Taking Up & Giving Space in Relationships

The intricacies of relationships can be challenging, in my experience that happens mostly in the early days of new relationships, or new stages of one, as well as in long term relationships. Often, this is due to people making assumptions about the other person - assumptions about what they think, feel, believe, want, desire and need. Assumptions are rarely true because they are not based on information coming directly from the person concerned. Assumptions are usually what causes misunderstandings in relationships as well as resulting in people not feeling understood, 'seen' or cared about. The dynamic of space, the taking and giving of it, in relationships is one of those important intricacies!


Our relationships with others live within a metaphorical space between us - all relationships, whether friends, family, lovers or partners. Every relationship we have is entirely unique and each person in that relationship occupies and needs differing amounts of space in that relationship at different times and in different ways. However, how much space we offer and take significantly alters the nature & quality of the relationship and often the experience of one or both people in the relationship as to how satisfied or content they are in it.

Artist unknown

Try to imagine a relationship between you and someone else as something tangible, something you can visualise.
See its size, its shape - maybe it has colour, texture and sound? perhaps it's constantly moving & changing shape, undulating like most relationships do, or perhaps you feel it as something more static and unmoving?
What does it look like and feel like for you?
Imagine and picture it as clearly as you possibly can.


This is the '3rd thing' that many relationship therapists, including myself, speak about. This is the relationship between us and another person, a 'thing' that has a life and a health of it's own. While it's solely created by the two people in the relationship it is also effected and changed by the environment we live in as well as what we fuel it with, what we deprive it of, what we keep out of it & how much attention and tending we give it as well as how much space each person takes up/gives in the relationship, and how they take/give that space. Just like people & plants! relationships that are not given attention & care will wither & diminish.


At different times it's normal for one person to occupy more space in a relationship, perhaps they are celebrating something and really want to share their excitement and the quality of the relating is about this happy event for some days or weeks. Perhaps someone has experienced a bereavement and needs the support of the other person for days, weeks and maybe months - their emotional needs may take up more space in the relationship than the other person for some time, but as long as there is overall balance & both people are happy enough with it, this is entirely healthy, normal & appropriate.


Equally, if we are experiencing emotional distress in a relationship, perhaps old wounds have opened or childhood traumas have been reawakened, then it's probable we'll also occupy a lot of emotional space in the relationship and, perhaps, be inconsiderate of the other person's needs at that time or in terms of how our behaviour is effecting that person.

This is where individual therapy can be really helpful so that what is arising for one person doesn't damage the other or the relationship, after all while a partner may be a support, they may listen and be sympathetic, it's not the job of a partner to be a therapist (even if they are one!). It's vital that we take personal responsibility for what we bring into, as well as that which we leave out of, the metaphorical space of the relationship if it is to be mutually satisfying for both people.


Relationships are co-creations, they are never created by one person on their own. Both people have equally created the relationship and so it's essential that both people reflect on & take equal responsibility for their contribution to the dynamics of that relationship.


It's also usual, in intimate sexual relationships, for one person to take up more sexual space than the other at different times. This can change from moment to moment as the flow of sexual expression & exploration moves between two people. This ebb & flow is altered by our mood, hormones, personality, previous sexual experiences and often how the rest of the relationship is & how happy or content one or both people are in their own lives as well as in the relationship itself.


What's crucial to notice here, however, is how much space we feel we both take up and offer for the other - to consciously consider this and, ideally, talk about it with the person concerned. This applies equally to the emotional & physical, sexual, space we occupy, of course.

Some people are good at taking or claiming their own sexual space - for example saying ''I'd really love if we could do x, y, or z now'' or ''can we slow down for a while'', whereas others may not feel so comfortable expressing their needs and may need to be asked, ''what would you like right now?'' or ''what can I do for you?''. Equally, for many people sex can be an emotionally overwhelming experience and thinking in the moment about what they need or want may be difficult, which is why conversations beforehand, and at other times outside 'the bedroom', about sex can be really helpful.

Questions such as, ''do you feel you have enough space to express yourself sexually?'' or ''do you feel I take too much control sexually?'' and ''how could it be different and better for you?'' may be helpful here.

That said, it may not be enough to simply ask the question, we also need to wait for an answer rather than just continuing with what we were doing!
Different people experience sex, sexual expression & exploration differently. Some people, particularly women, need to start slowly allowing the body time to become fully aroused. Did you know that it takes the average woman 20-30 minutes of what we call ''foreplay'' for her vagina to be sufficiently lubricated and aroused for maximum pleasure from penetration? Of course some women, some times, want less or more, but that is the measured evidence-based average - most people are surprised by that, including women! There's a lot more that could be said about that here but click here to read an article that pretty much covers it!


So, how can we know whether we're taking up too much space, emotionally, sexually or in another way in a relationship? How can we know if we're giving too much space to the other person and not claiming enough for ourselves? How can we know if we're offering the other person enough space in the relationship and really offering them the opportunity to claim that space rather than filling it again immediately ourselves because the other person doesn't take it quickly enough?

One of the simplest ways to do this is to listen!
Ask the other person whether they feel they, on average, occupy or have the opportunity to occupy half the space in the relationship - emotionally, sexually and in any other aspect of the relationship that occurs to you.
Ask them if they feel you occupy too much space and if they'd like you to slow down, pull back or in some other way create more space for them - whether they use that space or not doesn't really matter, what matters is that it's there if they want it not that the relationship is filled more with one person than the other in one or more of its aspects.


Sexually, another way to explore this is to really pay close conscious attention to our own and our sexual partner's responses.

Firstly, our sexual partner, does their body seem relaxed or tense? Relaxed = pleasure.
Does their breathing seem long & slow & relaxed? (fast & shallow is 'normal' during high arousal or when close to orgasm) Holding one's breath is something to be aware of & often associated with a trauma response.
Is their body moving freely, do they seem to be in control of it or do they seem rigid or limp? Rigid or limp may be trauma responses and a sign that the person is not 'present' in their body. If someone seems not present - slow down, stop, reconnect verbally.

Pay attention to anything that is significantly different to how the person usually is with you, for example if eye contact is normal between you are they able to maintain it during sex?
Do you really know what pleasure looks like in your partner's body? If you're not sure, or you don't feel sure, ask them to show you or at the very least to tell you how you would know they're enjoying something, for example, how does their body move when they're in pleasure? what sounds might they make? what can you look out for that communicates pleasure in their body? Follow that.

Secondly, pay close conscious attention to your self during sexual experiences.
Do you feel like it's possible you're taking too much space or control and therefore not leaving any or much space for the other person to express themselves or explore you?
Equally, do you feel you're not taking up enough sexual space, direction or control?
Has your pleasure become more or less important than your partner's in what's happening?
Are your needs and what you want from the sexual experience more or less important than your partner's or is it a shared mutually pleasure experience that's happening?

Ultimately, are you and your partner fully present in and with your own bodies, with sensations and with each other or has some part 'checked out'? This can be difficult to measure as we can make a lot of incorrect assumptions if we don't ask the questions explicitly. This is especially true if it's a new sexual partner where we really don't know anything about them sexually at all.

If we are not present, emotionally and physically with our own body, during sexual experiences then we are not present in the most important relationship of all - the one with ourselves. If we are not present with ourselves then we cannot be present with the other and we have abdicated shared responsibility for the space between us - the other person is then occupying too much of that space to the detriment of both individuals and the relationship between the two.

The same is true in reverse, of course, if we are taking up too much space in sexual situations and are not sensitive to the other person's responses, expression and desire then we have occupied too much space and deprived both of us of a mutually fulfilling experience as well as inflicted potential harm on the relationship that lives between us, maybe also the other person as well as ourselves.


One of the possible harms of not having space, not being given or taking space of a certain kind in a relationship is that it leads to possible resentment, feelings of being misunderstood and ignored, not being 'seen' or cared about - none of which are ingredients for a mutually satisfying relationship.


What we're aiming for is the diagram below, a balanced intersection of two people where there is equal space being occupied by both - emotionally and sexually as well as in all other aspects of the relationship.

Of course, as I've previously said, the space each person takes up or offers will vary over the course of the relationship & in some aspects one person may generally take up more space than the other, but, on average, does it balance out & are both people consciously aware of & happy with the space they & the other person occupies? This is the crucial question - if it doesn't balance out, generally, then there is a conversation to be had about it and if it does feel balanced, overall, to both then enjoy!


Revised 13/06/22