communication skills emotional availability intimacy messaging solitude space

Needing space

Marcia had just got back from her fourth date. She called me with a dilemma. “I want to take it slow and keep it interesting, but he keeps asking me to spend the day with him and then stay over. It feels like that’s too relationshippy this early on. But I don’t want him to think I’m not interested. What should I do?”

Damien confessed to me that after sex he often wants to be alone and starts feeling stressed if there is a prolonged time together after. “It doesn’t mean I definitely don’t want to see my date again – I often can’t tell until I’ve had some space. I also don’t like the departure time to be open-ended. I spend my time wondering if I’m outstaying my welcome or that our time together is going to fizzle out rather than leaving wanting more.”

Naseem told me: “I need space on my own early on in a relationship. I need to reflect on each date and work out if anything is making me feel uneasy, whether I’ve found out about the important things like their values, whether I can be myself with them. I don’t want to arrange another date too quickly. Is that wrong?”

Jon feels claustrophobic if his date messages him too much. “I want to save up all the interesting stuff for when we meet. I don’t like the ‘How was your day?’ kind of messages. It takes away all the mystery and excitement of getting to know someone. I don’t want to jump from that stage straight into a relationship. I don’t need to hear from my date every day. But he seems to want to message me all the time. Should I try to adjust to his needs?”

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

We all have different messaging styles.

Sometimes not getting a message for a few days means someone is no longer interested, but for others this is perfectly normal. It’s OK to explain to your date that you are one of those ‘only messaging to arrange the next date’ kind of person. Being able to adjust to each other’s needs is a good test of how likely your relationship is to work. If your date needs a lot of reassurance and feels insecure without constant contact or affirmation, you’ll need to decide if you can handle this. It’s probably not going to change once you’re established in a relationship.

Don’t become dependent on messages from your date.

If you’re the one needing lots of contact, perhaps you need to make sure you have friends and family to talk to so you don’t get dependent on one person. And don’t spend all your time waiting to hear from your date. Keep arranging social activities, sport, evening classes, trips and whatever else you can so you have interesting things to talk about next time and so you keep things in perspective.

Talk about your needs

Establishing a norm early on when dating someone can help to avoid misunderstandings. Some good questions on a first or second date are:

How often do you like to message in the early stages of dating?

How often do you contact your friends and family?

How often do you check your messages and social media?

Do you prefer messaging, phone calls or video chat?

Then you can discuss why you like to message a lot or not very much. Is it because you have a job in which you are quite isolated and therefore need human contact during the day? Is it because you are naturally gregarious and like to chat a lot? Or are you a person who enjoys solitude and is quite self-sufficient?  Is this a good thing for you? Do you find typing hard work? You can learn a lot about someone’s personality and social style from a discussion about messaging.

Photo by Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash

We have contradictory needs

There are numerous paradoxes in our relationship needs. I don’t think we should be afraid to express them. On the one hand, we want the freedom to be spontaneous on a Friday night, to spend a day alone walking along the cliffs, not to have to tidy up or eat at regular times, to imagine moving to another country. On the other, we want someone to snuggle up with, someone who understands us, someone to go on holiday with, someone who’ll be there for us after a bad day. These two sets of needs seem to pull in different directions. We want both freedom and commitment. I think it’s OK to voice that conflict.

Are you relationship-ready?

Sometimes it means we’re not ready for a relationship. (See here for a blog post to help you decide.) Or you may be emotionally unavailable for other reasons. (Find out more here.) But it can just be who we are, and you’ll need to make sure you have some independence at all stages of a relationship. Don’t pretend to be the person you think your date needs. Be yourself.

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Keep things interesting

I told Marcia: “Don’t be afraid to say you’re attracted to him but you want to keep it exciting for as long as possible. Most people would agree that it’s not good to move into a relationship stage until about three months in. Dates of 1-3 hours are best for the first few weeks. You don’t have to move straight into full sexual intimacy. Visit each other’s homes during the day and take it slow. No need to stay the night yet. And definitely don’t leave your toothbrush there!”

Have boundaries

To Damian I suggested that they always agree in advance what time they will part. Arrange another appointment that you have to get to, so you stick to the agreed timings without needing to give a reason for leaving. Boundaries are good ways to make things more meaningful. Needing space after sex is probably something you’ll probably have to compromise on if you get into a relationship, but you could make it a light-hearted thing at the beginning. Try going out for a walk and then coming back, or take a long shower. Build in times of silence when you’re together, especially if you find constant socialising exhausting.

Photo by Jose Chomali on Unsplash

Reflect on your dates

I agreed with Naseem that time to reflect is really important. Make notes after your dates and plan what you need to find out about them next time. It’s easy to feel so happy that things are going well that you forget to find out whether they have a criminal record, say, or to ignore the way they don’t laugh at your jokes. A date can go really well but you may still decide after time that there is no point in pursuing things further.

Less is more

I told Jon his way is healthy. Just because your date has always done things a certain way in the past, it doesn’t mean it’s best for an emerging relationship. Some people become emotionally intimate very quickly, but things often fizzle out because they peaked too early. Holding back is good for lots of reasons. Think of it as a healthy version of “playing hard to get”. You don’t want to lose the sense of mystery too soon – enjoy it while it lasts!

Start as you mean to go on

Being comfortable telling your date you need an evening alone is a good habit to get into from the beginning. Schedule solitude into your diary and don’t feel under pressure to justify that. Establish relationship patterns that are sustainable.

I like this poem by John Hegley, which reassures me that we need solitude to re-fuel for our relationships:

Being is believing

I believe in you.

I believe in you

being close to me.

I believe in you being close to me

intimately.

I believe in you being close to me

intimately, regularly.

I believe in you being close to me

intimately, regularly

just not today

because sometimes

I need to be with myself alone

all the better to be with you

more intimately.

© John Hegley 2019. Reproduced by permission from Peace, Love and Potatoes.

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