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“I need some space.”
These four words can send your heart racing. Did you do something wrong? Is it something you said? Are you about to break up?
But knowing how to give someone space is a normal part of a healthy relationship. According to a recent slew of surveys, 10 percent of adults in the U.S., Canada, Western Europe, New Zealand, and Australia “live apart together.”
But what about other types of relationships? It turns out that sometimes we need space from friends, family, and, yes, coworkers. Weirdly, we rarely tell coworkers and friends we need some space — at least not directly.
Yet if there are long-term partners who choose not to live together, it makes sense that we can keep important relationships and ask for space. We can learn from these examples of keeping their distance to maintain autonomy while valuing their partners.
The core principle is the same: everyone needs space sometimes. And some of us need more space than others.
These are all important kinds of self-care that can help your relationship in the long run.
Now you have to figure out how to give someone space healthily. This can be tricky and requires lots of communication, but these conversations are necessary and will benefit you both in the long run.
Why is space important?
Personal space goes beyond romantic relationships. You might feel agitated after spending too much time with a friend, coworkers, or family. Sometimes distance is necessary when someone feels like “too much.” And that may have nothing to do with them — your social battery might be at 0%.
When you or a friend communicate a need for space, it’s not bad. It just means you need time to recoup to be a better friend to them. And if they refuse to leave you alone, they might have their own issues to work through. Sometimes low self-esteem, lack of control in life, or anxiety is at the heart of clinginess.
What “space” actually means
If someone asks you for space, they don’t love you. We know anxiety might try to convince you of that, but it’s not true. They just need time to indulge in other things that make them happy or recharge.
When you take a step back, you give them the gift of:
- Control over themselves
- Freedom for self-care
- A stronger sense of self
- Free time
- Improved well-being
And, most of all, you give them trust. You trust that they care about you and will be there when you need them — even if they need space.
How to give someone space and time
Here’s how to give someone space without losing them:
1. Ask how much time they need
Knowing there’s a time limit can help you relax if you’re nervous. You won’t have to be apart forever. Do they just need an evening to recuperate, or do they need a few days to get their stress under control?
This is also a great way to validate their feelings and request. It’s difficult to muster up the courage to set a boundary. When you ask how much time they need, you’re telling them it’s okay.
2. Find out what “space” looks like
“Space” can mean a lot of things. Maybe they need an evening per week to watch Netflix on their own, travel for a week, or go out with friends more often.
They may also be referring to “emotional space.” For example, if you have a habit of trying to fix their problems, they might need you to let them figure it out.
3. Don’t ask for an explanation
You might feel hurt or rejected. But asking why they need alone time will make things worse. If they already feel like they need space, this will only make them feel more smothered.
They may explain themselves without you asking. In this case, listen actively and without judgment. Otherwise, don’t press the subject. You aren’t entitled to their reasoning.
4. Thank them for communicating their needs
Gratitude shows them that you support their needs, personal goals, and interests.
5. Honor their request
Once you commit to giving space, don’t go back on your promise. Assure them that your relationship will be fine, even if you take time away from it.
6. Encourage them to do their favorite things
It might have been a while since they asked for space. Encourage them to get back to some of the things they love. This will help them feel like they’re free to pursue their goals.
7. Avoid constant texting
Smartphones, social media, and messaging apps make it easy to communicate, even when you’re not in the same room. Think about how much you’ve initiated contact lately. If it’s too often, it might be time to stop texting so much. Let them come to you when they’re ready.
8. Do your own thing
Sometimes, if you get too involved in your relationship, you neglect your own interests. What did you do for fun before you met this person? Maybe some space will reacquaint you with old hobbies.
9. Feel what you need to feel
You might be surprised or hurt that they’re asking for space. Take some time to process those emotions. Writing in a journal or meditating can help you let go of that negative energy and refrain from taking it personally.
10. Do something fun before disconnecting
This is a tip on how to give space without being distant: Do one of your favorite activities together before taking time apart. Spending time will give you something fun to remember until you see each other next.
Are you invading someone’s space?
Someone in your life might need breathing space but is afraid to tell you about it.
And some people are afraid of giving space at all. This usually happens due to a fear of abandonment. This person may have previously set boundaries, only to experience a negative consequence.
You might even share that fear. If you have an anxious attachment style, you probably cling to people who are close to you. If that’s the case, you might unconsciously take up too much space.
It’s crucial to get to the root of your fears to improve your mental health and be a better friend.
Here are signs you might be contributing to an unhealthy or toxic relationship:
- They only like what you like. This is a sign they might not have the time or energy to pursue their own interests.
- They do the bare minimum in conversation. When you talk to them, they never offer opinions of their own. They also give short answers.
- They have closed body language. If you’re talking to them and their arms or legs are crossed, it indicates not being receptive to your presence.
- They seem codependent on you. Are they constantly checking in? Always asking for your approval? You might be too deep into their lives.
- They change their schedule. To avoid confrontation and the risk of hurting you, they must change their schedule to take time out of the day for themselves.
- They hide where they’re going. They might not feel you would give them this space willingly.
If you think you might be taking too much space, ask them about it. When you initiate the conversation, you communicate that it’s okay for them to set boundaries and you care enough about this person to respect them.
How to ask for space
Are you the one asking for space? This can be a difficult and vulnerable experience. Here are some tips to help you set boundaries:
1. Explain what space looks like to you
This will prevent the other person from jumping to conclusions about what you want. And, whether you need a little space or a lot, your needs are valid. Just communicate them clearly. Your partner, friends, or family can’t give you something you aren’t asking for.
2. Use “I” statements
For example, “I need space because I need time to take care of myself.” This reassures the person that it’s not about them — it’s about meeting your own needs.
3. Come to an agreement
It’s important to have a conversation about what you both need and work out what the “ideal” is for you both. It’s less about having everything you hoped for and more about being on the same page.
4. Use an individuals-first approach
You were whole people before you entered each other’s lives. As much as you care for each other, you shouldn’t blend into the same person. Space is a way to avoid this outcome.
How to focus on yourself
Whether you’re asking for space or being asked, it might have been a while since you had time to yourself. Here are some tips to focus on own life:
- Spend time doing things you love
- Practice self-compassion
- Create a self-care plan
- Clarify and pursue your goals
- Learn more about yourself
- Take time for physical exercise
- Spend time with loved ones, friends, and family
It’s important to be comfortable being alone.
How to give someone space when you don’t want to
It might be scary, but giving your partner space is important for you and your relationship. Here are some steps to overcome your fears about giving someone space:
- Be honest with yourself. It’s okay to feel the way you do. But you’ll have to find out why temporarily losing someone’s attention causes so much pain.
- Let go. Once you understand the root of your feelings, learn to reframe them. Remember that past experiences don’t dictate your present.
- Forgive yourself. You might feel shame over these feelings. Don’t! This kind of self-work is difficult, and you’re slowly making improvements. Forgive yourself so you can make room for more improvement in your life.
If the fear of abandonment is too extreme, consider seeking professional help. Therapists can help you identify and overcome your fears.
Becoming a better partner
Giving someone space is an act of love and compassion. It shows that you trust and value them for who they are. Giving them space will help them get reacquainted with themselves and deepen your bond.
If you have trouble giving space, you might have your own unresolved issues. Learning how to give someone space is an opportunity for self-improvement.
BetterUp can help you along the way. We’ll offer guidance as you discover more about yourself. Using Inner Work® techniques, you can make the changes need to live a better life.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.