The "Closeness-Distance Dance" of Intimate Relationships

From time to time we receive (and even answer!) questions that seem especially relevant to many of us in committed relationships. Here's a goodie!

Q. "Is it common for a man to desire more space and freedom than a woman does? I am constantly trying to find the balance of acting from my heart (meaning, if I genuinely want to talk to him then I'll call him!) and giving him space and not smothering him by waiting for him to reach out to me. It's hard. My partner has this great need for space, to feel free. I on the other hand, want to feel needed, loved, and shown it a lot! What happens is that I show him what I want -which comes off clingy, and he feels like running away (creating more space). When I feel this 'space', I feel like running towards him... and thus the cycle."

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A. It’s good to hear from you. Your feelings make quite a bit of sense. All intimate relationships are made up of two people doing the closeness-distance dance. Gender plays a big role because of the ways we are socialized, but it’s not always the man who wants “space” – what we call the natural need for autonomy (as opposed to the natural need for togetherness). Our adult fears of not getting enough of either autonomy or togetherness are a product of several factors: our temperaments, our upbringing, the environment in which we grew up, and some people might even say, karma. In an intimate partnership, each person's needs tend to trigger the others' fears, so there is a lot of potential for each person being triggered on a regular basis. This is to be expected!

Our aversion to too much closeness or distance is a fear based on the past. While we will definitely keep acting it out, we always have the choice to work on understanding each person’s different world, and beginning to make space for what we have pushed away in the past.

As always, my main criteria for a successful relationship is the desire of both partners to grow themselves. The biggest opportunity for that growth is in relation to how our partner may frighten us. It is no accident that we are attracted to a person with different (often opposite!) needs and fears, but choosing to dig deeply and change ourselves is what is often missing. Most couples stay stuck in the blame game: “if you loved me, you would behave and love me my way”. This only leads to more of the same which is your case is: the more you pursue, the more he distances, and the more he distances the more you pursue. A vicious cycle, as you know.

Attempting to give your partner the “space” he needs is bound to scare you! Both of you will have to learn the art of self-soothing, and relaxing into your feelings without needing  to change right away. Both of you would do well to understand where you are coming from – why and how your need for more togetherness or more autonomy developed. Then talk with each other. Help each other understand the origin of the need so you can build compassion and empathy toward one another. This will prevent you from freaking out and blaming each other when either of you feel your needs are not being met. You’ll have to relax and calm yourself down as you listen, realizing that your needs are different, your styles are different. But differing styles and needs don’t have to prevent you from loving each other.

Take time to learn the art of good dialogue. practice the skills of listening, mirroring, opening the heart, self-soothing. As you relax together, you’ll find your connection deepening.  The bottom line is that it takes two willing dancers for any good movement to happen.  This isn't a dance that most of us ever perfect. Our fears and needs are usually pretty strong. Progress and growth will occur over time and lots can be learned. You are so fortunate to know enough about yourself to even be asking the right questions. Just know that this is a normal and inevitable part of relationship and my guess is that wherever your love takes you this dance will soon enough appear for your development.

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