relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.


life with boundaries

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past few weeks reading blogs and articles about boundaries. A lot of those writers speak to the issue of boundaries a whole lot better than I do, but thought I’d add my own experiences of how crucial boundaries are.

I first became aware of my boundaries in a toxic relationship with someone who trampled and dismissed any and all that got in his way. I didn’t really have defined boundaries at that time—nor had I ever stopped to consider what my core values were. I only knew that in this two-year relationship, I felt invaded, taken advantage of, disrespected and devalued, and I blamed myself for all of it. I felt totally unable to validate much less even begin to enforce my own sense of OK/not OK, I could just feel my trust being violated over and over again. It’s an experience that doesn’t get easier over time. My stomach still turns a little at the memory.

When I was finally able to surface and tear myself free of my user of an ex, I began to read books on break ups, narcissistic and covert manipulative personalities, self-forgiveness, codependency and healthy boundaries. One led me to the next, which led to the next. It was startling and mortifying to understand how accountable I was for allowing my values and self-respect to be compromised—I wasn’t responsible for my ex’s choices and behavior, but I was responsible for allowing it to be imposed on me. And not once, but over and over again. My continued acceptance of and belief in him was my tacit acceptance of his disrespect.

I realized it’s up to me to define what is and is not acceptable, to learn to read what my gut/instincts tell me and to act accordingly without second-guessing or rationalizing or ignoring. Looking back, I knew from the first date with my ex that he was dangerous and wrong for me. I saw big flashing red flags. Rather than trusting in my instincts, I managed to convince myself that I was crazy—and to nearly go crazy in the process of surviving the conflict between what I knew in my very bones to be true, and what I wanted to believe.

Emerging from that two-year struggle to deny myself was like coming out of a dirty, stuffy, smoke-filled room into clean fresh air. “I can breathe again,” I found myself thinking. “I’m me again.” I knew I’d never make those same choices again—but wanted to take some time to understand why I’d chosen to be with him in the first place, what I’d been looking for inside that toxic black hole. And what I learned was how to live by new rules, to understand and maintain my own boundaries, to define my core values, and to explore what in me had led me to desperately seek love and validation from a person who inspired me to feel only anxiety, fear and pain.

It would have been really easy to go too far with my boundaries after that, to create huge fortified walls to keep me safe from ever being violated again. I took a year-long break from dating, allowing myself that time to recover and discover some truths. When I did start to date again, I was extremely controlled and wary, having to consciously push myself to say “yes,” learning to listen to my gut over the voices of fear or lack. Boundaries require flexibility and commitment, awareness and adaptation. They need to be strong enough to protect us and supple enough to move with the changes in our lives and ourselves. They relate to our core values as people—how we’ve defined what’s most important to us through upbringing and experience. For me, integrity, loving-kindness, respect of others, personal accountability, self-expression, optimism and gratitude are all core values. That doesn’t mean I always live up to them, but my intention is to do so, and these are what help define my boundaries.

Recently I had the upsetting and disruptive experience of someone I trust—a friend of three years—crossing a very real line for me. I didn’t believe this person meant to do it, but it was disturbing all the same. I took a few days to figure out what was really bothering me, listen to my gut and confide in a few other close friends, and finally decided to talk to her about it. This wasn’t about my friend behaving in a way that was “wrong” or a chance to blame or condemn her, it was about the fact that her actions had violated a boundary, and because she mattered to me, I wanted to give her the opportunity to know that, to hear her response, and to find a solution that felt good for both of us. I needed to feel that my boundaries would be respected going forward, and was prepared to respect her wishes if she chose not to be my friend anymore. Unfortunately, rather than trying to empathize or understand what I was asking, she got angry and defensive and went on the attack. I was wrong for bringing it up and wrong about my reading of her behavior, and at the same time, I was insecure and threatened by that same behavior. After an uncomfortable and circular discussion, we left it there. Two days later she sent an email that ended our friendship.

It was extremely hard to read—offensive, condescending and dismissive. What she chose to write to me violated my trust even more by attacking my character and judgment, telling me my issues, and continuing to defend and excuse the original line-crossing, all in the name of friendship. I know it was written in anger, and we can all get hotly defensive when we feel unfairly (or even fairly) accused. The problem isn’t that she felt hurt and annoyed, the problem is she sent the email. She felt entitled to openly judge and demean me, to explain my situation and expose what she considered to be my insecurities, taking no accountability for the fact that her actions had affected me.

Many books and blogs discuss conflict in friendship, and recommend speaking openly to your friend about what bothers you, using only “I” messages, so they have the chance to understand, own and modify their behavior. Most of the articles stop there, with a vague nod to “if the friendship is worth it, you’ll forgive each other and move forward together, trust will be rebuilt, good friends are rare, etc.” Very few go into what happens when the friend doesn’t own his or her own part in it, but decides instead to tell you exactly what your problems are, and that you need to just get over it. My friend made it clear that she would continue to behave the same way she had previously, because this was my issue to fix, and I had no right to draw this line. Even had she sincerely believed I was overreacting, and even had my other honest confidantes agreed with her, that isn’t the point. The damage had been done in the way she chose to respond.

The last time a friend lashed out at me that way, we were in the 4th grade. I’ve walked away from very few close friendships over the last 20 years. I’ve had friends pull away or stop talking to me without an explanation, and had others tell me that I hurt them by something I said or did. But never as an adult have I experienced the disrespect of feelings and betrayal of confidence that this woman felt was appropriate. It isn’t about forgiving her; I can forgive what happened. But I don’t see my way to ever trusting her again, and I really don’t want to try. This first conflict has shown me that our values are wildly different, as is our interpretation of friendship. So in the words of Natalie Lue, I “pushed my mental flush handle” and moved on.

It’s pretty horrible to be in the position of having to actively enforce our boundaries with those we care about, to have no choice but admit to ourselves that someone we trust has trampled over our feelings, intentionally or unintentionally. The thing is, the only other option—allowing it—is immeasurably worse, even if we’d rather chew staples than take a stand. So much of our experience is open to interpretation involving different perspectives and opinions, my intention in all of this was never to be righteous or play the wounded victim. I’ve crossed lines both knowingly and unknowingly and felt awful afterward; we all fail and flounder at times. If I hadn’t learned my lesson the hard way, I’d have avoided a confrontation entirely, believing that my friend meant well and deserved the benefit of the doubt, suppressing my anxiety and disappointment.

But that’s not enough. It doesn’t work to close our eyes tight and hope for the best. It only tells people that we’re willing to negotiate on what matters most to us, that we aren’t truly committed to honoring ourselves or our feelings.

And I’m no longer prepared to compromise my values or my self-respect by allowing anyone, no matter who or in what context, to violate my boundaries. It’s my responsibility to draw the line for myself, whether or not others decide to respect it.