Q: I’ve now been married for three (mostly lovely) weeks, and while I thoroughly enjoy writing husband rather than boyfriend, I’ve had more than one “oh shit, I have to put up with this for the rest of my life!” moment in the last few weeks, mostly revolving around what my preschool students refer to as “personal space.” As defined in my classroom, personal space means an arm’s length in all directions. I frequently remind my sweet four year olds that it’s important to give people personal space because if you don’t, they won’t want to be around you. For me, it’s a little more complicated.
I love to hold hands with my husband and to snuggle. The best part of my day is often lying on his chest while we watch Chelsea Lately, and I sleep best when wrapped in his arms. That being said, I NEED MY PERSONAL SPACE… and my husband (still a thrilling word to type) just doesn’t. We have struggled to find what the “right” amount of time to spend together is since we started dating almost five years ago. I am an introvert. I love people but I draw the emotional energy that gets me through a new marriage, family members in bad health, work stress, and life in general from alone time. However, my sweet husband could happily spend EVERY. WAKING. MOMENT. in the presence of other people. For me that’s just not an option.
In the short term this isn’t that big of an issue. It is however, an issue that makes me nervous. When we have babies and jobs and both need to go to bed at 9:30, what will I do?! I don’t want to spend my life emotionally exhausted because my husband doesn’t get my need for “personal space.”
Satisfying the emotional needs of two very different people who happen to be crazy in love isn’t easy, but we will figure it out. I’m simultaneously terrified of sweeping this issue under the rug and thankful that our current life circumstances allow this to be an issue that gets swept under the rug, because it is sure hard to tell your favorite person that they need to get lost so you can…. do nothing… all by yourself.
A:I’m a bit lucky that Bryan and I function primarily as introverts, but when it comes to personal space, the two of us certainly had a trial by fire sort of start to our relationship. That’s what happens when you get involved with someone who lives down the hall from you, I guess. But, nine years later, we still don’t have it all figured out, because personal space is one of those issues that evolves over time, changing with a couple’s situation. So we, the staff, decided the best way to answer this question is to give the biggest range we can, starting with our own experiences:
Though I appear to be an extrovert, I actually need a lot of quiet time to function well. If I’m around people I like to chat, so I need to NOT be around people regularly to really get the peace and quiet I need. I’m lucky in that I work from home, so by default I get a lot of time physically being alone. That said, while I’m at work I’m managing a team and communicating with people, and not relaxing. So I’ve found that I also need quiet time on my own.
What’s interesting about having a kid is that I both have a need for downtime, and have an intense need to be with my child, who I’m away from during working hours. Balancing that has been tough, not to mention also trying to balance in one-on-one relationship time (which our marriage can’t function without, over the long term). We’re only now starting to work it out, fifteen months into parenting. At the moment, we try to each take the kid for a few hours on the weekend, usually to do something fun. That gives the other person time to do whatever they want—do nothing, work, watch TV, get their nails done (well, that part is just me). It works pretty well, but I notice by about an hour and a half or two hours away, I start really missing the baby.
For us, it’s a constantly moving target. But the bottom line is, for those of us (many of us) who simply can’t function well without alone time, it’s imperative that we carve it out. It’s something you can do with kids too, but it takes more focus and structure. Setting up that structure pre-kids is probably not a bad idea. It’s always the right time to focus on getting your needs met.
If personal space matters, carve it out. Carve it out physically (we searched ENDLESSLY to find a place with enough rooms to give me my own office). Carve it out emotionally, and carve it out when you need it. This means that sometimes I go grocery shopping at 7PM on a Wednesday night just to clear my head. Get comfortable with telling your partner to get lost. Or that you need to get lost. Michael understands that it’s not a personal affront when I need space. If your partner needs more human interaction, then hopefully your absence will encourage him to find it within a social group, or elsewhere that doesn’t mean having you around 24/7. But to avoid going crazy in the long term, get comfortable with the words, “I just need some quiet time.”
My anxiety about personal space has waned since we moved in together. I still need a lot of personal space, but we’ve slipped into a really natural rhythm that allows both of us to get what we need. It sounds simple, but the more you actively work at creating the space you need, the more it will work itself into your regular routine. But you can’t just expect it to be there. You have to make it happen (at least at first). I think there’s an expectation that you should have this figured out immediately after any sort of transition phase. If I’m being honest? I’d say it’s taken Michael and me the better part of our marriage so far to figure it out.
Because Bryan and I exist on much the same rhythm—we unwind by reading, or we work on projects in the evening—we’ve become very adept at the art of being “alone together.” Still, there’s a certain amount of time either of us needs to be alone with our thoughts, and living in a house with a spouse, a roommate, and three animals (and you bet your ass that even they are a drag to be around sometimes) means we don’t get that too easily. For me, I’ve found other places I can go, because working from home gives me all the home field advantage I need. But if everyone’s home and I need to get away, I just say so, and go. Whether it’s taking a walk, a drive, or heading to a coffee shop or library and holing up in a corner, I just go. Because most often, I just want to have uninterrupted think time, and I know plenty of places where strangers aren’t going to jump in and try to chat me up.
I wrote about this a while back because K and I enjoy very different activities, and I get so frustrated at the constant assumption in the queer community (in mine, anyway) that all couples do all couple things together, forever now forever more, and if K doesn’t want to come out to dinner with us then that’s a slight on me, our relationship, and present company. It’s not! She likes you, she just wants to re-watch a billion episodes of Ken Burns’ America!
We both intensely crave alone time in the house, and now have specific times when we’re each out of the house so we both get it. I am no good at existing silently and companionably in the same space, even when she says, “I do not want you to tell me about everything on every page of the Garnet Hill catalog.” So now I take guitar lessons on Monday nights so she has the house to herself and I mostly stay home when she goes to church on Sunday mornings. And it wasn’t like we practiced excellent communication to realize that we really needed that separate time, instead we probably got mad about how the other loaded the dishwasher and then figured out what we were really saying.
APW-ers, how do you make sure your needs for personal space are being met within your relationship? How do you tell your spouse to, well, get lost?