“I Need Space”

Uh-oh! Your sweetheart just uttered those words, and the feelings of panic are creeping in. Here’s what to do—and more important, what you should never do.

By Laura Leu

t’s the three-word phrase that sends your worst fears spiraling: “I need space.” Does the date you’ve grown so fond of really mean “I need space, but stick around because I’m working on my issues and we’re going to be a killer couple once I’m able to give you what you deserve”? We all hope so. Then again, it could mean, “I’m trying to dump you, but I’m too chicken to say so.” Experts and real people weigh in on how to keep your dignity in this situation... and hopefully the relationship, too.

Examine your relationship beyond the bedroom
You don’t necessarily have to be in a good relationship to have sex that knocks your socks (and pants, undies, etc.) off. “Sometimes couples get what I
Trying to talk a date out of spending less time together will only backfire.
call ‘lust blindness,’ where the sex is fabulous, but that's all there really is,” says Philippa Courtney, author of 4 Steps to Bring the Right Person into Your Life Right Now! The danger is when one partner starts fantasizing that there’s more of a connection than the carnal one. “If a partner is pulling away, take an honest look at the relationship beyond the bedroom,” she says. If good sex is all you have, then that’s probably all you’ll ever have. Your mission: If you two have an emotional connection outside the bedroom, give the downtime a shot. If there’s nothing other than what goes on between the sheets, this is the time to make peace with walking away.

If your partner asks for space, give it...
The first thing to do if you’re hoping for a successful long-term relationship is respect your partner’s boundaries when the person starts trusting you with his or her needs — like wanting space. Trying to talk a date out of spending less time together will only backfire, extinguishing any glimmer of hope for the relationship’s future. “I wanted to see one date less, so I tried to slow things down, but this person decided that hanging out with me even more would make me fall in love and get serious,” says Mike, 25, from Westchester, NY. “Then I actually felt suffocated and cut ties off altogether.” So if someone says the “I need space” line to you, don’t become accusatory or demanding. Ask yourself if you’d be comfortable with a slower pace and someone who’s not ready to jump in full-speed ahead, as you are. If you can honestly live with that for a while without your self-esteem suffering, give it a shot. But if, on the other hand, you feel your feelings aren’t reciprocated, this can be your wake-up call to make sure you’re tending to your own life and needs rather than just creating a happy couplehood.

…But never give it twice
A relationship is ideally something that both of you can rely on, even though there will be ebbs and flows. If one partner controls all the starts and stops, it creates an imbalanced power dynamic that spells trouble for a future together. In other words, heed the old adage: Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. “If any person
“People will treat you as well or as poorly as you let them.”
comes back and asks for space after you already backed off once, give them space by promptly changing your number,” says Laurie Frankel, author of It's Not Me, It's You: A Modern Girl's Guide to Breaking Up “If you just do it again, you’re allowing this person to disrespect you. People will treat you as well or as poorly as you let them.”

Set deadlines
Deadlines help you set and reach goals — and not just at your job. When your date is wielding excuses — busy at work, confused about some feelings for an ex, not sure whether to get so serious so soon — offer up a deadline to get his or her act together or risk losing you. If your honey is serious about being with you, they will get right to work. If the object of your affection makes no effort to change, at least you’ll know you gave the person, and the relationship, a fair shot. “I dated someone who would flirt with me until it seemed like it was getting serious, then vanish for a couple of days, only to resurface with some weird excuse,” says Stephanie of Edison, NJ. Stephanie finally got fed up and put her honey on a six-month ban. “I said, ‘Work out your issues and figure out how you feel about me,’” she says. “‘If you’re 100 percent ready to move forward with me in six months call me, but otherwise, goodbye.’”

Pay attention to your watch
If you find yourself constantly playing the waiting game with your partner, chances are, you’re being subtly downgraded from primary date status — with an eye toward possible dumping. “Time is a major nonverbal communicator,” says Lisa Daily, author of Stop Getting Dumped! “If your date keeps you waiting, it’s a sign that his or her interest is waning.” She says the same thing’s true if your plans start becoming less and less reliable. When a relationship’s solidifying, you’re more likely to fall into a routine than have to start wondering when you’ll get together again. “If your partner starts waiting until the last minute to make plans with you, the person may be hoping something better will come along,” says Daily. And whose self-esteem should be forced to endure that? You most certainly deserve better!

Laura Leu, a freelance writer based in New York, has written for Stuff, Maxim and Sync, among other publications.
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