Although there is a great need for honesty in an intimate relationship, there is also a corresponding need for privacy and personal space.

Personal space is the emotional and physical room you need to be comfortable. You can feel it when you don’t have enough because you’ll feel crowded, pressured, and uncomfortable. Intimacy can be compared to food and shelter, because we need it as much, but just as with food and shelter, no one needs it all the time and some people need more than others. As human beings, we have both a need to belong and a need to be unique. We want to be accepted, to belong, and we also want to be special, and recognized as different. These needs often appear to conflict as we search for the balance point between them.

Itvs often surprising to realize that the intimacy that comes with a relationship can be a problem. You or your partner can easily feel stress or pressure about too much closeness and not enough separateness. If you feel you have to cater or be nice to your partner all the time, and put aside what you really want to do (your spouse insists on talking about the relationship when you’d rather just zone out in front of the TV, for example), youvll feel resentful and want to get away from your partner and the related stress.

This problem arises because most people have hidden ‘rules’ or beliefs about intimacy. Once they get close, most people feel that they shouldn’t ever want to pull away. So, to protect personal space they put up unconscious barriers, behaviors and responses that communicate to others ‘go away’ or ‘don’t get too close.’

But keeping your distance can hurt your partner’s feelings and create big problems in the relationship. For example, if you feel the need for space and pull away, get quiet or shut down without communicating your feelings to your partner; he or she may not understand it and feel pushed away. As a result he or she may insist on being reassured by demanding more closeness. This will make your need for space more acute, and you’ll pull away further, and your partner will become more demanding. This whole process can lead to struggling, hurt feelings, and anger—and you may not even understand what you’re fighting about.

• Your own need for personal space may be a lot different than your partner’s, your child’s or others that you know.
• Your spouse’s personal space can be a lot different from some previous partner’s needs.
• The idea of appropriate closeness can be affected by cultural and family styles. For example, eldest or only children usually want more personal space and are more comfortable alone than middle or youngest children or children from big families; because eldest/only children are accustomed to spending more time alone than children with lots of siblings.

If you were born in a family whose style was very formal, or who have a great deal of respect for each other’s space you’ll be horrified if your partner pries into your personal things, walks in on you in the bathroom, reads your mail, asks too many personal questions, or wants a lot of attention.

If, instead, you grew up in a close, very informal family, who had a lot of group activities and interactions, you might be quite comfortable with your spouse being always nearby, asking lots of questions, and wanting to share everything with you.

These differences are matters of style; not of right or wrong. Either style, carried to extremes, can become dysfunctional, as when warmth, closeness and interest become overbearing and smothering; or, on the other hand, when respect for privacy and emotional reticence become cold and stifling.

Privacy is the internal version of personal space. It’s your personal power to determine your own internal boundaries, and how much of yourself you will share with your partner. Your private thoughts, your feelings, your personal correspondence, your sexuality, even bathroom time and your clothing are all areas in which you may have different comfort levels than your partner.

Privacy needs arise from your personality coupled with your family background, and you and your partner may have differing needs for privacy because of past history. For example, if you grew up with many siblings or a close extended family, which valued sharing, your need for personal privacy is much less than someone who grew up as an only child or in an emotionally distant family. As with personal space, respect for privacy and emotional reticence are also highly valued in certain families and cultures.

Knowing how to move between privacy, personal space and intimacy, and having a choice of when to use each one can make the difference between comfortable intimacy and couples who are in constant conflict. Conflict about personal space and intimacy can lead to secrecy and dishonesty, if partners try to create space in dishonest ways.

Answering the following questions will help you get in touch with how much privacy or closeness you need. Once you know your personal privacy needs, you will be much more aware of what kind of intimacy feels good, and when it doesn’t, and more able to communicate that to your partner.

1. Do I prefer to be with other people or alone?
2. If someone else borrowed my clothing, would it feel good, like sharing, or intrusive, as if they were taking advantage of me?
3. Am I more comfortable with one person at a time, or do I prefer a group?
4. Would I rather have a conversation with someone close, or read to myself?
5. Do I like it when my spouse talks to friends about me?
6. What limits do I want to set about talking to friends about our relationship?

To learn about the intimacy needs of your mate, observe them carefully:

• Does your mate sit or stand close to you at a party, or does he or she keep some distance?
• Does your partner share a lot of personal information, or keep personal details secret?
• Is your mate curious about what you think, or does he or she never ask?
• Does he or she tend to touch people on the shoulder or arm, or hug, or never touch others except for a handshake?
• Is your partner all business, or does he or she prefer friendly chats?
• With siblings, does your partner share clothing, and talk about feelings, or do they hardly talk?

There are no right or wrong answers to the above questions, but considering your partner’s social traits is a clue toward his or her intimacy and privacy needs. Partners who are emotionally close will usually opt for sharing and touching in all things. Partners who require more personal space will be less communicative and touch less.

As you observe your partner around you and other people, you can gauge his or her tolerance level for intimacy. Once you understand your own needs for privacy, and the difference between your needs and your partner’s, you will find that you can work out privacy issues much more easily together. Discussing your different and similar attitudes about privacy will allow you and your partner to be more comfortable with each other.

Your personal preference for whatever closeness or distance is comfortable for you, is OK, even if it’s different from your partner’s preference. There is no right or wrong amount of personal space.
©2017 Tina B. Tessina adapted from: How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (Kindle and Paperback)

Author Bio: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 35 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 14 books in 17 languages, including How to Be Happy Partners: Working it Out Together; It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty; Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences, The Real 13th Step and her newest, How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free 4th Edition. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter. Dr. Tessina was the CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for Love Forever. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video and podcasts. She tweets @tinatessina

Phone: (562)438-8077  | for permission to reprint, email: tina@tinatessina.com
All material copyright © 2001-2017 Tina Tessina. All rights reserved.