Once, in my youth, I was in a crappy relationship that wasn’t working. (In fact, I’ve been in several crappy relationships that haven’t worked, but why split hairs?) As often happens in situations like this, neither my girlfriend nor I wanted to admit that the relationship had turned sour. Nobody was abusive, and neither of us had wronged the other to the degree that a breakup would be the obvious solution, which only made things harder. Who needs a clean break when you can drag things out into a tense, months-long limbo, right?
Eventually, though, we could ignore our differences no longer. It was clear to everyone in our lives that we needed to break up. My friends begged me to pull the trigger, and I’m sure hers did the same. So how did we finally broach the issue of our many irreconcilable differences? Did we divvy up our belongings, shake hands and go our separate ways? Not quite. Instead, my girlfriend told me she “needed some space.”
“What does that mean?” I said testily, even as I longed for space of my own.
“I just… need to do my own thing for a while. I think we should take a break.”
“So you’re breaking up with me,” I said, with a little relief in my voice.
“No, no,” she assured me. “I still love you. It’s just that I need some space.”
I didn’t like this reasoning then, and I don’t like it any better now. And yet, as I see it, these sorts of half-breakups are more rampant now than ever — I’ve even perpetrated a couple myself. If it walks like a breakup and talks like a breakup, it should have the decency to just be a breakup. It’s cruel and selfish to end a relationship the way a little kid runs away from their mother at the playground — happy to run away, provided that the person they’re running from doesn’t move.
Don’t get me wrong: I have no problem with space as a concept. “Needing space” is a perfectly legitimate request to make within the confines of a relationship, and creating space can take any number of forms. Maybe you and your partner are committed, but know you can never live together. Maybe you live together, but spend a certain amount of time each day in separate rooms, or hang out with separate groups of friends. This, I get. I tend to fall hard and fast, and to desire nothing more at first than the total abdication of my right to space — only to resent my lover later when they expect me to maintain that constant availability. But a romantic relationship with no built-in space is one that’s not likely to last. You have to carve out space with deliberation and care so that when you are together, the spacelessness feels like love rather than suffocation.
My problem is with invoking one’s constitutional right to space as a candy-assed half-breakup. My girlfriend may have still loved me, but she was canny enough to know that the love alone was no longer enough to propel our relationship forward. It rarely is. Indeed, for many relationships, once the initial force of passion has slowed and the participants have a chance to observe the landscape of the thing, there’s nothing left. The sporting (and obvious) thing to do in such a situation is end the relationship. But the challenges arise when the (reasonable) need to end the relationship duels with the (equally reasonable) fear of letting go, being alone or simply saying goodbye to what you may one day think was a good thing all along.
Some people, myself included, are all too willing to let a relationship slow to a complete stop before jettisoning it. Romance dies, habits become grievous annoyances and neither partner takes any joy in what’s left. The relationship becomes mere insulation protecting its members from the noise and chaos of the unpartnered world. It feels drab and sad inside the partnership, but the notion of leaving it for whatever else is supposedly out there is simply too frightening.
Here, the end-of-relationship “need for space” presents itself as an attractive alternative. Why shred the relationship when you can look for a perforated edge along which to delicately tear it? Such behavior can take many forms and probably does work for some couples, which makes it all the more painful when you’re in a couple that you suspect it won’t work for. Maybe the two partners decide to take a break — to behave as if they’re single for a stretch of time before coming back together, hopefully recharged and ready to start fresh. The version of this that I remember seeing in sitcoms and movies in the 1990s was “going on a break,” a la Ross and Rachel from Friends. To my mind, “needing space” is the most nebulous version of this desire to pause a relationship — it comes with all the trappings of a breakup, except for the liberation.
That, to me, is the problem with using the perfectly rational need for space in this way. When a person claims to “need space” under these circumstances, it isn’t space they’ve been missing. They hear the death knell of the unsatisfying relationship, and they feel the pull of their single life — the buzzy thrill of first dates with strangers, the vast and comfortable emptiness of time spent in one’s apartment alone. Yet they don’t have the discipline or courtesy to start anew. To them, a dying relationship need never actually die. Instead, its progress can continue to slow exponentially for months, while they exercise the muscles required to live a satisfying single life — the ability to make small talk with strangers, say, or resume errands that used to fall under a live-in partner’s purview.
I get it. Breakups are excruciating. In this frightening and unpleasant new world, where COVID and climate crisis have teamed up to cast a chronic shadow of fear over our lives, it’s especially understandable that a partnered person would be loath to give up whatever specious comforts a dead relationship provides. But it’s disrespectful to a partner to couch one’s rejection in such vague terms as, “I still love you, it’s just that I need some space.” A rejection like that gives the other partner unwarranted hope and asks them to put their own needs on pause while the rejecter “takes some space” or “figures some stuff out.”
At the end of the day, the only appropriate way to end a relationship is by doing just that — ending it. Pay your partner the respect they’re owed by severing the romantic tie, full stop. It’s your right to change your mind in the future and ask that person to get back together, but it’s equally their right to accept the news of the breakup in the moment and try to move on.
Don’t be the little kid on the playground when you break up with a partner; honor the relationship you had by encouraging them to move on when you leave.