One of the most painful experiences in intimate relationships is when one lover wants to take distance while the other one wants to spend time together.
The situation can become so entrenched that none of the partners wants to accept a compromise. You want to leave for a few days, and I want to spend these days with you. What shall we do?
Most interpretations on this difficult conundrum suggest that the solution lies somewhere in the middle. Instead of taking seven days by yourself, you may take only two. But here I’m going to argue something much less politically correct. If the two lovers cannot find a working compromise, then the one who needs space “wins.” Let me explain why.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that both asking for distance and asking for company can be difficult. When our lover wants to take distance from us, this can trigger our fear of abandonment. When our lover prevents us from taking distance, this can trigger our fears of being invaded and losing our personal space and identity.
Usually, in a couple, we tend to adopt either of these two “roles”: the one who fears abandonment and asks for company, or the one who fears invasion and asks for solitude. It’s easy to see how this ends up in a vicious circle: the more one partner feels invaded and pulls away, the more the other feels abandoned and closes in, and vice-versa.
Let’s also mention here a popular stereotype according to which women would tend to fear abandonment and ask for company, while men would fear invasion and ask for solitude. This is a superficial reading that doesn’t take into account the complexity of reality.
For instance, think about “stalking,” which most of the time involves men refusing to grant personal space to women that are asking for it. Unpredictable, sometimes terrible things may happen when a woman walks away from a relationship and the man doesn’t want to allow that to happen. Fear of abandonment can trigger a blind rage that becomes poisonous and dangerous, and men are just as subject to it as women.
But let’s come back to the vicious circle of asking for solitude and asking for company. How can we break this vicious circle? What about those cases in which no one wants to yield? I want to invite you to reflect on something: asking for personal space and asking for company are not exactly at the same level. Why?
Because it takes two people to be together, but it only takes one to be alone.
Let me illustrate this with an example.
Let’s say that you and I want to travel together. In order for the journey to happen, we both need to want to do it. But it is enough for one of use to bail out, and the journey will not happen. If you decide to stay home instead of traveling, you don’t really need my approval or agreement to do that. But I do need your approval if we are to travel together.
What I just described may sound unfair, but that doesn’t prevent it from being real. We can’t really “force” people to join us on a journey, on a movie night, or on a walk in the park. Any common project requires the willingness of all the participants, whether we are talking about a holiday, a business venture, having a child, or simply spending time together.
This is all relevant for intimate relationships which are, at the end of the day, a joint venture. And, as we all know, it is enough for one of the two partners to want out of a relationship, and the relationship will need to end. That may sound harsh, but it is a reality. It takes two to be in a relationship, but it only takes one to be out of it.
Coming back to the vicious circle of wanting solitude and wanting company, this means that if the two lovers cannot find a compromise, the one that wants company will have to be patient and wait. Solitude can be reclaimed, but company cannot. When our lovers need space, there isn’t much else that we can do but grant them the space they need.
One exception to this principle is when we are dealing with children. In a relationship with a child, our “desire for solitude” must be harmonised with the responsibility we have over someone else’s well-being. But in relationships between adults, spending time together is the natural outcome of both people wanting to share each other’s company. If we want to build adult relationships, we need to learn how to be in solitude, and be ready to accept that solitude might come even when we least expect it.
In conclusion, asking for someone’s company and asking for solitude aren’t exactly on the same level. Each human being has the right of taking space whenever he or she needs it, with perhaps only one exception: if the person in question is taking care of a child. On the other hand, we cannot force company whenever we need it, because company needs the approval of someone else. This is one of the reasons why being comfortable in solitude is a prerequisite to establishing healthy relationships.
The capacity to be alone is the capacity to love. ~ Osho
Author: Raffaello Manacorda
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Alex Jones/Unsplash