One of the most common issues that leads couples to break up, separate, or divorce, is the difficulty talking about different needs for closeness and alone time within a relationship.
Whenever one person has a greater need for alone time, it can make the other person feel an absence, longing, or sadness, which when left unexpressed can turn into a permanent dissatisfaction and sense of neglect.
In this blog post we will examine how you can deal with this thorny issue without compromising who you are or what you need.
Why Blaming Your Partner is Not the Solution:
The most frequent mistake couples make when trying to resolve a conflict about how much time to spend together, is to try to elevate one's own needs beyond those of one's partner, and to pathologize one's partner for being either too needy or too distant and cold.
This kind of blame game is natural, but not helpful.
Although blaming the other person temporarily gives you respite from your own guilt, sadness, or sense of deficiency, batting this deficiency over to the other side is only going to lead to more distress in your partner, which is no overall gain for the relationship.
In fact, the more distress that gets placed on your partner, the less available they will be to respond to yours.
It is exceedingly difficult for a husband to lend a sympathetic ear to his wife’s longing for more attention when what he hears from her is the message that he himself is falling short or is the cause of her pain.
Likewise, it is very difficult for a wife to respect her husband’s need for alone time, when she herself is struggling with doubts about how important she really is in her husband’s life.
Most of the time, when both partners feel stressed out by negative feelings about themselves, they cannot be present to the feelings of their partner.
For this reason, couples need to find a different way to negotiate differences between them. They must not resort to blaming the other person or invalidating the other person's needs.
Why Sucking it Up is Not Your Only Alternative:
This of course does not mean that you just have to suck it up and adjust to an unsatisfactory status quo. The trick is to find a better option than either blaming your partner or accepting the unacceptable.
In order to solve this dilemma, we need to see the problem within a larger perspective.
First of all, we need to realize that people are different in how much they need time away from each other, and how much they need affirmation and closeness.
It is not wrong or bad to want time away from your partner, and it is not wrong or bad to need to feel more connected. It is simply human. There is always going to be a difference between partners on this key dimension, and so the issue of negotiating distance and closeness is going to be part of any relationship.
See Yourself in Your Partner:
It is important to understand that the need for independence and closeness are never just due to individual character traits.
A person may be very independent, but if they get together with a person who doesn’t really seem to need them around that much, it is naturally going to produce a sense of uneasiness and anxiety in them that will propel them to seek reassurance, or will make them withdraw into sadness.
At the same time, a person who currently longs for connection from their partner, may get into another relationship where they find their partner’s need for affirmation overbearing and overwhelming, and feel a need for more personal space themselves.
Once we realize that the need for independence and closeness is largely a barometer of a particular relationship dynamic rather than an indictment of one of the partners, it frees us up to have a new kind of conversation about the issue.
How to Find a Win-Win Solution:
Fortunately, even though we each have different needs for space or connection in our current relationship, we are wired to respond well to each other’s needs if only they are presented in a way that we can hear without feeling bad about ourselves.
Advice for the person who is feeling neglected:
The person in a relationship who is currently feeling rejected, uncertain about how loved they are, or missing a connection, can learn to reach out without blame or criticism, and talk about their needs in a way that naturally elicits compassion and closeness.
Instead of teaching their partner a lesson by shutting them out, or making their loneliness a product of the other person’s failings, they can express a longing that is free of blame.
They can notice the soft underbelly of their frustration, or the fragility underneath the sting of the pain that makes them want to lash out.
They can express themselves from a place of undemanding loneliness, yearning, or affection.
If done straight from the heart this will naturally move their partner into a readiness and willingness to care. That is biology 101.
We are wired to respond well to soft and genuine signals from our partner. By not reaching out in a way that puts their partner into the defensive space of having to deal with a sense of being bad or uncaring, their partner no longer gets stuck in their own feelings of shame and guilt, but are free to simply respond with affection and empathy.
Advice for the person who is feeling stifled:
Likewise, instead of simply taking space away from their partner, the person who needs more time on their own can learn to assert their needs while at the same time reassuring their partner that they need them.
Instead of feeling embarrassed or afraid to share their need for alone time, or feeling wrong or anxious about having certain thoughts or feelings that might trigger a negative reaction in their partner, they can learn to share their longing for more independence in a way that still seems loving and caring.
As they learn to gently and assertively talk about their feelings and needs in a way that that still affirms that their partner is loved and important, they will seem more engaged and present in the relationship. This in turn will increase their partner's sense of connection which has often become questioned because of the perception that the partner who wants alone time isn't sharing themselves much anymore, but has become emotionally distant.
The neglected partner is largely responding with fear and anxiety to a lack of perceived reciprocity and a sense of their partner as being withdrawn or not really sharing themselves. It is this that makes the neglected partner question the other person's interest in them or their availability as someone they can turn to and depend on when the need arises.
Paradoxically, when the person who wants more alone time or space feels they can be more authentically themselves within the relationship, their need to periodically break the connection to preserve their sense of self, or relax and be themselves, greatly lessens.
The Importance of Working Together:
Of course, no one can create this shift in a relationship by themselves. It is truly a team effort to learn to manage negative feelings without blaming one's partner, and to acknowledge and talk about the fears, the guilt, the sadness, and the shame that all too often has no space to be talked about within the relationship.
Partners often need a little help to not immediately hear what the other person is saying as a threat or criticism and to begin to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Both partners have to agree to a new beginning and begin to work together to help each other access the softer more vulnerable feelings hidden underneath the anger and resentment, or the anxiety of fully being oneself.