But let's back up a second: Space is healthy, and EVERYONE needs it in order to continually check themselves and maintain their individual personalities and lives outside their relationship. Whether that means visiting your family without bringing your S.O. or going out on a Saturday night with just your girls, time apart is necessary for a healthy bond to grow. (Otherwise, you risk an unhealthy codependent relationship.)
That said, space feels like the worst thing in the world when your partner is initiating it and you're...well, not. It's a vicious cycle: They pull away, you—wondering why—try to reel them in closer, then they pull away more...repeat, repeat. (Sound familiar?)
You have every right to feel uneasy when someone starts acting weird or different from their usual self. Say, they're suddenly spending more time at the office instead of on the couch with you, taking a long time to respond to texts (and with short answers) when they're usually super talkative, or not reaching out until halfway through the day (if at all) when they're typically a "Good morning, beautiful!" type.
But know this: They're not necessarily trying to end your relationship or keep secrets from you, says Ann Rosen Spector, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Philadelphia. They could just need a little room to think...
What exactly is my partner thinking about if they start pulling away?
I wish I could give you a single, straightforward answer. But as with most things in life, it's just not that simple.
Sometimes your significant other's sudden distance could be a side effect of things ramping up at work, says Spector. They may not be great at juggling priorities, and since work can often seem like the more urgent demand (hello, they could get fired), they may dedicate more of their time and energy to the office.
Other times, though, your partner wants a little distance in order to gain some perspective on the relationship. (Deep breaths...)
If a relationship, especially a new or rebound one, is heating up faster (regular sleepovers, talking all day every day) than your partner anticipated, it makes sense for them to take a step back to decide whether the connection is worth pursuing. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to break up,” Spector assures. They just need a breather to decide whether they’re actually truly ready to commit—since going all in with someone can be intense.
Perhaps they're worried that you're more invested in the relationship already than they are, or that you've already started slotting them into your future before you've gotten to know each other in a deep, 360-degree way. (This can make someone feel like you're less interested in who they are as a person and more interested in having a partner right now.)
Or maybe you've recently been on the cusp of taking the next step—like meeting each other's families or moving in together—and they're not quite sure they're ready to do that with you.
It might sound awful—and feel crappy—but trust: You want them to take this time earlier rather than later. No one deserves to be in a relationship with someone who isn't totally and 100-per cent sure they want to be with them. (Remember that, always.)
Of course, people can still pull away even in long-term relationships. For some, “distance is a way to deal with conflict,” Spector says. Your partner might withdraw from you and the relationship after an argument until you’ve both cooled off.
Waiting for the “storm to pass” is, of course, not the ideal way to deal with issues, but sometimes people need space to gain perspective. If their pulling away helps them come back with a level of understanding and self-awareness that helps you both bounce back from disagreements, great.
If it's a way for them to avoid confronting issues head-on—or worse, not acknowledging the parts of your relationship that are on truly shaky ground—you may need to have a conversation about healthier ways of handling conflict.
P.S. In case you were wondering, men can pull away just as often as women, Spector notes. Since intimacy ebbs and flows, partners are continuously pulled closer together and farther apart regardless of gender identity.
Argh! What makes them pull away even more?
You may want to whip out the proverbial handcuffs and keep your partner as close to your side as possible, but the more you can try to reel them in, the more you might actually push them away. So first, here's what not to do:
- Applying pressure or guilting them.
“Give your partner some space,” says Spector. By overwhelming them with incessant questions, calls, or texts while they’re deciding how they feel about the relationship, how to best balance their priorities, or trying to cool off after an argument, you'll likely end up adding to their stresses and making them want to talk to you even less.
Remember: If someone wants to be with you as much as you want to be with them, they’ll need to decide in their own time. A relationship where someone feels forced to stick around can never be healthy—and you shouldn't want someone who doesn't know if they want you. (In the name of self-love, girl!)
- Waiting around for them.
“You had a life before your relationship,” Spector says—so go out and live it. Call up your friends for a round of drinks or go to a yoga class (or both). Just because your partner needs some time and space doesn’t mean your personal life has to come to a screeching halt, and it also doesn’t mean you have to wait until your partner makes a decision at all.
Keep doing you, and if by the time your partner’s gathered their thoughts, you’re still invested in the relationship, you can focus on taking the proper steps to get back on track.
If you have a hard time doing so, keep this in mind: There's nothing more attractive to another person than seeing them living and loving life despite the hardships (or just annoying B.S.) they might be dealing with. It proves that you have real potential as a reliable teammate for life.
Ah, so what should I be doing when they pull away?
Even while respecting your partner’s needs, there are things you can do to in order to get some clarity:
There’s no harm in checking in with your partner—it’s only natural that a sudden shift in your relationship would make you feel uneasy, says Spector. If you used to see each other at least four times per week and it’s suddenly dropped to one, ask. Try: “Is everything okay? I've noticed you’ve been withdrawn lately.”
This doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a straight answer, but if you do and your partner tells you they’ve been struggling with how quickly the relationship has been moving or they’re not sure they can dedicate as much time to the relationship anymore, tell them it’s something you two should discuss when they’re ready. Then, until they are, give them the space and time they need.
If they say everything is fine and dismiss you, try not to push and prod. Let them come around on their own time...and if they don't—or at least not within a timeframe that works for you—reconsider if they're someone who deserves the attention and commitment you so selflessly give them. You gotta look out for yourself, too.
- Communicating in order to compromise.
Even if you know why your partner’s pulling away, you may not feel any better about their absence. So when you’re both ready to talk it out, tell them how the distance made you feel—not to guilt them, but to help you both decide on a better way to express when you need alone time. From there, Spector says you’ll be able to hash out issues that led to your partner’s need for distance.
You might discover that you’re not on the same page emotionally, you see the relationship going in different places, or you’re not willing to devote the same amount of time and energy to the relationship. (All GOOD things to figure out sooner rather than later.) At that point, you’ll have to decide where you stand: Are you both willing to address arguments as soon as they happen? Make more of an effort to spend time together during crazy work weeks?
Spector's sure to warn, however, that too much compromise might leave one or both of you feeling unfulfilled in the relationship—which will most likely lead to a breakup, anyway. (Sorry.) So make sure these sacrifices are ones you’re truly willing to make for your relationship's long-term happiness—if not, this next tip is for you…
- Moving on.
Again, space is healthy. You might not get what you want out of it, but it allows the two of you to take stock of the relationship and come to terms with the fact that your expectations or desires might not align anymore.
Distance, whether you called for it or not, is how you and your partner can best discover whether the two of you are still a good fit. If you find you're not, it's time that you pull away—for yourself, for good. You got this.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.