our partner's need for personal space, we all too often resent it and take it as a personal affront. Although I've tried to avoid repetition of material, I think some points in the first book are important in understanding the dynamics of personal space. You may find it useful to view the two books as companion pieces, especially if you desire more information about expectations and disappointments, personal boundaries, needs and yearnings, fears of rejection, perceptions of rejection from peers, teachers, or family, exploring options, and depersonalizing responses.

You'll find lots of stories in this book about generic "Joes" and "Janes," and you'll most likely recognize yourself or your partner in some of them. Using the "space" lens, you'll find yourself adjusting it for close-ups and stepping back for the wide view, much as you would with a camera. The closeups give you the ability to recognize snapshots of yourself and your actions. And the long shots provide the perspective to step back and give yourself enough breathing room to not always get caught up in the "drama" of the moment.

As you read, notice examples of sequence and reciprocity. Sequence in this context refers to problematic as well as positive behaviors in the relationship-what behavior comes before and what behavior follows. And what comes before that? And before that? Soon a pattern of interaction begins to emerge.

Related to sequence is reciprocity-the effect of behavior on subsequent behaviors, how one response begets another. In other words, every action is also a reaction, creating a circular rather than linear process of relating. For example, #1 says something to #2. And #2 thinks #1 means something negative or critical by what is said. Then #2 reacts protectively, that is to say, withdraws. And #1 reacts to the perceived withdrawal, perhaps getting hurt or angry. And on and on it goes, with no beginning and no end. In other words, #1 doesn't do it to #2. #2 doesn't do it to #1. They do it with each other. One person may indeed do some behavior that is not okay, but the other person allows it. In other words, each partner's behavior affects and is affected by the other person's behavior.

Reciprocity also describes how individual behavior affects the behavior in the relationship, which in turn affects the individual behavior. And this affects change as well. Individual change can lead to relationship change, which in turn can lead to more individual change. Let's say someone begins to understand that his or her partner's need for privacy is really a difference of style, and there is no need to feel threatened by this need. As a result, the relationship is less tense and more comfortable for both, and the other person no longer has to protect his or her space needs so fervently, allowing room for more closeness.

In addition, reciprocity includes complementarity-a dovetailing or fitting together by the couple where each one mutually supplies what the other lacks, filling out the relationship. For example: If #1 is private, #2 may be outgoing. Other dovetailing kinds of interactions include nurturing/dependent, assertive/compliant, giver/taker, dramatic/unemotional, and spontaneous/reserved. There are other ways we "fill out" the relationship, which include a bending of the lens of reality and which are discussed in chapter 2. For example, you may feel something is missing in yourself and, through glorification, seek it out in a partner, or you may project your own undeveloped, unacknowledged, or unacceptable traits onto your partner.

And yet another kind of reciprocity takes place when a couple negotiates an exchange of desirable behaviors, for example, "I'll be willing to tidy up the living room every day if you drive me to the metro station on your way to work." Unfortunately, as you'll see in chapter 11, these "agreements" are not always put into words, and sometimes they are not even in conscious awareness.

And as you read on you'll see that each of these reciprocity dynamics are related to the amount of personal space that each person takes up or gives up in the relationship. And you'll find more details and examples of reciprocity in chapter 2.

An extraordinary thing happened to me as I was working on this book. It started as a slight presence, grew more persistent over time, and soon became a flash of awareness that I could no longer ignore. As I was writing, I began to recognize myself in the stories and to realize how I'm more of a player in this drama than I knew. I have a big part in how the dance of intimacy gets played out by my choice of partners. But it is not just the "go away a little closer" messages that others give-I realize that I give them as well!

As you recognize yourself or your partner in the stories, you'll notice how space issues exist in ways you never before imagined. A new world will open for you, providing ideas that are unique to your own situation. Not only will you identify ways you may desire space or give up space, but you'll also notice ways you are respecting the sacredness of space for yourself and your partner. By following your own cues and instincts, you'll be able to see the world of relationships in a different way, enabling you to creatively fine-tune some adjustments or make some broad changes. Change happens best when you allow enough space for it to happen, and Breathing Room is about making enough space to find the breathing room every relationship needs.

© 2003 Elayne Savage, Ph.D.




The Queen of Rejection™