Few of us want to hear the words “I need some space” in our relationship. It’s a scary phrase that usually sets us off-balance and leaves us worried that our partner wants to break up. That’s unfortunate because taking space in a relationship can be genuinely healthy and help you to have a happier partnership in the long term.1
One of the reasons it’s so difficult to hear that your partner wants some space in your relationship is that some guys use it as a way to soften a breakup or to avoid having the conversation at all.2 So how can you know what’s going on and how should you reassure yourself?
In this article, I’m going to look at what it means to need (and take) space in your relationship. I’m also going to look in-depth at the signs that he’s using this space to build a better relationship… and the clues that he’s actually trying to break up with you.
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Taking space in a relationship can mean different things to different people. Usually, it means spending a period of time having less contact than you had been having until that point.
For some people, this will mean cutting down on dates and time spent physically together, whilst others will focus on reducing the number of phone calls, texts, and messages.
Having space in your relationship allows you to do several important things:
So what does it mean when your partner asks for space in your relationship, and how is it different from breaking up?
Breaking up is about ending the close connection you’ve had as a couple. In most cases, taking more space in the relationship is trying to achieve the opposite aim. By having more space, you’re trying to strengthen the connection between you.
If you’re someone who doesn’t need much space, this might sound counterintuitive. It’s important to understand that some people will need more autonomy and independence to feel secure in their relationship.3
Spending time apart gives you both space to be your own people. You can really pay attention to what you like and dislike. Relationships often involve a lot of compromises, so it’s valuable to have some time when you only need to think about yourself.
You’ve almost certainly heard the old line about “it’s not you. It’s me.” When it comes to needing space in a relationship, that’s absolutely true. If one of you needs space to figure out what’s going on, it usually has little or nothing to do with their partner.
When you break up with someone, it’s because the relationship between you isn’t giving you what you need to be happy and healthy. When you want space, it doesn’t have to say anything about the other person or your relationship. It really can be something that you just need to work through alone.
Breakups are sometimes mutual, but they’re never a compromise. They’re one of the few situations where one person really can dictate what happens. If one of you says that they want to break up and the other person says no, you don’t find a middle ground. You’ve broken up.
Asking for space is more like the rest of your relationship. It’s something that you agree on together. Sure, you’ll usually find that one person wants space and asks for it, but the other person can ask for adjustments or modifications to make it work for them as well.
The really tricky part when your partner asks for some space in your relationship is figuring out whether they’re being completely up-front with you. This is important because it dictates how you respond.
If they really do just want a little space, you can stay invested in your relationship. If they’re trying to break up with you gently, you will need to start working on your own healing and moving on.
Obviously, life would be very much easier if everyone was just honest about their wants and needs in a relationship, but it’s not always possible to count on that. Here are some signs that your relationship is probably still pretty secure, even though your partner is asking for space.
A great sign for the future of your relationship is that your partner comes to you and starts an open conversation about needing more space. It often won’t feel like a good sign. In fact, it’ll normally feel like the exact opposite, but it’s actually really healthy.
If your partner wants more space in your relationship, he has several choices about how to deal with the situation. He can simply ignore his needs and put up with something that isn’t right for him. That’s easy, but it would create fault lines in your relationship and make it less strong in the long run.
Alternatively, he could just try to pull away without saying anything to you. He’d just stop replying to your messages, stop making plans with you, and shut down emotionally. This would get him the space he needs, but it would probably hurt you deeply. It would also risk you trying to pull him closer and falling into the anxious-avoidant trap.
Again, this isn’t great for the long-term health of your relationship.
If he talks to you about his needs and is honest and caring during that conversation, he’s showing that he wants to deal with the situation in a way that strengthens your relationship rather than weakens it.4
Someone who has a meaningful conversation about wanting space in their relationship probably isn’t trying to shut the relationship down. After all, having a conversation about wanting space isn’t that much easier than breaking up cleanly.
One of the hardest things to do when your partner asks for space in your relationship is to actually give them that space. It’s hard not to reach out and check how they’re doing or just say hi because you miss them. Of course, it’s also the most important thing to do.
It becomes a lot easier, and is better for the future of your relationship, if he reaches out to stay in touch with you. If he drops you a message now and again “just to see how you are” or “because I was thinking of you,” that’s a sign that he still wants you in his life.
This can be especially important if the reason he needed space in your relationship was to let him miss you. In that example, he actively wants to feel closer to you emotionally. He’s asked for space as a way to strengthen your relationship. When he starts to reach out, that’s a great sign that it’s working.
Another sign that he’s probably planning on sticking around for the long term is that he talks about things you could do as a couple in the future and makes plans around the medium or long term.
It’s worth mentioning that some guys will do that even if they want to break up, as a way to hide the fact that they’ve already emotionally checked out of the relationship. This means that it’s not always a completely reliable sign. Try to use your own judgment as to whether these are real, meaningful plans, or fantasizing.
For example, if he casually says “we should take a vacation to Hawaii one day” that’s an ok sign. He’s probably thinking about things he’d like to do together and his mind is still in ‘couple’ mode.
It’s a much better sign if he says “I’ve been looking at tickets to Hawaii and trying to work out the best time to go. I’ve seen some great deals. Do you think we’ll be able to save up enough by August?” That’s a clear plan for the future with a set time frame and something that you’ll both start working toward now.
If your partner is worried about the impact that his taking space is going to have on your relationship, he might try to set some limits around how much space he’s going to need and how long he’s going to need it for. This can help you to feel more comfortable as you have a better idea of what to expect.
Although this is a good sign for the future and strength of your relationship, it’s not necessarily a bad sign if he doesn’t do it. Whether or not he can set limits around his need for space will depend on lots of different factors including how self-aware he is, why he needs space, and how other people have coped with his need for space in the past.
For example, if he needs space because he has an important work project that’s going to take all of his attention and energy, he might know exactly when that’s due to end. On the other hand, if he’s dealing with serious mental health issues, he might not know when he’s going to be able to move back toward a closer relationship again.
If you’re in a monogamous relationship, one very good sign that he still wants to be with you is that he’s clear about not wanting either of you to date or sleep with other people while he’s taking some space.
This shows that he is still thinking of you as a couple and that he wants to keep that strong connection and exclusivity. If he was trying to break up without having to say anything, he’d be more likely to avoid the question of seeing other people to give himself plausible deniability.
If your relationship is ethically non-monogamous, it’s still a good sign if your partner talks to you about how they are planning to approach their other connections and relationships. Again, this shows that they’re putting thought and effort into keeping your relationship strong at the same time as taking the space they need.
If your partner is still invested in your relationship, he’ll usually want more than just the space he needs. He’ll also want you to understand why he needs that space. There are several reasons for this.
He’ll probably be aware that asking for space might make you feel insecure and anxious. Given that he still loves you, he’ll want to do whatever he can to make this period easier on you. This means he’ll try to explain what’s going on for him.
He might also be looking toward the future of the relationship. Great relationships work when both people understand their partner’s needs.
When he explains why he needs space, he’s helping you to understand what his needs are likely to be in the future and making it easier for you to deal with similar situations as a couple if they arise again.
He’ll probably also want to feel as though you accept him and his need for space. Feeling accepted is one of our basicemotional needs in a relationship. If he wants to feel as though you understand and accept him, that can be a good sign for your relationship.
It’s worth mentioning that we’re talking about him wanting you to understand why he needs space. That doesn’t mean that he’ll always be in a position to explain it properly. If he’s really struggling with something emotional or having mental health issues, for example, he might not be able to explain at that moment.
This is one area where your partner might be able to reap what he’s sowed. If he’s consistently shown you that he’s honest and upfront about his needs, there’s probably no reason to believe that he’s started hiding his feelings now.
Ask yourself how he normally approaches telling you something you might not want to hear. Is he open and clear when he starts the conversation? Does he manage to be simultaneously honest and kind? Or does he hint at bad news? Even worse, does he not say anything at all and wait for you to find out?
A partner who is unafraid of being honest has worked hard to build up trust in your relationship. Unless something has changed dramatically, it’s usually better to take him at his word and give him the trust he’s earned.
Having looked at the signs that he’s actually still invested and engaged in your relationship, it’s also helpful to understand what it might look like if he’s mentally ‘checked out’ and looking for his next partner.
Just like the signs that he still cares, it’s important to recognize that none of these are absolutes. There might be reasons for his actions that aren’t immediately obvious. Make sure that you talk to him before drawing any firm conclusions.
Again, asking for space rather than having a proper ‘breakup’ conversation isn’t a kind or ethical way to approach relationships. Although I’m offering explanations to hopefully help you understand whether this is what he’s doing, I’m absolutely not making excuses for this kind of behavior.
Wanting space is actually totally normal in a relationship. Complete radio silence for an extended period of time isn’t. Being in a relationship requires at least some contact and conversation between you.
There are some situations where you might expect not to hear from him at all, for example, if he’s gone into some type of rehab or he’s on a tech-free retreat. Generally, though, it’s not a great sign.
Going a long time without talking to each other or spending time together can start to fray the connection between you. You’re probably going to feel isolated and alone and as if you can’t turn to him for support.
If he pulls away this far for more than a week or two, you might need to think about whether this relationship is actually going to be able to meet your needs. Even if he does want to stay together, you might realize that you want vastly different things out of a relationship.
I mentioned earlier that it’s a really good sign for the future of your relationship if he’s really clear on the status of your relationship while he’s asking for space. If the rules are unclear or ‘fuzzy’, things might not be so optimistic.
If your partner asks for more space without being willing to be clear about exactly what they need and the status of your relationship, it might be a sign that they haven’t really thought very much about what they want and need.
It might be more of a knee-jerk reaction to finding themselves in a situation that they’re not totally happy with, rather than a strategy designed to help you build a healthier relationship in the long term.
It might also be a sign that your partner is considering looking for someone new, but wants to keep you hanging around in case they don’t find someone quickly enough. By keeping the rules vague, they can keep what they have with you while also justifying their behavior. This is essentially a form of breadcrumbing.5
Abusers can also sometimes use similar tactics to punish their partners or to knock you off balance. Asking for space, and not being clear about what that means, can reinforce an imbalance of power within your relationship and make you feel as though you need to jump through hoops to keep them.
If you were already feeling an emotional distance from your partner, there’s a higher chance that your partner asking for space might be the beginning of the end for your relationship.
If you already felt a sense of disconnection or distance from your partner, it’s a sign that your relationship might not have been completely solid before they asked for space. Understandably, the stronger your relationship was before, the more likely it is to survive the increased space.
It might also be a sign of a fundamental mismatch between you and your partner. If you felt as though there was too much distance between you at the same time that they needed more space, you might have radically different expectations and desires in a relationship.
If your partner sensed this, there’s a chance that they’re using the request for space to send a message that your relationship isn’t going to work for them.
This might sound obvious but, in a healthy relationship, your partner will care about how you feel about their need for space. They’ll want to know how it’s affecting you and whether there’s anything that they can do to make it easier, while still getting the space they need.
If he only talks about his needs and doesn’t seem curious or interested in what this means for you, it might be a sign that he’s not feeling emotionally engaged with you or caring about your feelings.
Again, there are other explanations. If he’s having mental health issues, for example, he might feel as though he’s struggling to keep his head above water emotionally. He might simply not be able to spare any of his energy worrying about you right now. This is very much the exception, however.
In general, if your partner disregards your need for connection and only talks about their need for space, there is probably an underlying problem in your relationship. Even if they’re not trying to break up with you, it might be time to reconsider whether you want to be with them.
When a guy needs space, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong. Usually, it means just what he says. He wants a little space and time to himself to balance the time he spends with you. Try to spend this time focusing on yourself and what makes you happy.
There’s no set period of time that counts as the “right” amount of space. It’s something you work out between you. Ask your partner what “space” means to them. In general, anything less than a week is probably too little, and more than a month might be too much.
Space alone can’t fix a broken relationship. Your relationship is something you build with your partner, so you have to fix it together. Space can be helpful when it lets you see your relationship more clearly and understand where your problems are coming from.
It’s never nice when someone says they need space, but it can be a good thing for your relationship. Use this time to try to understand your partner better and show them that you respect their needs and value their autonomy.
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