Panic when space is requested
April 30, 2007 11:46 AM   Subscribe

How do you deal with the anxiety when your SO needs "some space".

She's asking for at least a week of no contact. .

We don't live together and have very different responsibilities. I'm a professional employed by a corporation with no managerial responsibilities and few deadlines to deal with. She on the other hand manages a doctor's office and is a single mother to an 8 and a 12 year old boy. I believe she needs the break because, rather than easing some of her stress, I have been adding to it. She tells me about something going on in her life and rather than just listening I immediately start discussing ways to improve the situation. She's tried to tell me that isn't what she's looking for but I often miss the message and just continue on. This something I became aware of after receiving the request for some space and is something I know I need to work on.

My problem is I am having a good deal of anxiety over the situation and having a great deal of difficulty not contacting her. Over the last couple of days there have been two or three txts and a short phone call. If I can give her the space she is looking for I think the relationship has a real chance.

My brain tells me the only solution is to give her the space she is asking for but my heart wants to run toward her and discuss the situation. I know that would be smothering and an almost certain guarantee that the relationship will fail.

What I'm looking for is advice on how to deal with my abandonment anxiety. I have had some therapy related to this and these feelings only come up with romantic relationships. I'm taking a little antivan and I'm in my mid-forties if that matters.
posted by TurdBlossom to Human Relations (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Listen to your head, not your heart. Remind yourself of what will happen if you force yourself on her.

Go out during the day, or maybe at night too, and do something to take your mind off her a bit.

Why do these feelings only come up with romantic relationships?
posted by Solomon at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2007

Try keeping yourself occupied during the week. May I suggest picking a new hobby, something simple like knitting, and learning that during the "space time". Or try going for hikes, or buying a cookbook and trying a heap of new recipes or fixing a bike/car/something, laying out a new garden? Anything except contacting her. It's hard to just cut contact with someone with whom who have daily contact (I know, believe me I know) but I've found that keeping busy helps a lot.
posted by LunaticFringe at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2007

Just try to distract yourself - a good book can last you a week while you're on "the break." Rent a few movies, go out to dinner with other friends, work some overtime... I think the more you think about it the more likely you are to call her even though you swore you wouldn't, etc.
You might find that you get something out of a week apart, as well. If she knows that you're this dependent on her and you can't even give her a week of space, the relationship is probably in trouble. Just appreciate spending some alone time with yourself.

Also, side note: One of the biggest differences between men and women, I've read, is that when women complain about work, or whatever, they just want to bitch and complain. They don't really want solutions. But that's what men do - they want to fix things and make them better. When we (women) just want to bitch we need to stick to our female friends and leave men out of it until we're ready for a pro-active solution. Just another mind-bending puzzle about "Mars" and "Venus".... remember that the next time she just wants you to listen!
posted by slyboots421 at 11:55 AM on April 30, 2007

Seems she wants you to sit in a corner and think about your bigger problem, which is this:

I immediately start discussing ways to improve the situation.

This is not what most women want. I don't necessarily agree with her means of getting you to understand that, but you learning to listen and offer compassion can only be a good thing. Maybe take your thoughts in that direction and don't give her a reason to do this again.
posted by spicynuts at 11:56 AM on April 30, 2007

Get immersed in some project you've been putting off. Fixing up that old car, writing that novel, biking all the local trails. Whatever. Put it in perspective - it's only a week.

Remember that the more confident and independent you are, the more attracted she will be to you. This is just a side bonus, though. The more confident and independent you become, the less abandonment anxiety you will have. Guaranteed. *from personal experience*
posted by desjardins at 12:10 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks all. You're telling me things I know in my head but it's really helping to see the opinions of others. Once this thread has run it's course I'm printing it out and will read it each time I'm tempted to send that text or make that call.

I'm not sure why relationship problems have this effect on me. I'm a stable, confident (probably overly so) person in other relationships even when things go bad. When things like this happen in romantic relationships I'm suddenly 8 years old and lost at the mall. Must be a "mommy" thing.
posted by TurdBlossom at 12:11 PM on April 30, 2007

Discuss the situation with yourself, so to speak - set yourself up a journal (something anonymous on the internets or an actual handwritten journal) and write through how you are feeling.

Try to think of this as a good opportunity for you. You get to show her that you respect her wishes and that you are willing to work with her. You also get to have a week to sort through these feelings on your own, without risking overwhelming her.
posted by KAS at 12:14 PM on April 30, 2007

You get to show her that you respect her wishes and that you are willing to work with her.

...which is probably good practice, and a good approach, for dealing with the larger problem. When people continually try to solve my problems for me, I feel like that person thinks I'm a total idiot who has no problem-solving abilities of my own, and must have absolutely no respect for my intelligence or resourcefulness.

If your SO is the same, and feels like you're not respecting her through your behavior, then it is super, super important that you take this week to show her that you *do* respect her wishes and her approach to solving her problems.

In terms of abandonment anxiety, what tends to work best for me is what others have recommended, making sure I've got enough going on in my life that I'm not spending all my time staring at the phone. It's ok if the motivation to go out and do something is coming from the anxiety rather than a true wish to do something -- I might leave the house without my cell phone *just* to avoid waiting for a call, not because I actually want to leave the house. But I think it's also important to figure out (or develop) hobbies that are meaningful to you.

As a bonus, having a fuller life will hopefully keep you from trying to micro-manage hers.
posted by occhiblu at 12:22 PM on April 30, 2007

Might I recommend dancing as a new hobby that you can try this week? Dance classes get you out and in a group of people and even get you some exercise, which helps you sleep, which means you've got less time for flipping out.

Also finding a 24 hour diner or whatever, where you can go when you wake up at 3 AM and start fretting.

And fixing the main problem (since if you have to you can get through a week by tapping a zapper to your phone and gritting your teeth)... Besides wanting to get some sympathy when she lets off steam, it probably makes her feel like you think she doesn't know what she's doing when you start throwing out suggestions right away. Before you start talking remind yourself that she's competent (probably seriously so, she sounds like she handles a lot every day) and remember that anything you can think of within two seconds of hearing the problem, she's already thought of. Then focus on giving her the sympathy that she obviously wants. (Her: I hate Bob, I can't believe that he did xyz at work today. You: Wow, Bob sounds like a total jerk!)

(P.S. It is really not a male-v-female thing, it's just slightly more common to hear about guys wanting to Fix Things and women wanting to Bitch. This thread deals with it slightly and I'm sure there are other examples.)

..on preview, occhiblu said it better, and faster, too. :/
posted by anaelith at 12:33 PM on April 30, 2007

When things like this happen in romantic relationships I'm suddenly 8 years old and lost at the mall.

It would be well worth your time and energy to figure out where this feeling comes from. My therapist made the observation that when people don't get the validation they seek from one or both parents, they tend to seek it twice as ardently from romantic partners. Upon realizing this, it freed me from having to seek that validation, because there is not enough in the world to replace what I missed as a kid. (Therefore, if it doesn't exist, why torture myself looking for it?)
posted by desjardins at 12:57 PM on April 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

To touch on what desjardins said, I'd suggest getting a journal and exploring why you feel that way. Not that you should get all introspetctive and melancholy, but when you feel tempted to write or text her, check and see if it's because you truly miss her or because you feel lost in the mall. Use this week to learn something about yourself.

Best wishes.
posted by luminous phenomena at 1:06 PM on April 30, 2007

Echoing above, stay away for the requested amount of time and, if possible, wait till she contacts you. I've been there and I followed what your heart is telling you to do, and I wound up wrecking the friendship for a solid 6 months, at which point she texted me and said she wanted to talk.
posted by sjuhawk31 at 1:39 PM on April 30, 2007

Thanks again all. I think desjardins and luminous hit the nail on the head regarding a lack of validation. I've apparently worked through the problem regarding family, co-workers, friends and strangers but can't get a handle on it when I'm in a romantic relationship and the SO needs space. Like I said I'm very confident in other settings and need very little validation there. When she pushed back it was like the floor dropped out from under me. I do truly miss her and don't want to lose the relationship but the panicked/anxious reaction comes from the 8 year old lost at the mall.

I think those mentioning that she may feel I thinks she is incompetent when I immediately start looking at solving her problems also have a point. The sad fact is that is so far from the truth, I think she is incredibly competent and wish I was better at communicating that fact to her rather than leading her to feel I don't think she can take care of herself. I need to learn to validate the fact she is competent rather than to seem to question her competence.

(Would emailing her this thread be a very bad idea. I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that but I'd like your input.)
posted by TurdBlossom at 1:47 PM on April 30, 2007

I feel for ya. "I need some space" has been the death knell of many relationships. I'd be worried too as it so often is a non-confrontational attempt to get out of a relationship.

Good luck to you.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 2:09 PM on April 30, 2007

Would emailing her this thread be a very bad idea

Yes. Nothing can show her that you respect her and her need for space more than giving her space.
posted by AV at 2:15 PM on April 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

Would emailing her this thread be a very bad idea. I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that but I'd like your input.

I'd say yes. Bad idea. She asked for no contact and I'd give her that. You seem like a really nice guy who wants to do the right thing. Even better, it sounds like you know what the right thing is (what she asked for). Other posters have given you some good tools for helping you do that. I know it isn't easy (i definitely have some of the same heart vs. head reactions where heart sometime wins out to my own detriment), but I think this is a good opportunity to really try to hold the line.
posted by krudiger at 2:21 PM on April 30, 2007

I just thought emailing it to her might help her see that I do understand. Thanks for setting me straight. (Man, this stuff just turns me into a pitiable pot of desperate goo. I keep telling myself to grow up.)
posted by TurdBlossom at 2:22 PM on April 30, 2007

Me? I would tell her she can have all the space she wants and to give a call down the road. And then go out and have fun, meet some women, date, discover that space gives not just buffalo but you too a large place in which to roam and graze.
posted by Postroad at 2:28 PM on April 30, 2007

To second to what sjuhawk31 said, try to let her make the first contact. She probably will, and you'll know she's in a good head space to talk when she does.

And when she does contact you, you want the tone of your first response to come off more like "I get it now, sorry it took me so long to hear what you were telling me you need" than "I've been so desperate to hear from you, that I've spent my entire week pining for you, asking MetaFilter about you, and eating bon bons."

Both may be true, but it's hard to have respect and pity for someone at the same time.
posted by nadise at 2:45 PM on April 30, 2007

Prepare yourself mentally for a break up. I's clearly on the table right now. The good new is that you'll actually feel relieved afterwards, because you won't have to spend all this time worrying about the relationship - which should be a hint to you right now, because this is now how a relationship should go.

As for dealing with anxiety abandonment, I think there's hope for you yet. You write that "these feelings only come up with romantic relationships". Which reads (to me at least) that they don't come up between relationships. Which means that you have successfully moved on in the past. Keep that thought. The knowledge that you will be okay, and will be able to successfully live your life without your SO is psychologically healthy. And it's something you need to keep in mind when you enter into every relationship.

In the short term, my advice is do not contact her. At all. No messages, no phone calls, no emails. Do not show her this thread. I know it's hard to take your mind off it, so find something that absorbs your interest. People have suggested movies and books, I would add pursuing hobbies or sports. Exercise and making yourself tired through exertion will help you sleep.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:51 PM on April 30, 2007

I'm afraid breakup is a distinct possibility. She's giving it a test-run right now.

As the wise redneck Jeff Foxworthy said, "'I need some space' is half a sentence. The other half is 'without you in it.'"
posted by CwgrlUp at 3:35 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Dealing with her request for some space: Be with yourself! In any relationship there are things you have to sacrifice in order to accommodate the other person's needs, schedule etc. Do these things and enjoy them. Reconnect with your closest friends and go do something together, ideally involving sports/competition.

Dealing with your anxiety: that's 100% your responsibility (as a sane adult). You may need professional help. It is possible that your anxiety and discomfort att to the stress of her job and caring for an 8 year old and a 12 year old and maje the relationship about taking care of you, too. If you are unable to carry your own psychological load, then you are probably sharing it with whoever's willing to take on some of it.

And lastly, when your significant other (or a close friend) shares their problems with you, they want to be heard and felt. Believe me, a woman who runs a doctor's office and is raising two kids knows everything about practical solutions.

When you listen to your girlfriend, listen for how she feels, and love her in her insecurity and emotional discomfort and vulnerability.

If you offer a practical solution instead of listening to her, then you are basically saying "I am not willing or capable to feel how you feel, I am not listening to you AND I think you are a retard for not being able to figure this out, so here's the obvious solution." A little exagerrated but that's the message you'd be conveying.

If you listen to HER, you are really "there for her."

So, take care of yourself and be there for yourself, so that you can be there for her, too.
posted by andreinla at 4:23 PM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, I can still see a part of you trying to get to her (emailing this thread etc.)

This is the tough part -- she asked for space and you agreed and now you are providing your part of the deal. And you are hitting your own issues and you are getting support from this very thread.

This is where the gold is, my friend, because this is where you are sitting in your discomfort and adapting to it and changing your relationship with it within yourself.

Hopefully you are healing the part of you which is so scared of abandonment. Even if this woman breaks up with you, you'll discover you can survive a break up will have more maturity around this issue (an adult may not be "abandoned", only a child), and co-create a different relationship with your next partner.
posted by andreinla at 4:35 PM on April 30, 2007

I really, truly appreciate all the helpful input. You're telling me all the things my brain tells me and more. The same things I would offer to the poster if this weren't my own question.

I think you've helped me through this evening. Can we do this again about 5 pm central tomorrow?

I'm pretty certain this is a symptom of a lack of validation from an alcoholic mother. I've gone through it in one way or another with every relationship and I've gotten better and better with dealing with it each time. I just can't seem to get it quite under control. You folks have made a big difference, thank you.

I'll add my favorites tomorrow. Any further words of encouragement or advice will be appreciated (other than "Man up, Nancy boy" which is the advice I keep giving myself)
posted by TurdBlossom at 5:20 PM on April 30, 2007

Rule of thumb is that people when they complain and don't directly ask for advice, they just want you to tell them everything is going to be alright
posted by Ironmouth at 7:38 PM on April 30, 2007

The following piece of advice is useful --

but you learning to listen and offer compassion can only be a good thing.

-- if the poster [and everyone else who has decided you're an insensitive-clod] remembers that there are many ways to express empathy and compassion.

Listening to someone's problems and offering solutions is a demonstrating both. [I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you're being helpful in your search for solutions -- and not being condescending] Don't let people tell you that this is wrong.

However, in my experience with my wife, just listening is often all she needs / wants -- especially when her problems don't really have easy solutions...

Sometimes a hug is the best solution you can offer.
posted by akash at 9:16 PM on April 30, 2007

sleeping with someone else worked for me, but then it sort of backfired.
posted by Grod at 10:05 PM on April 30, 2007

we'd been living together for several years, btw. And by backfired I mean I learned, far to late, that she really did love me... live and learn, I guess.
posted by Grod at 10:07 PM on April 30, 2007

I agree with akash that you shouldn't interpret your desire to give advice as a sign of your uncaring condescension. This is a common enough problem--women wanting men to listen, and men wanting to give advice--that unless you wants to view all men as uncaring misogynists, you might say that many men and women simply have different concepts of what it means to be a good listener.

I thus wouldn't blame yourself for having a different idea of what it means to show you care. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to understand what she (or a future woman, if this relationship doesn't last) needs when she is the one in need of support, and adapt your behavior accordingly, just that viewing yourself as a jerk when you meant well isn't necessary.
posted by epugachev at 10:18 PM on April 30, 2007

Just to piggyback on the good advice given up-thread, specifically, "let her call you". That also means not to call her one minute past the end of her "week". If she needs longer, then don't even make her ask for it, let her decide the exact time that she feels comfortable coming back. Just be out there doing your thing, surviving on your own (even when you miss her and wish that you could be with her). When she calls it would be best if you didn't answer it on the first ring.

Good luck with your struggles.
posted by philomathoholic at 12:10 AM on May 1, 2007

I feel for you I really do. I have just got back from a two week holiday (I picked up the tab) with my girlfriend, we took her kids and mine (5 in all). The first week we got back everything was fine, she has alot going on so has upset on and off for a few months. I spent Friday evening babysitting so she could work and then saturday and sunday doing DIY at her house and helping sort out kids etc.

Come Monday I didn't really hear from her at all, on Tuesday she said we had seen alot of each other lately. Next thing I know she doesn't bother texting or even calling. Tells me that me texting her winds her up and that I am insecure. I don't find out she wants some space for four days until today even though I asked her on the weekend and on Tuesday.

This morning we spoke and I said I would let her text or call me and she mentioned maybe taking the kids to the cinema in a couple of days. I am out shopping and happen to see her in the high street, she has obviously seen me already and has hidden in a shop door way with the kids so I don't see her. Then she is in the car park and I see her and she forces a "Hiya" and looks embarassed. I sent her a text saying sorry about bumping into her when she was shopping and that I had already seen and left her alone.

This isn't the first time it has happened its almost like it is every 2-3 months and I don't have a clue what to do.

I just wish I knew what was going on inside her head, she tells me I haven't been dumped but it feels like it is bordering on it. She has all the information in her head and I am just trying to work out the pieces.

Sorry I didn't mean to hijack this thread, first time poster.
posted by Noddy at 6:54 AM on May 5, 2007

If you two can work it out in the short term the long term solution is to try and remember where the other is coming from.

The solution giver needs to remember the other person may just want to vent and share the facts about the day and not immediately start trying to solve the problem.

When the solution giver forgets this the partner needs to keep in mind the solution giver's nature and maybe offer a gentle reminder that she just wants to talk and isn't looking for solutions and to remember that the fact that solution giver is offering solutions doesn't mean he thinks she is incompetent or is criticizing her.
posted by Carbolic at 7:01 AM on May 10, 2007

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