Written by Alysha Jeney, MA, LMFT Owner of Modern Love Counseling and Co-Founder of The Modern Love Box
If you have found yourself disheartened with the question, “Why does my partner need space when we argue?” this article may be just what you need in order to build more understanding. Most couples find themselves at times in an repeated conflictual cycle that gets easily activated and is often challenging to repair. Regardless of what you’re arguing about, one person seems to always want space, while the other is desperate to talk things out immediately. This can be frustrating and painful for both parties, as the build up of vulnerable insecurities and resentment can start to ruin the emotional safety in the relationship.
A common complaint in couples therapy is this exact issue. “My partner always walks away from me and we inevitably never solve anything.” or “My partner can’t seem to respect me when I say over and over again to leave me alone… I need space. I feel pushed until I explode.” The person desiring immediate resolve often feels abandoned, anxious and betrayed; while the person desiring space often feels violated, controlled and is terrified of saying the wrong thing. Unfortunately, both parties don’t express themselves in ways the other person can truly hear, so they continue this vicious cycle of misunderstanding for months or even years. This issue is often the catalyst that brings couples into therapy… or eventually separates them.
If you’re in a relationship, then you understand that this cycle feels really defeating if you can’t find mutual validation and repair. After the hundredth time of getting stuck in this cycle, the two of you are probably questioning the relationship and may even become shells of yourselves. As an attachment based therapist, I want to assure you that this cycle comes up in every relationship I have ever worked with and/or heard about in my personal life. This is because we are human and we all have a deep seeded fear of abandonment or rejection in one form or another. On some basic level we may have felt these ways growing up or in a past relationship(s), and this can make our fears even harder to cope with in our current partnership when we can’t seem to get on the same team. Often our innate reactions to perceived threats of rejection, ridicule and/or abandonment come from deep attachment wounds of past experiences that we may not even be aware we have or know how they are correlated.
No human is perfect and regardless of how loving your relationship is, or how much trust and respect you have for each other, sometimes your innate fight or flight response can be triggering for your partner; thus causing the cycle. My husband and I also have a cycle (I call it a “dance”) and I express to my clients that it is important to normalize it, as well as set realistic goals on how to “solve” it together. Instead of looking at your disconnect through the lens of blame, victimhood and/or righteousness, try looking at it as conflicting biological responses to the threat of losing the relationship. When you need repair right away, maybe it’s because you were abandoned by a parent or ex-partner and when you perceive your current partner has had enough, you instinctually panic. It may be irrational, but this is why we have to be gentle with ourselves. We are wired to automatically respond to perceived threats to keep us alive. Most likely your partner just happens to have a differing defense mechanism (freeze or flight) that has kept them “safe.” If we never get to the level of understanding why we respond the way that we respond, we may end up subconsciously sabotaging our relationship and repeating trauma from our past.
Although this “dance” isn’t fun and can cause a lot of heartbreak, it’s something worth exploring individually, as well as together, for ultimate growth and security building in the relationship.
When more seasoned couples say “relationships are hard work,” they are referring to learning how to establish a balance that neutralizes this cycle. The “work” is learning to recognize the cycle, understand yourself and your partner’s reactions and express your needs vulnerably, to truly be able to see each other’s perspectives and find healing.
Ideally, you would both learn the tools to effectively avoid the cycle altogether, but because this cycle won’t just vanish, you can learn the tools to repair the hurts and misunderstandings effectively so that issues don’t continue to repeat over and over. Sometimes this is only possible with a trained professional.
If your partner’s reaction is to shut down in moments of anxious conflict, I can see how this would feel rejecting and why you might fear abandonment. Especially if they get angry, stop talking altogether, or worse… physically leave. Instead of continuing to torture yourself with the question, “Why does my partner need space?” please read below the possible reasons to hopefully build more understanding of their innate defense mechanism.
Why Does My Partner Need Space? 5 Possible Reasons
- They were criticized and/or rejected in their past from parents/caregivers and/or friends/ex partners. They may have gotten the message that what they have to say isn’t important or valid. They may have gotten the message that they were flawed in some profound way and thus doesn’t feel good enough.
- They feel triggered by conflict. This may have to do with growing up with a lot of conflict with parents and/or siblings. This may also have to do with the opposite; they grew up without any conflict and feel very threatened by it. Either way, they struggle with easing their anxiety about confrontation and conflict.
- They feel intimidated. Think of your partner like a beautiful clam that holds a precious pearl. When in moments of fear, the clam innately shuts itself off in an attempt to protect itself. Evolutionarily their shell is hard and cold, in an attempt to exhaust intruders and protect their vulnerable squishy insides. When closed, the clam feels safe. When open, even half way, the calm feels vulnerable. They are sensitive to predators and often assume they are in the hands of a giant attempting to pry open their shell forcefully with a knife. Eventually, their reaction may be to surrender defeatedly or grip tighter and tighter with a bite.
- They are slower processors and under stressful situations, need more time to process their thoughts and feelings. You may argue well. You may articulate every feeling and thought you have. They don’t operate like that. Most likely, they feel intimated by your quickness and openness to feelings that they want to make sure they understand themselves before expressing the “wrong” thing. When pushed to communicate, they probably end up saying the “wrong” thing, thus making it harder for them to feel confident in trying to do it again. They may experience pressure from you to know how they feel, thus making it easier to compartmentalize and shut it down completely.
- They don’t understand the argument/conflict. Sometimes, it is as simple as not understanding what the argument is about or agreeing that the argument is worth actually “arguing” about. Their attempt to shut down is an attempt to stop the argument from escalating. (Unfortunately, they don’t realize that feels like abandonment or dismissive to you).
If one of those reasons may be the cause of your partner’s reaction to flee situations or to shut down, hopefully you can understand with more compassion that they are not actively trying to hurt you. They most likely are not actively trying to torture you by withholding their feelings and thoughts. They aren’t attempting to make you feel abandoned or dismissed. The most advised next step is to seek couples counseling before this issue causes severe harm to your self esteem and relationship’s health.