We’ve all heard it before…
It can happen at the beginning of a relationship, when everything is going smoothly and you’re deep in the infatuation phase of falling in love. It can happen when you’ve been together for a while and things are getting more serious. It can even happen after you’re fully committed – living together, celebrating wedding anniversaries, and having babies.
Your man starts to pull away, ever so gradually, or sometimes all at once. He used to send you sweet texts all day long, and now whenever your phone lights up, it’s someone else, and your heart sinks ever-so-slightly. When he comes home at the end of the day, he goes into the other room and shuts the door, saying he’s tired, when he used to kiss you and ask you how your day was.
When you press him about what’s going on, he shrugs it off, saying everything is fine – he just needs some space. Dig a little more and he starts to get defensive. Before you know it you’re in a fight, and you don’t even know how it happened. You used to feel so connected, and now you just feel alone and confused.
If you’re experiencing this in your relationship, you know what a terrible feeling it is. You wonder what you did, or what’s wrong with you, and you go crazy trying to figure out how to fix it. But don’t panic! It doesn’t have to mean the end of the two of you, and it might not even be a sign that things are bad. Chances are, it’s not even about you.
So whether you’ve been together for six weeks or six years, here’s how to handle it when your SO pulls the ‘I need space’ routine…
Don’t make him talk
When you’re upset about something, the first thing you probably want to do is talk about it with your partner, your best friend, your mother – someone. For women, it’s instinctual to pick up the phone, send a flurry of texts, post to Facebook, and call our loved ones when something’s seriously stressing us out. But men don’t work that way. Forcing your man to talk about what’s wrong just isn’t going to work, and instead might have the opposite effect, making him clam up even more.
Here’s why: a 2014 study out of the University of Vienna found that when men are under stress, they turn inward, cutting themselves off from others. That’s because, according to one of the study’s authors, Giorgia Silani, men under stress have a hard time distinguishing their own emotions from other people’s intentions. This makes them behave in a way that seems cold, uncaring, and antisocial.
“To be truly empathic and behave pro-socially it’s important to maintain the ability to distinguish between self and other,” explains Silani.
Once you understand the science behind his need for space, it might help you stop pushing him to talk, and accept that he’ll open up when he’s ready.
Don’t fix it for him
If you’re at all familiar with that old classic relationship self-help book, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, you already know that men tend to be ‘fixers’, while women mostly want to be heard and understood. This might tempt you to try and get on his wavelength and fix his problems for him. But resist this temptation.
You jumping in and trying to fix whatever’s going on can feel very emasculating for your man. Of course, your intentions are good. You don’t want him to be upset; you want your old partner back, the one who sent sweet texts and shared everything with you. But guys like to be in charge; if you try to solve things for him, he might think you don’t trust him to handle his own shit. Not only will this hurt his pride, it sets up a bad dynamic. At the end of the day, he really does need to own his problems and work through them himself. You can be supportive, but that’s different from butting in and taking over.
When your man says he needs space, the best thing you can do is listen to him. Trust that he’s telling you the truth. If he wanted to break up with you, he would. Telling you he needs space, whether he tells you directly with his words, or indirectly, by his actions, is his way of asking you for what he needs. It might not make sense to you, but if you can step back and pay attention to what he’s asking for, rather than projecting your own needs onto him, it could save your relationship.
If he wants to talk, just listen. Try not to get defensive or upset, or ask for more than he’s willing to give at the moment. Of course, you can ask for what you need, too. You don’t want to get stuck in a pattern of giving too much in your relationship, and getting nothing back. But if what he needs is space, you need to pay attention, and give it to him.
Feeling your partner pull away from you can feel awful. But try not to take it personally. Blame it on his brain chemistry, the male conditioning he received growing up, or the very real, inborn differences between men and women. And in the meantime, to avoid obsessing about it, get busy with some projects of your own, but be open to listening when he wants to talk. You can be warm and empathetic, while also focusing on your own needs, work, friends and hobbies. If you show him you’re happy to back off and give him space, he’s more likely to come around and warm up again – while pushing him to talk and getting upset with him will only make him pull away more.
Remember the things you love about him (science tells you how to fall back in love again, if you’re having trouble remembering that warm fuzzy feeling) and above all, relax and be patient. Every woman who’s ever been in a relationship has experienced this exact thing. Your ability to take it in your stride could make your relationship stronger in the end.
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Comment: Has your man ever told you he needs space? How did you handle it?