When He Says, “I Need Space”

Freaked out that your guy has dropped the bomb and asked for more alone time? Never fear. Here’s how to cope—and suss out if he’s worth the wait.

By Cate Mitchell

h, life is good. There you are, kicking back with some guy you’ve been dating for a couple months and contemplating a cozy night in. But just as you head toward the kitchen to refill your glass of Pinot Grigio, a few little words stop you in your tracks—and they’re not the ones you were hoping to hear. “You know, I think I need a little space,” he says sheepishly. Indeed, few phrases send a woman’s mind into crisis mode like this one: Have you been crowding him too much and would a little alone time do you both good, or is he just a jerk who’s trying to ease his way out of the relationship? The answers to these crucial questions—and how to cope—start here.

What “I need space” really means
Of course, the biggest question mark in a woman’s mind is whether “I need space” is code for “I want out.” But out may not be what he wants, and the only way to keep yourself from lying
The biggest question mark in a woman’s mind is, does “I need space” mean “I want out”? So ask him.
awake all night wondering is to ask. “Clarify what’s going on and the terms of your separation,” advises Alison James, author of the upcoming Better Off Wed? Fling...or Ring: How to Know Which Finger to Give Him. Ask him “Why do you feel you need space?” His response might hurt, but it can be helpful to gain insights into his motives and get some closure for your own peace of mind. If his answer still leaves you in a fog, you may want to ask him something more pointed, like “Do you want to break up?” (Some guys who really do want out may be relieved that you ask). If he answers no, the next most obvious question is, “Do you want to date other people?” Even if you’ve been exclusive, some men do occasionally want to shift the relationship back into a lower gear. Not that you need to stick around, mind you, but at least you know the score. And finally, if his answer to that is no as well, ask him, “How often, ideally, would you want to see each other?” If, say, you’ve been seeing each other three times a week, he might suggest scaling that back to once a week or just weekends. By getting the answers to this questions you’ll know what to expect going forward, which will help you decide if you’re willing to stick around.

Staying calm during the aftermath
While it’s understandable to get upset and even angry at him for putting the brakes on, this will only make a guy more wary of letting you into his life. So if you aren’t willing to give up on this guy just yet, do your best to remain calm and remind yourself of his actions as a whole—not just what he’s saying to you right now. “Usually we know where we stand with someone if we take a step back and view the situation objectively,” says James. “What else has he been doing lately? Has he been disrespectful? Do you get a general vibe that something isn’t right? If other things seem wrong in the relationship, ‘I need space’ might be code for ‘I’m not sure how I feel about you.’”

If, on the other hand, things have been going well, consider the fact the he may just have other things in his life right now that make a lot of face time with you too much to handle. “Whereas women are skilled at multi-tasking, men are happier when they are focused on one thing at a time,” explains James. “If he is trying to make a big career move, has a sick parent, or is going through some other type of crisis, he might just truly need some space to deal with his life before he can focus on you.”

Don’t pin down an “I need space” expiration date
While it can be tempting to ask, “When will we see each other again?” some guys may not be able to (or may not want to) answer this question. “Put the ball in his court,” says Jon Finegold,
Don’t press for a reunion date. Say, “Why don’t you give me a call when you’re ready to see me?”
35, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “When he asks for space, say something like, ‘That’s cool. I’m not trying to smother you, but I do enjoy hanging out. Why don’t you give me a call when you’re ready to see me?’ Then walk away or hang up, and if he calls, cool. If not, then he is probably not interested and it is not worth wasted time pursuing him.”

Get out of the house—and away from your phone
Nothing will completely take your mind off things, but filling your time with friends and fun goings-on helps. Whether it’s a talk at Barnes & Noble, a post-work spinning class or an evening making pad thai at your best friend’s apartment, time spent away from home is time spent not staring at the phone. And if you’re married to your cell, leave it at home. That way you can fully concentrate on what you’re doing without being tempted to check for messages.

Resist the urge to check in
Harsh, but true: Calling him during your down time “to see how things are going” is not recommended. ”Let him come back to you when he’s done taking his breather,” says James. “Don’t prod him to return. You will be much happier if he returns on his own terms after taking some time to think.” If he doesn’t return in what you feel is a reasonable amount of time (say, a couple weeks or so), it may just be best to move on. “The cold, hard truth is that you can’t force someone to be a part of a relationship they don’t want to be a part of,” explains James. “If a man wants to be with you, you’ll know it.” And if he doesn’t, the happy truth is there are plenty of other men who will.

Cate Mitchell is a freelance writer in New York City.
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