And if I’ve built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire
-Sting, Fortress Around Your Heart
A husband came to me several years ago, let’s call him John, having been sent to therapy by his wife. The wife, let’s call her Jan, had had an I-am-not-doing-this-any-more moment and demanded he either seek therapy or they divorce. John had spent their marriage working more than spending time with the family. He finally heard Jan and her distress, and he embarked on a mission to try to “make up for” all the years of distance and neglect. But all his efforts to make her feel loved ironically made her feel like she needed space, and it was starting to feel more and more like Jan had one foot out the door. John grew beside himself with fear and anger…and confusion. Hadn’t she asked for more closeness? Why did she keep saying she needed space?
Negotiating Space in Tight Quarters
I remember, a long, long…long time ago, when I lived in a dorm with a roommate. How did the two of us live together peacefully, even joyfully, in such a small space? And I also remember when my then boyfriend (now husband) and I first moved in together, how tight his small apartment felt to me, even though it was at least quadruple the size of my old dorm room. What was the difference between these two “spaces”—between these two relationships? Why did one feel so roomy while the other felt so tight? What was the dilemma that John and Jan were struggling with? Did the relationship need closeness as Jan had initially requested, or did it need space?
Emotional Space vs. Emotional Connection?
The question of either space OR connection is actually a false dichotomy, a question that makes you feel like you have to pick one or the other. But when it comes to emotional space and emotional connection, the two are utterly intertwined. A meaningful connection is spacious. It feels like you and your spouse can respect each other as individuals even when you see (and feel) each other’s flaws. There is a measure of peace that descends when people can even begin to accept life as it has presented itself to them…flawed, full of wish-I-hadn’t of’s, and infinitely complicated and twisted and curious. This kind of peace leads to more spacious connections over time.
John had been over doing it, trying to force a connection in tight quarters…in a space that was filled up with anger, resentment, hurt, and longing. It was going to require much more patience and time than he’d thought. It was going to require that he grow.
4 Tips for Creating Emotional Space
- Get centered…calm down The way John put it after a few weeks in therapy was that he needed to stop “catastrophizing”—to stop filling any space between them with anxious reassurances and fear. John had to learn to stop taking Jan’s every silence, every angry word, every criticism as the end of the world. Yes, he had a serious issue in his relationship, but his reactions to every problem or bit of tension between them made the issues feel even more unworkable…even though the only unworkable issue was the anxious bouncing off of one another. The actual issues were quite resolvable.
- Connect with your family In addition to his marriage, John had also spent years too busy to spend time with his family (his parents and brothers). His father was more than tough on him growing up, and his mother’s passivity was overwhelmingly frustrating. The space between them was full of judgment and fear. But in his distress with his wife, he reached out to them for help. He was surprised to find his parents’ open arms. He was even more surprised to discover how reconnecting with them was adding to his sense of inner calm and sense of himself. Open-arms isn’t always the response, of course, but it occurs more often than people suspect. As John continued his work, he continued to be surprised by what he learned about himself by talking with his parents and brothers more regularly.
- Learn the difference between a distant connection and spacious emotional connection. Both distance and space are forms of connection. Distance is an intense and emotionally reactive connection. It says GET-AWAY-FROM-ME in such a way that invites the space between to be filled with anger, resentment, and hatred. You may feel lonely, but at the same time you can’t think of much else, and the tension (tense connection) can be cut with a knife. Space, on the other hand, is a calm, quiet connectedness that doesn’t try to force anything. It recognizes the intensity (pain, anger, etc.), respects it, but isn’t controlled by it. Space is often about a clear decision to wait until things are calmer to delve into important topics. Space can handle tough emotions without thinking the end of the world is coming, while distancing is an automatic reaction to move away from pain. Space builds a bridge while distance creates a deeper chasm.
- Have a look at the work of Murray Bowen For those of you who are real nerds about this kind of thing, have a look at Bowen Theory if you haven’t already. John learned to use the theory to make more accurate and neutral observations of his marriage, his parents, and himself. He learned to create spacious connections with his mother in particular. Instead of automatically reacting to her passivity he learned to be curious about her. This translated to his marriage slowly but surely over the course of a couple of years.
Space in a relationship isn’t full of anything except peace…which leads to a feeling of fullness. While distance is tense or vacant, space is relaxed. Space creates an atmosphere where people can share themselves and where they can receive and give generously.
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