Wherever the phrase came from, once it was out there, it likely fueled its own acceleration. “Language gives you tools,” says Kiesling, “and tools often make you do things in particular ways that you wouldn’t otherwise do.” Once needing some space was a commonly understood term, it stands to reason that a person wanting some time away from her partner, or to put the brakes on a relationship, would likely ask for “space” rather than finding another way to convey her meaning.
But “space” is a vague thing to need, and that lack of clarity can be frustrating for the person who is being asked to give it. The phrase is so common now as to be cliché, and yet there are still seemingly endless Reddit threads, Quora questions, and Yahoo Answers posts from worried lovers all beseeching: “When my partner asks for ‘space,’ what does he really mean?”
According to William Bumberry, a couples’ therapist in St. Louis who works with the Gottman Institute, a person who says she needs space in a relationship is typically saying one of two things: Either she wants space from her partner, which Bumberry says is often “a step toward the dissolution of a relationship,” or she wants space for herself, to reflect on her own needs and desires, or on what is and isn’t working in the relationship. “In my experience,” Bumberry says, the people who ask for space for themselves tend to “at least come back and really give the relationship a good effort.”
Those are two very different messages, with two very different potential outcomes. “Space” could spell doom for a relationship, or it could herald a period of renewal. No wonder the phrase sparks such anxiety.
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Interestingly, according to Bumberry, the concept of needing space is particularly stressful for heterosexual couples. For gay and lesbian couples, he says, “there seems to be less panic over this.” Some research shows that homosexual couples are more upbeat in the face of relationship conflict and experience fewer negative emotions. And, Bumberry adds, “historically in the gay community, it’s been more easily accepted in an intimate relationship that you don’t possess somebody; they have a right to be themselves too.” The history of heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, carries a different message.
For any couple, being clear about just what “needing space” means and doesn’t mean can help partners know where they stand. Bumberry referenced a situation with a couple he works with, in which the woman was staying at her mother’s house. Bumberry asked if she and her husband were separated, and the woman said, “No, we’re just taking some space. Living at my mom’s isn’t about leaving the marriage, it’s about finding myself.” That’s a case where asking for “space” could easily lead to a misunderstanding without her additional clarification.
“To me, when somebody asks for ‘space,’ that’s like the title of an essay,” Bumberry says. “That’s the title—now tell me what that means.”