How to Ask For Space in a Relationship - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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Whatever you want to call it, finding space and taking time for yourself is ok even (especially) when you’re in a relationship.

Sure, there’s lots of time spent together when we decide pair up and there’s also some stuff that gets sacrificed. Hopefully, it’s worth it!

You can learn a lot about yourself in a relationship. you can experience a real intimate connection with one special person. You can feel loved. Desired. And you can feel so incredibly angry while at the same time believing that your connection isn’t threatened by that anger (or their anger at you!)

It’s a powerful thing when you’ve built that kind of connection with someone. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t want some time away from them.

And wanting time apart from someone you deeply care about does not need to threaten the stability or strength of that relationship!

If you’re thinking—that’s fairly obvious, Justin—than this post is probably not for you. You’re not feeling smothered in your relationship.

But if you’ve been feeling the sense that you want some independence, some time with friends, some time alone, I want to highlight that that does not have to be a danger sign that you’re in the wrong relationship or a bad one.

How to tell your Partner You Need Space:

  • Ask For Space:

Yeah, this sounds dumb or just too easy, but take it from someone who has spent a great deal of time in my head overthinking things: it’s amazing how many problems are solved by just asking the person for what you want instead of coming up with the many layered flow chart in your mind about what they might say and what you’ll say back and how they might react to that and then what you’ll counter with etc etc etc.

Seriously, though, try this: “Hey babe, I’d like to hang out with some friends Saturday night. Any issues with that?” They might be pleased that they get to do something without you too (in a good way, of course!) That leads to:

  • Encourage Their Own Self-Time:

    One of the best ways to make finding space for yourself ok or even time with your friends is to let your partner know that you’re okay with their self-time. Not, of course, that you actively enjoy they they spend less time with you. Think about it though. If you’re suspicious that they go out by themself or have made plans without you, it’s going to be really difficult (not to mention hypocritical) if you get bent out of shape if they’re upset that you want to hang out without them.

    Try this–do you know things that your partner enjoys? Are you interested in hearing about their friends and the things your partner enjoys doing without you?

    You should be!

    Not in a “I need to know where you are and who you’re with at all times” kind of way—that’s just exposing an insecurity in you (and insecurities should be talked about, but not in a way that makes demands on someone else’s behavior)—but in a way that shows that even when you’re not together you’re still keeping your partner in mind.

  • Confront Your Jealousies Together:

    Jealousy is a major thing that gets in the way of finding space for ourselves. There are a few things to be said about this. First off, have you done anything to justify your partner’s jealousy of you? If there’s some infidelity in your past there’s some trust that will take time to rebuild.

    If cheating’s not the case, it may still be important to note if there are things that you have done or are doing to encourage that green-eyed monster.
    Are you secretive about an ex that you text?
    Are you flirting openly in a way that makes your partner uncomfortable?
    There are, of course, healthy levels of jealousy among couples and sometimes we like to see our partner jealous a bit, but it’s a fine line that can quickly become damaging to the relationship. Talk about this. Talk about each other’s ability to trust in general. And to trust in each other.

    Let each other know the limits you’re both okay with. And don’t push them.

  • Don’t Be Vague About Your Time Apart:

    So let’s say you get some time to hang out with friends. Or maybe you got to do that thing you always enjoyed doing on your own when you were single. Awesome–you’ve succeeded in finding space! And now you get home and you’re Facetiming with your partner and they ask how your day was and what you did. If you say, “It was fine,” and stop there, it’s not likely to go over so well. That kind of vagueness should be saved for your parents, not your partner (I’m kidding. Kind of.) They are showing you they’re interested in what you’re interested in. You don’t need to report play-by-play how you spent your time, but talking about who you were with, what you did, what fun you had, and maybe even that you were thinking about them (more about that next) can go a long way. Being vague and deflecting the question just arouses suspicion and if finding space for yourself has been a challenge in this relationship, you’re not making it any easier by being vague. Try not to view this as being checked up on. Hear their interest as actual interest. In you. Who they care about!

  • Keep Your Partner in Mind—And Let Them Know It!:

    Now it’s easy to take this idea the wrong way and to use it to skirt doing some of the things above. Keeping your partner in mind is not the same as being the guy who gets his partner flowers because he’s feeling guilt about something he did (or forgot to do). This needs to be genuine. Did something come up while you were out that made you think of your partner? Did you learn something about their favorite celebrity they’d be interested in hearing? Maybe you passed by their favorite store or saw that their favorite sci-fi series has a new book out (new N.K. Jemisin trilogy coming out soon!) Keeping the other person present when they are not physically there is an amazing way to show them how much you care. Some people even keep a list on their phone of ideas for their partner. Whenever your partner mentions something they like or are interested in—put it on the list! That way when you are out somewhere you don’t have to wrack your brain to figure out what presents to get on their birthdays or holidays. Or do it just ‘cause.

  • Make Time for Each Other:

    So…this should go without saying. If you’re spending so much time on your own that you’re prioritizing that over spending time together there may be a concern in this relationship. That said, every relationship is different and only the two of you get to decide what “works”. But a good question to keep asking is:
    How are you prioritizing each other?
    Are other people getting the bulk of your attention and time? That may make sense early on especially when you’re not exclusive—expecting too much too soon from each other is a cause for concern—but if you’re committed, if you’re a partnership, then they are the person who you are likely around most of the time. If the most fun you’re having is with another friend or friends, if someone else knows more of your fears, sadness, excitement, and joy then your partner does, then you might want to have a talk about what you want and expect from each other.

Finding time to be without your partner doesn’t need to threaten the relationship and it can be an antidote to feeling smothered. It can be healthy because you’ll have new stuff to talk about and different experiences to decide you want to share together in the future. Worried about the health of your current relationship? Check out these 3 Warning Signs.

If you’ve committed to one or all of these steps and you’re still not getting what you want it may be time to reach out for some professional support.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)