Three words that have always struck fear into my heart? I need space. Along with ‘it’s not you, it’s me’, this is the phrase that is always trotted out just before a major dumping. Or an attempt to sugar-coat the awful truth of, ‘I’m just not that into you’.
When I heard those words in the death throes of my own marriage I couldn’t see them as anything but an exit strategy.
I thought ‘I need space’ was code for ‘I want to leave and pursue other interests’. Which is precisely what it was. Because who needs space from someone they love?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those ‘couple-y’ people who finish each other’s sentences or need the other’s approval to buy clothes or decide whether they can accept an invitation to Aunt Joan’s turkey supper.
But neither am I someone who, when in a relationship, says, ‘Crack on, have fun, live by yourself, do what you like and we’ll see where we are in six months.’
Perhaps it’s because I’m an only child, but I have never wanted space. I sometimes used to lock myself in the bathroom when the kids were young just to snatch a breather from the madness that was Igglepiggle, pear purée and worming medicine, but generally I’m happiest when I’m in company. In fact, my university friends nicknamed me the draft excluder because on the rare occasions when I was home alone, I would be waiting at the door for everyone to return with tales of their exploits.
But I’ve learnt some lessons in the past few years and one of them is that we are all different. My daughter tells me she needs alone time to ‘recharge’ her ‘social battery’ (she also tells me I see everything through a heteronormative lens and that I’m so cringey I make her teeth hurt, but that’s teenagers for you) and I can see that this is true for her.
I’m starting to see that for some people a requirement for space isn’t necessarily a brush-off but a genuine need for alone time.
In my new relationship I have space: we live in separate houses and we both have children who need our time and attention. But we also have space that we choose to keep: our own friends that we like being with; exercise we like to do; work we are passionate about. So I’ve revised my opinion on space.
My divorce forced me to deal with being alone. A terrifying prospect, but once I experienced it I realised it wasn’t actually that bad. In fact, I even now actively enjoy some aspects.
Living alone – well, when I say alone, I have two teenagers, my mother in the annexe, an anxiously attached dog and a belligerent guinea pig, but living without a partner-in-residence– means I get to have a gazillion fairy lights twinkling in the living room and sleep like a starfish. Sometimes I eat cereal for dinner and wear joggers that are super comfy but give me a bum so big it creates its own gravitational pull. And I can watch trash TV like Selling Sunset without any judgment.
The greatest revelation, though, is that all this space makes my relationship better. Genuinely.
There is huge pressure from other people asking, ‘What’s next?’ As if my boyfriend and I can’t be serious if we’re not raiding through the traditional commitment milestones. I remember in my 20s– as soon as I moved in with my now ex-husband – I started fielding endless questions about when I was going to get married. The minute we were back from honeymoon, it was, ‘When are you having babies?’ Once I’d had a baby, the ‘Will you have another one?’ queries began.
I may be in my 40s but I still get similar enquiries now that I have a new partner. Why do people do this – is it simply from a desire to see you happy and settled, or do they get a kick out of trying to sow the seeds of doubt in your mind? The truth is, I’m happy with our ‘together but apart’ arrangement. It means we don’t get stuck in the roles that neither of us really wants– short-order chef, designated driver, bin man. Plus, we actively look forward to seeing each other. Eagerly anticipate sleepovers.
So yes, my friends, I’m saying it… give me space. Just not too much of it.