Q:  How do you manage emotional and physical space in a relationship?

A:  If you're lucky in love, then you've probably found someone with problem-solving abilities and what I call  the "relationship rhythm range" of time alone and time as one that mesh with yours—two things that are necessary to resolve emotional and physical space issues. 

All intimate relationships must navigate the continuum of both together/apart and mine/yours/ours. Many of us may have made great love choices yet haven't come to a happy arrangement.  Here is a guide to help you understand and improve how you and your partner can deal with these on-going responsibilities.

Emotional Space Issues

Time together is space together. When you fall in love, you tend to spend the beginning of your relationship doing many shared activities.  As you ease into the everyday romance of love, you tend to spend less of your time jointly.  For example, the demands of careers, family, interests and social obligations might keep you apart longer than you wanted or expected.  What do you do if one of you is unhappy with these "relationship rhythms?"  Try these steps.

  1. Hold up an imaginary mirror and imagine you are looking into it.  Now think first about how you would like your partner to speak to you.  What tone would you like, for example?  
  2. Be ready to use what I call the "Ask and Tell" technique.  If you tell your partner what's bothering you, as well as ask when you sense something is wrong with him or her, then you'll shorten the length of your unhappiness time.  Now tell or ask your partner about the issue-and be sure to use the kind of words and tone you imagined in step one.
  3. Give a number.  Signal your partner the degree of seriousness of your discontent by supplying a number from one to ten, with ten the highest.
  4. Describe your feelings with adjectives about only yourself.  For example, you might say, "I feel lonely (left out, bored, disconnected, resentful, jealous, forgotten, taken for granted, etc.)" 
  5. Take an "educated guess" as to why you feel this way. Dig back into your family life when you were a child.  What were your "hot buttons?" You might find, for instance, that you are not so comfortable spending lots of time together with your partner because the turmoil in your early family life made you feel like hiding out in your bedroom. Retreating became what I call your "emotional default drive."
  6. Or, perhaps old problems from a previous relationship-gone-wrong are getting  activated.  You might discover that you hate staying home on weekend nights ever since your mom and dad always fought about not going out.
  7. Turn that imaginary mirror so it faces your partner.  Imagine what your partner would say are the reasons for the two of you being too much apart or together lately.  Jot down some ideas from his or her point of view.  Think about your partner's "hot buttons" and "emotional default drives." Talk out loud to your partner what you think is his or her explanation.  Pretend you are actually your partner speaking. 

For example, you might say: "I've been very pre-occupied lately with work. I'm just under a lot of stress and I didn't want to bother you. At night I'm soexhausted and feel so shaky about the situation that I just don't feel like making love." Or, "I know I've been really upset about my mom's illness and that I've talked out the same ideas with you over and over. You probably feel burned out with it.; Thank you for listening. Tell me what's going on with you."

  1. Ask your partner to take your viewpoint and speak as though he or she were you.
  2. Now see what solutions you two can design.  You might plan a "date" night together.  Or, you might each want to take a "girls/boys night out."
  3. Sit down with a calendar and chart upcoming events, holidays, obligations and stress points.  Talk out what's on the schedule for the next one or two months.  Mark with the letter "T" activities that can be done together.  Mark with the letter "A" those that can or need to be done alone.  Step back and see what you're your "relationship rhythm range" looks like. Make changes that are mutually satisfying.
  4. Repeat the above steps as often as necessary.

Physical Space Issues

The use of physical space in your home often plays out as emotional space.  For instance, if you like to spend time in your garage building things, in the extra bedroom drawing or in your bedroom watching your favorite television show, then you are simultaneously enacting an emotional space issue of alone time.  Similarly, if you've set up your living space so that there are no private places for each of you to use, then you've overlooked the importance of creating emotional alone time.

Most of us can't add rooms or give away good furniture to accommodate everyone's physical space needs, but you can get creative in how you use your existing space. Here are some tips.

  1. You don't have to use a room for its intended purpose.  Living rooms and big dining tables are often rarely used.
  2. Each partner makes a list of the top physical spaces he or she needs.  Do you need an exercise area?  A study?  A place to practice your guitar?  Throw pots?  Now tell your partner what you need.
  3. Each partner now makes a list of where in your home you could "squeeze in" some room for your activity.  Typical spaces are in bedrooms, guest rooms, basements, garages or living and dining rooms.
  4. Now make a list for your partner of where else you think he or she might "squeeze in" some room.  Compare your lists.
  5. On a scale of one to ten, with ten the highest, tell your partner how important this physical space is to you.
  6. Now make a list of what you see are the emotional obstacles to these "squeezes" and discuss them, including tentative solutions. Perhaps, for example, you are a perfectionist and you don't want a messy dining room table with your partner's work all strewn on it.  One solution is to buy a decorative screen to hide the table.  Or, maybe a treadmill in your bedroom drives you nuts.  How flexible can you be in having it there?  Can you put Grandma's favorite rocking chair somewhere else?  Can you both "sacrifice" to make each of you happier?  Ask yourself why you are being so rigid or emotional.
  7. Repeat steps 6-8 above where you take your partner's viewpoint in explaining why this space is so important.  Again, see what solutions you brainstorm together.
  8. Finally, remember, healthy couples are flexible, creative problem-solvers who work to balance the needs of both.

Dr. LeslieBeth (LB) Wish is a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, nationally recognized for her work with women's relationship and career issues. She is currently doing research for her next book Strong Women and Love, geared toward women who are smart about their work and careers but not necessarily about love. She welcomes participants in her research on her website www.lovevictory.com. Her expert advice is frequently quoted in many major newspapers, magazines and websites such as The Washington Post, USA Today, Women's Health, US Weekly, More, VivMag, Better Homes and Gardens, Woman's Day, and For the Bride.

She earned her Ed.D. in Adult Development Psychology from the University of Massachusetts and did three years of post-graduate training in marriage and family with the internationally esteemed Dr. Murray Bowen. For more information about Dr. Wish and her works, visit her website at www.lovevictory.com