People need space. Sometimes they need it without even realizing they do. Only, there are few ways to tell someone to back off without sounding cruel, so most of us just avoid it. But if someone close to you exhibits behavior that screams for space, you should give them a motherf**king galaxy. Honor their desire to be alone, and honor your own.
Why didn’t you text me on your lunch break?
Where have you been, girl? It’s been forever!
Is something wrong? You seem distant lately?
I know all of these questions well because I’ve been on both sides of them. The problem was that I used to categorize everyone’s need for space as a failure on my end. So I tried to fix myself, better myself for closeness with the people I craved most. But it never work because pulling someone close who’s pulling away because you’re pulling them close is like trying to wriggle your index fingers free from a Chinese finger trap–it’s futile.
Besides, our collective desire to distance ourselves from each other is quietly embedded into our culture. Fantasy gaming, weekend getaways, man-caves, ladies’ night out, childhood sleepovers. Space from parents, space from school, space from spouses, space from reality. Our collective need to regroup from monotony and recharge ourselves is represented all around us, so you’d think we’d understand it more when that desire is manifested in our romantic relationships. But instead, we tend to fear space.
For me that fear was something that rotted some of my relationships from the peel to core, and that’s because I’d always managed to be guilty of two damaging habits at once: I was either pushing people away or clinging to them like they were the last driftwood planks of my sunken ship at sea.
Honestly, I’m only aware of these things now because two things happened in my life that shifted my thinking about what it means to give and receive space. First, my life got busier as I got older and I finally experienced a schedule so insane that it helped me understand that my friends hadn’t become less accessible because they’re jerks. They just need space to handle the zillion obligations in their lives, same as I do. Second, I reread a passage from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet while I was moving out of an old apartment. I read it over and over again because I internalized differently at that point.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
Guess I’m a malleable girl, but I read those lines a lot. Read them like Baldwin, Komenyaka. Read them almost like ahadith. Then I put lines between the lines and read those too.
“Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.”
Translation: Give love, but own your heart’s love.
“For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.”
Translation: Seek your own unique thrills when you can. Your can’t live for someone else.
“And stand together yet not too near together.”
Translation: Don’t live your life as an extension of someone. Don’t be a trophy on the mantle above their fireplace. Be the fire instead.
“For the pillars of the temple stand apart.”
Translation: Space the pillars properly or your temple will topple.
What those words mean to me today is that sometimes the people we love most can be temporarily toxic. Routines we develop can end up suffocating us. Mostly, I learned that long term closeness requires a delicate balance between giving an amount of ourselves away that won’t leave us empty, and taking opportunities to recharge ourselves alone.
What we fear about exploring interpersonal space is oddly connected to what we fear about exploring outer space. We’re drawn to it because we either imagine it as vast and serene or exploding with possibilities, and both scenarios are scary. We’re afraid to break orbit from each other because circling each other closely is habitual and comforting. We know that drifting too far from the familiar could mean that people, places, and things we love could lose their gravitational pull on us, or vice versa.
But when people drift away on their own, we should let them. Unanswered texts and calls. Less intimacy. The latter are nonverbal requests for space, and when someone we truly care about asks for space, we should give it to them. When we do, we gain the chance to observe them–and our relationship with them–from a new vantage point where we’re able to gain more perspective.
Creating space in a relationship activates a catalyst for change because it forces us to assess the value of our unions and decide whether to stay tethered to them. That process is always scary, but perhaps it’s necessary. There’s bravery in letting go of people for a little while to better explore ourselves, and bravery in allowing those we care about to do the same.