Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing [email protected] with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
“I’ve been with my boyfriend for a year (the longest I’ve ever been in a relationship) and being around him the amount that I normally am is starting to be too much for me. How do I explain that I need my alone time and some space without sounding rude or like I want to break up?”
Right now my boyfriend is working on his computer with his headphones on. I’m not sure what he’s doing, because he’s not speaking to me and I’m not speaking to him. We’ve been like this for over an hour, and it will continue until one of us gets hungry or feels lonely and throws a sock at the other. These little windows of pseudo-solitude are important to us. We try to make time for them every week, if not every day. Sometimes we make time for them even when we aren’t in the mood, because we know there are consequences for non-stop togetherness just like there are consequences for non-stop busyness or overstimulation or too much of anything, ever.
It can be hard to remember this—that we all need time and space away from things we love. Or even that our lives demand a broader balance we aren’t always privy to, even if we feel it in our guts. This can be especially hard to remember in matters of romance, which are steeped in traditions that reinforce the idea that true love always connects and never separates. That we never need space if we’re in love. I mean, consider those words: “need space”—they’re practically modern-day slang for dissatisfaction. She needs space to figure out what she wants. He’s taking space to decide if he loves her. It’s no wonder you’re worried that using these words will hurt your boyfriend.
But it’s important to remember that independence and personal agency are critical pillars of any healthy relationship. Needing time apart from my boyfriend doesn’t negate the fact that I prefer him to most people, and generally think he’s the best. It just means I’m a human with human needs, like everyone else. Falling in love, especially in those first intoxicating months, can make us forget this. We lose ourselves, and for good reason: It feels transformative, like the melding of two souls and the dissolution of the self. But that level of self-sacrifice isn’t sustainable over time. Eventually, it has to become something else lest it devolve into codependence. Perhaps you and your boyfriend are transitioning into a new era. One where your needs as independent humans—for friendship and solitude and creativity—are returning in fuller force. If that’s true, I think there’s no more worthy relationship hurdle than learning to communicate those with each other, and respect them in kind.
I’ve always understood that sometimes I had needs my partners couldn’t meet, but it wasn’t until I read Mating in Captivity by psychotherapist Esther Perel that I began to see those needs as liable to strengthen my relationships rather than burden them. In her view, love and desire are two different things—one requiring closeness, the other requiring separateness—and a thriving relationship includes both. Inherent in that truth is the fact that two people can never completely know or have or complete each other, and this tension creates distance which breeds desire. “Love is about having,” she writes, “desire is about wanting… But too often, as couples settle into the comforts of love, they cease to fan the flame of desire. They forget that fire needs air.”
When Avi and I decided to move in, the question of how to not suffocate each other was top of mind. Further enmeshing ourselves in each other’s lives was one of our main goals of cohabitating, yes, but we knew it would come at a cost. So we agreed early on to check in on each other’s needs often and without offense taken. Because communicating our desire for alone time or friend time isn’t an indictment of our relationship, it’s an important part of bringing our full selves to it. No amount of love or affection or “rightness” will ever change the fact that we’re two, complex separate entities. As Rainer Maria Rilke once put it, “the highest task of a bond between two people [is] that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
So try talking to your boyfriend about some of this stuff. Tell him that you love being around him (it sounds like you do), but that you need some time to nurture your independence, too. Tell him you’re nervous about your desires being misinterpreted, but that you hope he believes you when you say your need for space is not code for dissatisfaction—and in fact it’s an expression of your hope that your relationship evolves and grows as you do. And remember that asking him for this means staying open to his needs, too. These aren’t the moments that stress a relationship, they’re the moments that test them. If you both approach this with candor and compassion, I have no doubt you’ll be stronger for it.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya