“I need space.”

I appear to be in the minority of people when I say that I really, really don’t like the morning radio shows on any of the stations I regularly listen to. (Not counting NPR, though I have a hard time calling a 9 am show a real “morning show.”) And yet, because I am a person who prefers background noise (preferably music or whitenoise conversations, though I take what I can get), I find myself listening to these shows every morning on the way to class.

One recent morning (curse my unreliable memory!), the local rock station had a male caller whose longterm girlfriend had recently said that she needed her space for a while to think about their relationship. The show hosts immediately said that was it, the relationship was over, she never planned to come back after saying that. While that opinion isn’t completely baseless, I would like to throw out a caution against it.

Everybody’s brain works at different speeds. When I am thrown new technical information, I absorb it like a sponge and then look around wondering why everyone still looks confused. When I am thrown new emotion-related information, I wallow and flail and generally am incompetent for at least several days before processing can really be fully done; most people I know can integrate that sort of information much faster than I can. If I say that I need a few days to figure this out, I mean exactly that. I mean that my emotional processing is slower than yours (or at least, slower than many people’s), and I mean that I need you not to bug me about it until I have worked through it and have responses. When you pester me about it? All that does is slow me down.

The same applies for suddenly-realized emotions and whatnot. Let’s all turn off our reality-checkers and pretend that I am the girlfriend in the radio show scenario. You tell me you love me. I have not previously considering this type of information. I do not have a response prepared. I require a few days (unless I’m busy; then I require a few weeks) to assimilate your emotions and compare them your actions and compare them to my actions and compare them to what passes for emotion in my cyborg brain and overthink and then stop thinking and then finally find a happy medium where I’m thinking just enough and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll figure out what to do. Until I come back to you with a response, my main requirement is space for processing. If I realize that I love you, the same thing will happen – except you have less of an idea what’s going on in my head.

Now let’s get really rowdy and imagine that I, the hypothetical significant other, have a life outside of you, the radio caller. Maybe my hypothetical mother called me to say that she has just won the lottery and is moving to Alaska and would I like to go with her forever and never work again? I don’t know about you, but I would need a while to contemplate that (actually, I would say “that is way too cold; you will have to be the one visiting me for the rest of forever”). If the decision included thinking about you – which it seems likely to, if we’ve been together for four years – I would need not to feel pressured by you during this thinking.

And yes, I am aware that many people do use “I need space to think” as the supposedly humane way to end a relationship. Without getting into why I think that’s a terrible practice, I’m still going to say that some of us actually mean “I need space to think” when we say that. Give me that space. Let me know that you’re still there, ask me how much space I need, feed me a sandwich, but don’t say “You need space? I’m going to go find a new significant other to replace you forever.” That’s a good way to speed up the decision, but it may not be the decision you were hoping I would make.

Honest and transparent words are nice. (Coming back to say those honest and transparent words after using your thinking space is also nice.) Some people say exactly what they mean, even if others have different measures of what’s ideal. Please take the time to clarify what your beloved-person intends with their words before writing them off or turning to your local radio hosts for relationship advice. Chances are (at least when it comes to me), my needing space is actually completely unrelated to anything you have said or done. It’s how my brain works, and you theoretically like me for my brain, right?

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