Time to yourself (or “me time”) is extremely important for people in relationships ― arguably equally important to the health of long-term partnerships as date nights. But for many people, hearing the words “I need some time to myself” comes across as a threat to their relationship.
“For some folks, experiencing their partner emotionally or physically distance themselves can feel like a painful rejection or abandonment,” said Lee Land, a psychologist in Fort Collins, Colorado. Inevitably, this leads to an unhealthful push-and-pull dynamic between the pair.
“Unfortunately, I often see a dynamic in relationships under strain in which one person attempts to push their partner away emotionally, which leads to the other person attempting to bridge the gap,” Land said. “It’s an ongoing tug of war that causes pain and dissatisfaction.”
That creates a tricky situation for the spouse who really needs some alone time: How do you get the message across without making it seem like something is wrong? How do you convince your partner that a dose of alone time is actually beneficial to both of you? Land and other therapists share their advice on how to broach the subject.
Explain what you mean by “time apart” or “space.”
The “space” many partners crave is usually pretty modest: You probably don’t harbor secret fantasies to live apart à la Gwyneth Paltrow ― and you certainly aren’t suggesting going on an actual break when you ask for “space.” Sometimes, all you need is a free afternoon to do whatever you want, whether it’s grabbing coffee and reading idly or playing video games with friends.
Help them understand where you’re coming from: For just a few hours, you want to decompress and do you ― something they may not see the full value of, said Talia Wagner, a marriage and family therapist and author of “Married Roommates.”
“The key to success with these types of requests is the ability to see it from their perspective, not just your own,” she said. “You’re only ever privy to your experiences, thoughts and feelings, so when your mate tells you that they need a break or time away, you have to trust that they know themselves and their limits.”
By honoring your request and tagging you out for a little while, your S.O. is learning how to be a better support system for you.
“As a mate, it is your job to hold your partner up when they are drowning in quicksand,” Wagner said. “You see it as a necessity for both of you to be emotionally sound ― even if that means space ― and you encourage one another to that end.”
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Be mindful of how you phrase the request.
Though there’s no need to approach your partner and their feelings with kid gloves, your tone and word choice do matter. Framing this request the right way could be the difference between your partner agreeing with you versus them seeing the ask as a threat, Wagner said.
“If you ask nicely and kindly and stress that it’s something you both need and would benefit from, it goes a long way,” she said. “When you deliver this news in an accusatory or frustrating tone, the message is rarely received.”
So instead of: “I’m feeling exhausted and overwhelmed with everything at work and home. I really could use some alone time” ― which could trigger resentment if your significant other is also feeling exhausted and overwhelmed ― try to stress that your partner has a stake in this, too.
Wagner suggested: “We probably both need ‘me time.’ It’s just that one of us recognized it first and spoke up about it. A little space is a positive and a good thing for both of us.”
Really underscore the benefits of time apart.
Point out that there are romantic and sexual benefits to having some breathing room, said Stephanie Buehler, a psychologist and sex therapist in Southern California.
“Too much togetherness can feel like ‘family time’ and knock the romance right out of a relationship,” she said. “A little time apart allows partners to look at each other with fresh eyes ― and perhaps to experience some longing.”
Understand that this need could be rooted in your personality type.
According to Buehler, more often than not, it’s introverts who bring this issue up in therapy. An introvert spouse may thrive and feel recharged after a little alone time, but that’s often hard for an extrovert spouse to get their head around it.
“An introvert will really start to wilt if they don’t get time to themselves to daydream, read or do whatever quiet activity they like,” Buehler said. “If that describes you, explain that to your spouse.” (The other types of clients who come to Buehler with this problem? Working mothers.)
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Remind them that you love them.
You might be able to attribute some of your partner’s apprehension about needing space to their attachment style or relationship behavior patterns. Attachment styles ― how we’ve been taught to emotionally bond and show affection to others in our adult lives ― underlie our dating and relationship behavior.
If someone has an anxious attachment style, they struggle to feel secure in relationships and cling to their partner, fearing that they may leave them. (Head here for more on attachment styles.)
If you sense that your spouse may have an anxious attachment style, it’s important to stress that your plea for space isn’t a death sentence for your relationship. You still love your partner, but in order to do so in a healthy way for you means you need space to breathe now and then, Lee said.
“It’s helpful to remind your significant other about your feelings of love and desire for future connection,” he said. “Ideally, people in close relationships can spend time apart while still feeling safe and secure in the connection to their partner.”
Make a point to reconvene after your “me time.”
Nothing will allay your partner’s fears about this request more than you returning happier, calmer and more ready than ever to give your full 100% to family life. Sure, every now and then, you need a day to yourself to go putt some balls or chill at a Korean spa, but you always return to your partner. (Plus, when you have “we time” or go on a date night, you’re truly focused on that togetherness, not secretly wishing you could go off and do your own thing.)
“Hopefully your partner sees that it can be extremely helpful for people in close, intimate relationships to continue to foster and develop healthy connections with other people and to explore other areas in their lives,“ Lee said. “For many partners, being able to comfortably spend time apart can potentially lead to reunions that deepen and enrich relationships.”
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