« Lucky Me | Main | A Nation of Insurers »

October 08, 2010

The Value of Space

I've been meaning to comment on this essay over at RIGHTNETWORK for quite some time, but until today I wasn't sure what I wanted to say about it:

In a small and crowded house, you guard your privacy.

Long married people may relate . . . Newlyweds in the throes of lust, with no kids, may be appalled. I would have been appalled.

When we were engaged, we jeered at the hippies who wrote their own vows; especially the ones who quoted Kahlil Gibran, with the bit about “and let there be space in your togetherness.”

We figured that everyone grows apart over the years—so if you start out with a lot of space between you, you’ll be a galaxy apart and eventually divorced. We chose the 1662 Book of Common Prayer service that stressed making babies, mutual aid, and comfort—and contained not one word about giving each other space.

I moved into his house after our honeymoon, and we settled happily into married life. We had similar tastes and schedules, and we got along so well that soon we were three, and then four. And then five.

After that, the trouble began: there wasn’t a single room unoccupied by children or dedicated to some family function (laundry, playroom, husband’s study). I began cramming my papers into family desks here and there, and books in another room. I hid Christmas presents somewhere else. I felt fragmented.

I've always been a big believer in the need for personal space, whether physical or emotional, so I had to laugh at the Kahlil Gibran reference. The truth is, I've always loved his verses on marriage:

Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

Does all of this sound a bit corny? Certainly, but there's a huge grain of truth there, and it's the same one expressed by his verses on children:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

To me, this "separate togetherness" - a partnership of two people who love one another dearly but never completely submerge their separate desires, dreams, selves - is what marriage is all about. It's also a primary ingredient in the best kind of parenting: one that allows a child to discover his own way in life, but also teaches him the value of growing close to and loving others.

Whether one is talking parenting or marriage, finding the right balance between intimacy and independence can be a tricky business. There is no one size fits all prescription - some people want and need a degree of closeness that might overwhelm others. Too little bonding and a couple begin to drift away from each other, pulled apart by their separate interests and desires. Too much, and one or the other will begin to feel trapped, stifled, overwhelmed. We literally lose ourselves.

I have always suspected that this feeling of having being assimilated, Borg-style explains why women are most often the ones who initiate divorces. In a way, we women do it to ourselves. In most relationships, it's the woman who works hard to create a sense of intimacy in the relationship. We do this for many reasons; partially because our natural talents predispose us to the task, partly because women need emotional intimacy in the same way men need physical closeness. In most relationships women end up being the relationship managers, and that's an important job because most men are neither particularly interested in, nor particularly adept at that sort of thing.

But while a certain amount of intimacy and bonding cements and strengthens a relationship, too much turns what was meant to be a comforting sense of closeness into a confining - and stultifying - straitjacket:

... therapists have assumed that couples could improve their sex lives by practicing free and open communication, by breaking down of barriers between spouses.

In theory, it sounds good. In practice, it does not look quite so good.

Arana and Davis do not much concern themselves with theories. They try to examine the way these are translated into behaviors, as in: spouses watching each other perform intimate bathroom functions. Doesn't that meet the requirements of free and open communication, not keeping any secrets from each other, not hiding anything.

The author consider this to be a bad habit. If you want to bring back that loving feeling, they advise you to: "close the bathroom door." Intimacy has its limits; each person must have a zone of privacy, even secrets. You cannot feel sexual desire for someone after you have been watching them move their bowels.

It's possible to be too close, and if you are too close, you will want each other less.

The crux of the book, its central concept, the one that I am inclined to call brilliant, lies in the title. The authors declare that you should stop using terms of endearment and go back to calling your spouse by his or her proper name.

Arana and Davis do not recommend soulful conversations. They do not seem to believe that empathy is going to rekindle your lust. Their prescription: change one small, but critically important, habit.

I'm not so sure it matters what you call your spouse, but I do think there's something to be said for the notion that outward form can shape our inward way of thinking:

Once, after having a 'discussion' with my husband, it occurred to me that in marriage outward behavior (i.e., our "form") was in many ways more important than (and may even at times play a role in determining) what both partners think to themselves privately. In other words, some times if we are not happy, it's because we've fallen into the habit of not acting happy. Correct the behavior and you correct the state of mind. Relationships are a bit of a feedback loop. In marriage, people tend to get sloppy and stop doing the nice things they did when they were courting. They take each other for granted. And all of a sudden, there is no positive feedback and they wonder where the 'magic' went? What they forgot was that the magic wasn't an externally created force: they had a role in creating it. If the flame dies out, you can re-ignite it.

What made those long ago encounters in the back seat of your boyfriend's Chevy so breathtaking wasn't just novelty, or even youth. Part of it - a big part - was doubt, fear, risk, and the thrill of bridging the gap between two people. This is why makeup sex enjoys a well deserved reputation amongst the ball-and-chain set - it reconnects us, and part of the unique joy to be found in that reconnection lies in the knowledge that we came perilously close to losing something unbearably precious.

Close relationships provide enormous strength, but if we're not careful they can also breed the sort of casual contempt and complacency that suck the life out of a marriage. It's always easier to take the other person for granted than to face the disturbing thought that no matter how close we become, we will never completely know them. But somewhere in the knowledge of that space between us is the magic we need to keep passion alive.

It's odd to think that the very things that bring us together (sharing, trust, closeness) in one sense may create problems in other areas of a relationship. But as with so many things, it's not a question of there being one right or wrong answer but of finding a balance that allows us to be happy. Understanding and intimacy are important, but so are respect and autonomy.

No wonder so many people call marriage "work"! Then again, what else in life is so worth the effort?

Posted by Cassandra at October 8, 2010 05:25 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


"In a small and crowded house, you guard your privacy." Guess what, in a large and crowded house, you also guard your privacy.

Times and expectations sure have changed. We lived in a small 3-BR cape. Three of us in one room (the guys), three in another room (the girls), and the baby was in with my parents.

So we moved to a larger house so my folks could have even more kids. (They stopped at 13.)

Posted by: Rex at October 8, 2010 09:56 PM

And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.

The cypress makes a great bonsai, though.

Umm -- whut?

Posted by: BillT at October 9, 2010 05:06 AM

OK, I totally deserved that for the corny Kahlil Gibran quotes... :)

Posted by: Cassandra at October 9, 2010 08:39 AM

Heh. I've got a cedar and an oak sharing a common trunk in the back yard. They obviously sprouted next to each other forty or so years ago and conditions were right for them to flourish together.


How's that for tieing the thread back together?

Posted by: BillT at October 9, 2010 09:13 AM

And I've got afghan pines in my back yard and an oak in one part of my front yard, with a maple in another part of my front yard. They have their space and are flourishing.

So there.

Separately, I've commented on this before, but it might bear repeating in this venue. My wife and I got engaged four weeks after we met, and we were married six weeks later--and the only reason for that interminable wait was coordinating schedules of those we wanted present at the wedding.

Then, both of us being military officers, we got the USAF's ultimate gift of space: we spent five the first ten years of our marriage living apart at separate assignments. I call this a gift only partly speciously. In that time, we learned to talk to each other. We had phone calls, we had letters (yes, actual snail mail, where we had the opportunity to think about what we were saying, rather than dashing off a scribble and then banging SEND). And the times we had for being together were the more valuable, both for the times spent apart and for the opportunities to communicate, and umm, communicate, and to confirm (and to refute and to learn) the things we thought we'd learned during our "away team" communications.

That was 89 years ago, and we've been married since 1974. And still going strong. What benefited us was both the space (lots of space, sometimes) and the togetherness. The mix is optimal.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 9, 2010 09:34 AM

That's essentially what I tell civilians who ask how I can "stand" for my husband to be away so much and younger military wives who wonder how they will survive the separations.

Sometimes, distance is a gift.

What it does is reacquaint you with the person you were before you got married and reinforce the notion that you could lose it all at any moment. If you can look at separation in that light, it's a powerful incentive to keep investing, keep trying, keep adjusting and accommodating your spouse - to avoid getting into a rut where you take the other person for granted (or every statement about it begins with "He ALWAYS... or she NEVER...").

I've found that every long deployment has brought subtle and lasting changes to our relationship. We really do "grow apart" in some ways, but I'm not sure that's a bad thing at all.

In some ways it was very hard for me to understand this last deployment. I was able to do so only by taking a step back and looking at it from his point of view. That didn't mean my feelings about it went away, but they were balanced by understanding that my perspective and desires weren't the only ones that matter.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 9, 2010 09:50 AM

In some ways it was very hard for me to understand this last deployment.

And heads up when he retires. My military career was only 14 years, but it was all I'd known since graduate school. And my adjustment to civilian life was not easy on my wife or my daughter.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 9, 2010 11:22 AM

Yeah, I watched both my parents and my husband's parents adjust to a military retirement.

We are only partway through it, so I don't have too much to say about it yet. We haven't hit the part where the rubber meets the road - where you have to make the big decisions.

Fortunately I'm so relieved to see the light at the end of the limbo tunnel I've been in for the past 10 years that I'm pretty much open to anything ;p

Posted by: Cassandra at October 10, 2010 12:46 PM

Never did I adore my wife more than I did on the day the divorce was finalized!

Posted by: RIslander at October 10, 2010 09:10 PM

By the way, on the military retirement thing - I would give anything to be back with people who really do serve their country. I am sure there are some politicians and civil servants out there who realize who they work for - I just have not been fortunate enough to meet any of them.

Oh, and one more thing, BEAT NAVY!!!!

Posted by: RIslander at October 10, 2010 09:16 PM

I think you got that wrong. It's BEAT ARMY!

(As my son and his buddy would shout instead of "Airborne! when going through jump school. They came out of jump school being able to do lots and lots more pushups than when they started.)

Posted by: Rex at October 11, 2010 07:37 PM

Very good post, Cassandra. And thanks for the link to the RN piece.

I think that with us it's a constant struggle because my spouse's parents were divorced so he values togetherness, whereas my parents were engaged after two days and married 52 years, dying only a couple of months apart. I always felt that they were too close, and wanted to be more independent in my own marriage, have more of my own friends and interests, although obviously follow their good example of a happy and lifelong marriage. I think their early years with my Dad an officer on a carrier set the pattern for them to develop their own strengths tho. For example, my Dad was quite meticulous about my mother being in charge of the household and not letting us kids go behind her to get something she had said no to. And after he left the Navy, he travelled a great deal on business, so they had to manage apart, although they didn't like being separated.

By contrast, I'm a fairly typical New Englander with a doormat that says "Go Away", alternating between intense gregariousness with friends, then wanting to be left alone. I love being with my family, but then I need to go garden, or cut brush, or walk the dog for hours, or write, or read, much as when I was a kid. To feel in balance.

Posted by: retriever at October 11, 2010 11:51 PM

Like all else, it is in moderation that the ideal lies. Too much togetherness stifles a relationship. Likewise, too much distance allows it to fall apart. Each spouse needs space, but each also needs the intimacy as well.

I don't think there's a magic bullet (i.e. "close the bathroom door"). I don't think there's a one size fits all situation. One set of my grandparents had separate beds, the other shared a bed. Each marriage ended only in the death of the husband (and not even really then). So what's the takeaway? Is it better for a couple to share a bed or have separate beds? It really depends on the couple I suppose. And why shouldn't it?

Posted by: MikeD at October 12, 2010 10:15 AM

I tend to agree.

I have read at least a million times that in order to "keep her mystery", a woman should never, EVER let a man see her doing her nails, shaving her legs, applying makeup, etc.

That sounds like wonderful advice in a fantasy world where every married couple has separate bathrooms but it doesn't work terribly well in the real world!

It would be hard for me to live with a man who was so picky that he would lose all desire for me just because he saw me applying lip gloss or shaving my legs. Being married means that sometimes you will see perhaps a bit more of your mate than you might normally wish to. I know I found it enormously comforting that my husband was willing to be in the delivery room with me. Lord knows that's not exactly mystery-enhancing :p

And I was happy I could be there when he had to have surgery last year. If it had been me, I would have wanted him there so it wasn't even a decision.

I think that the big things are respect and consideration. There has to be a happy medium between being an inconsiderate slob and acting as though you are total strangers.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 12, 2010 11:30 AM

I know I found it enormously comforting that my husband was willing to be in the delivery room with me.

Speaking of being in the delivery room, I've been so remiss: We ended up having a little girl! LGette was born September 20th @ 9:56am weighing in at a whopping 8lbs 11oz.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 12, 2010 06:35 PM

Congratulations, Dad! :)

[Hoisting virtual beer in your general direction]

Seriously, this is wonderful news. Here's wishing you and the Mrs. years of joy.

Posted by: Cassandra at October 12, 2010 06:53 PM

Whooo hoooo! Congrats, YAG!!

Posted by: DL Sly at October 12, 2010 06:57 PM

Congrats, YAG!

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at October 12, 2010 09:54 PM

Congratulations (Omodeto) Yua.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 13, 2010 07:09 AM

Thanks guys.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at October 13, 2010 12:40 PM

but I do think there's something to be said for the notion that outward form can shape our inward way of thinking:

I think the Asians called it meditation and qi breathing.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at October 14, 2010 01:46 PM