Dear Dr. Chani,
The current situation is affecting my marriage in a surprising way. I am usually very busy at work all day. I only come home late at night and barely see my family during the week. I am delighted to now be working from home. I get to see my wife and children at breakfast, lunch, and supper. Whenever I take a coffee break, I can spend time with my wife. It is truly a special treat.
That is why I am surprised to find that my wife is reacting very differently. She seems happy to have me join her for meals during the day. But when I try to spend time with her during my coffee breaks, she gets annoyed. I have asked her why she looks upset to see me. She just tells me that she “needs her space.”
Maybe I am overreacting, but I find this very insulting. We have been married for 13 years! Am I so difficult to be around that she needs breathing time away from me? Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that when I have been working hard to make a living for my family, my wife was happy that I was not at home most of the time. I always imagined to myself that she missed me during those long hours, and that she was excited to see me when I returned home. She really did seem excited to see me. Was it all a show? Is she really not that in love with me as I thought?
I am afraid my feelings are going to wreck my marriage. What should I do?
Hoping for a life preserver,
I can understand why this sudden shift of your routine to staying at home all day is taking an emotional toll on you and your wife. Even the best of marriages can be strained by a dramatic disruption to the normal schedule and expectations. You are suffering heart ache from feeling that your wife is not interested in seeing you when you reach out to her during the day. You understand from this that she really does not love you as much as you thought.
I encourage you to take hold of your runaway negative thoughts and allow yourself to consider an alternative explanation for your wife’s behavior. Rest assured that your significant fear about your wife’s lack of feelings for you is probably very far from the truth. Let’s look at the broader picture of a couple’s relationship and the need for personal space.
A couple’s relationship can be visualized by a Venn diagram. This is an image in which there are two overlapping circles. There is an oval-like area where the two circles join and partly cover over each other. This middle area symbolizes the parts of life that a couple shares. For example, a couple may share their time, experiences, physical space, responsibilities to their family, maintenance of their home, hobbies, life goals, thoughts, and dreams.
At the same time, there is a section of each circle that remains separate from the other circle. This signifies each member of the couple’s personal space. This personal space is essential to allow each person to develop and thrive. Here an individual can pursue his unique interests, goals, work, friendships, and hobbies. In this personal area one can also create a relationship with a therapist to gain self-awareness, to reflect, to heal, to improve and to grow. Each person and, therefore, each couple, has different needs for personal vs. shared space.
In the overlapping circles of a couple’s relationship, it is important that the couples have an overlapping area of shared space, but it is equally important that there is an adequate amount of separate area for each circle. When one circle entirely overlaps the other, a person can feel suffocated by the relationship. She can feel emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. In every relationship, it is critical to understand both of your needs for personal space.
One of the warning signals that your partner needs personal space is that she seems to get upset for no reason. She may even start arguments over little things. This can be a conscious or unconscious effort on her part to distance herself from you and get the space that she craves. It can be very confusing and disturbing to be on the receiving end of this behavior if you are not aware of the reason for it.
Fortunately for you, your wife expressed her need very clearly. She told you that she wants more space. That is a wonderful testimony to the strength of your relationship. Your wife feels close enough to you to directly express her need. She trusts you to understand her need, and to support her, especially during this challenging time for those who need personal space. She probably expects you to understand her desire at face value and not to imagine a worse case scenario for why she feels this way.
Since you do feel insulted and concerned, it is important to discuss it with your wife. Although it can be a difficult and emotionally vulnerable conversation, you will emerge stronger because of it. First take an interest in why your wife feels the need for personal space and ask about how you can help meet her need. Now that you are aware that her desire for personal space is normal and healthy, you will hopefully be more open to listening to her and accepting her need without unnecessary worry.
After you understand your wife’s feelings, you can share with her that when she first told you about her need for personal space, you felt hurt and concerned. Since you first listened to your wife and understood her feelings, she is less likely to get defensive and dismissive about causing you to feel insulted. She will probably be more receptive to empathizing with your hurt and assuring you that she truly is excited to see you when you come home from work every day and that her love for you is real.
Wishing you lots of success,
Learn a step-by-step method to discuss sensitive issues in your relationship with my online course: The RELATE Technique™ – Seven Steps to Emotionally Connect Through Conversation.