Should You Worry When Your Partner “Needs Some Space?”

December 27, 2020

Personal and relational reasons for taking a break.

“I just need some space.” Hearing these words from a partner can create anxiety, fear, and a sense of dread. But according to research, it shouldn’t. Far from signaling doom and gloom, seeking solitude, at least in short periods of time, can actually help, not harm, your relationship. 

The Sanctity of Solitude

Jerry M. Burger, in a piece entitled “Individual Differences in Preference for Solitude,” notes that for some people, being alone is a desirable, pleasant experience, which does not make them lonely, and may actually be beneficial through stimulating self-reflection.[i] Many of us can relate to this, either personally or with respect to others in our family or social circle, who genuinely enjoy their own company.  Being alone, they do not experience solitary confinement, but comfort. They may, in fact, crave this special time to relax and recharge, after which time they are more receptive and responsive—to you.

Solitude can also be calming and helpful to regulate emotions. Thuy-vy T. Nguyen et al. (2018) examined ways in which solitude impacts affective self-regulation.[ii] The scientists began by acknowledging that some prior research demonstrates that solitude can produce positive experiences when people use it for relaxation, privacy, creative pursuits, self-reflection, and regulation of emotions.   

In their own research, they found that solitude generally deactivates affective experiences, reducing the effects of both positive and negative high-arousal. They found these effects only occurred when people were alone, not with others, and found this effect was present whether or not someone was engaging in activity while alone, such as reading. Perhaps most relevant to relational dynamics, they discovered that solitude can produce relaxation and reduce stress when people actively chose to spend time alone—which could explain the request for “space.” 

Home Alone: Accommodating Aloneliness

Another reason to accommodate (reasonable) requests for time alone is that researchers have determined that some people not only crave time alone, but feel anxious when they do not get enough.  

Robert J. Coplan et al. in a piece entitled “Seeking More Solitude” (2019), introduced the concept of aloneliness, described as negative feelings associated with a perception that a person is not spending sufficient time alone.[iii] Exploring its role emotionally, Coplan et al. found that an affinity for aloneness (distinguished from shyness) was associated with well-being. Specifically, they found that aloneliness mediated the negative link between preferring solitude and well-being, and the positive link between time alone and depression.

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