Confession: I hate giving Joe space.
I want to be close to him. You know that’s why I dated him, and married him. Get in his business, in his face. HI HONEY! I’M HERE!!!
I especially thought when we got married that closeness would be a mark a good marriage, right? We would be soooo close aaalll the time. He would tell me everything at every moment, whenever I asked. Cuddle on the couch every night.
I also loved invading his physical space. Plop next to him and start running my fingers through his hair. Hey handsome as I touch his face. Kiss me!! Isn’t that what he would want? Give him as much physical affection as humanly possible? Instead he would quickly ask, can you please get your hands off my face?
He pulled away when I wanted to come close. He bristled when I invaded his physical space without warning. He didn’t always want to share his feelings or talk to me. And, shocker, he really didn’t like when I told him what to do. What is wrong? Is it me?
This man I married had a basic need that was way more important than physical affection: He needed space.
He can smell it a mile away when I’m trying to control him. Trying to make him do or feel something. He says, “Hey, I need some space.” but I didn’t always get the message. I heard, “Get away from me you awful woman.” How dare he tell me to go away? To which I would stand my ground and close the space in even more. If you’re trying to get rid of me, I won’t go, HA! No space for you.
What did he mean by space and why did he need it?
Maybe space is the wrong word. For my husband, what he needed was autonomy.
This is the autonomy that says, I have control over my own self, my own body, my own feelings. Me denying him that space was a form of control and saying no, you can’t pull away from me, you have to do what I say, you can’t feel that, and basically: You can’t make your own decisions.
I grew to understand that he had an entirely different default than mine. After years and years of living in abusive situations, Joe was never given that healthy sense of autonomy as a child. When I invaded his space, his autonomy, he would feel like he was suffocating. So as I innocently move in on him, physically and emotionally, it triggered those memories and made him want to push me away even more.
By asking for space he was saying: I can’t breathe.
I had to learn that it was rarely personal. It’s wasn’t just me invading his space that bothered him. It was THEM.
They are in my space. They are in my head. The people who wouldn’t leave me alone. That terrifying memory of being out of control as a child, of wishing people would just go away and stop hurting me.
It doesn’t take much- a word, a look, a passing thought– for him to be submerged back in those horrifying situations. The memories were old but the feelings were very much alive. Of suddenly and desperately wanting out but knowing you’re trapped.
And all that while we’re just sitting on the couch.
Most men feel this, whether they have experienced abuse or not- this need for autonomy. I can make my own decisions, I can set the course for my own life. Living through abusive situations only makes that need more pressing. The need to be an individual not under the thumb of someone else’s whims and desires. I have a say in this.
Joe wanted to be close to me.
But he would never come close if it was because I told him he had to. It’s like the love that God wants us to return to him. If He forces us to love him, it’s not real love. It has to be freely given. We couldn’t be close if I my love looked more like force.
But I was trapped in my own stubbornness: NO GIVE SPACE.
It wasn’t until God worked in my heart- when I surrendered to Him- that I was able to let go. Give Joe the space he desperately needed. Relinquish that control. It was surrendering my husband to God and saying God, you can do this better than I can. I retire from having to fix him. That’s when the change happened!
So in that moment and hundreds of moments following, I gave him space. I backed off. This wasn’t about the words I used or how many feet away I was or how many minutes or hours of space he needed. It was a change in my heart.
And it was the most radical change that happened in our marriage. Living in that mutual space-giving paved the way for more vulnerability and more intimacy. Joe felt safe, respected. I felt more loved, secure.
When Joe knows he has that freedom, when he has that space to choose, he chooses me every time. I still forget this a lot. But Joe prefers to love me and give to me when it’s truly his choice to and not forced on him! And honestly that’s the kind of love I want to receive! Win win!
What that change looks like:
Respecting his physical space.
This is not like every minute of our day, to clarify. But there are times where he’s alone- doing his own thing- and I’ve learned he doesn’t want sudden physical affection. So I’ve changed to saying, “Hey can I join you? Mind if I sit next to you?” And then honor his wishes from there.
Respecting his emotional space.
If he says he doesn’t need to talk, then maybe he needs time to process it on his own instead of being pressured. Or if we’re in the middle of a disagreement, it’s offering, “You can talk to me when you’re ready. If you’re not ready to talk that’s okay.” And meaning it. It doesn’t always have to be my way and on my terms.
It’s understanding he has his own emotions and he processes them differently than I do. Instead of needing to control him, it’s choosing to be controlled by the love of God. It’s loving my husband the way he needs to be loved, not the way I want to love him.
A fool vents all his feelings,
But a wise man holds them back. Proverbs 29:11 NKJV
Has your husband or wife asked for space? How can you best honor that request?
Note: My encouragement to offer space is most applicable in every day communication and conflict. If you are in a relationship where the other is asking for the kind of space that is destructive to your family unit, please seek godly counsel or professional help.