In 2011 I was living in Tucson, Arizona. Under a wonky skyline made up of Sahuaros, both baby and geriatric, my pug Violet and I carved out our tiny existence. I spent my days at the University of Arizona Poetry Centre where I was pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. In the evenings I mostly sat on the porch with my boyfriend Ted, another creative writing student, and gossiped about other people in our graduate program or argued over Woody Allen or whether or not giving your child braces was good or bad. Ted thought that grappling with our god-given ‘flaws’ was formative in an important way and he said this definitely included braces. I thought growing up with really bad teeth could be pretty hard and I was willing to spare my hypothetical children this hardship.
One semester I wrote a piece about live apart-ners. Live apartners, also known as couples that live apart together (LAT), or simply apartners refers to committed couples who, for a variety of reasons, keep separate residences. I should be explicit about the implications of the word marriage here. In the context of this post, I assume marriage to mean long-term commitment, regardless of gender, sex, or paperwork.
Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton were an example of live apartners, although they are no longer together as of 2014. Mia Farrow and Woody Allen famously lived in apartments that were situated on either side of Central Park. Before the divorce, and the allegations of sexual abuse, Farrow and Allen extolled the advantages of their living arrangements, describing the way they would wave to one another from their respective homes. Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were together for 26 years and never shared a home. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in adjoining houses, connected symbolically and structurally by a narrow steel bridge. The latter arrangement is perhaps that which most appeals to me, allowing as it does both daily contact and daily separation.
At the time, some of my classmates thought this essay was ‘mean-spirited’. I think they mistakenly connected my consideration of alternative living arrangements with my feelings towards Ted. Maybe wanting space from my partner seemed like a clear indicator that I wasn’t that into him and writing about that in a public forum seemed cruel. Women, after all, are generally portrayed as needy, clingy, always needing to artificially prolong the time between contacts so as not to appear desperate. In the light of these norms, wanting space seemed profoundly pathological I guess.
When I describe my relationship with Ted to people, I often describe it as an intense meeting of the minds. We agreed on almost everything; Manhattan was better than Annie Hall, being a good person was more important than being a good writer, Dads were embarrassing, poetry slams were pretentious etc. We didn’t agree on food-Ted liked baked goods and Wonderbread and what I called “weird quiches” and I liked expensive salads with micro greens and seasonal vegetables. We also didn’t agree on music. Ted could never forgive me for hating Prince or liking Boyce Avenue. Incidentally,Ted was the kindest man I had ever met. But despite the profound meeting of our respective minds, Ted and I negotiated space differently. I wanted lots and Ted wanted less. Ted always responded immediately to text messages with thoughtful deep witty words, while I sometimes delayed responding for hours or failed to acknowledge a message. Ted wrote a short story about this discrepancy titled “Space, Whether, and Why” . In this story he said that he struggled to understand the concept of wanting space from someone you love. He said he couldn’t picture asking for space of granting space in such an instance. He would simply say “no space between us”. I get that sentiment in theory, but in reality things didn’t play out that way.
I had never lived with a partner until I got married two years ago. I wouldn’t want to live apart from my husband, but perhaps that’s easy to say given the fact that I am married to another person who needs a lot of space. The irony is, sometimes it feels like he needs too much space.
After dating Ted and before marrying my current husband, I dated a guy who also wanted lots of space. He wanted me to take a bath with candles when he got home from work every day. To go off into the bathroom and shut the door so no sound could seep through. He needed time to himself, away from me–the implication being that I created a degree of stress or irritation commensurate with the stress he had experienced all day at work. I remember lying in the bathtub and understanding the concept of ‘no space between us’. Even though the request for time alone was reasonable, it left me feeling marginal and rejected. It surely felt like a harbinger for problems to come. When my need for space butted up against another person’s need for even more space, a tiny alarm sounded inside my heart, a strangled voice eeeeked “no space between us”.
Bell Hooks writes that “knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape”. This concept has always felt easy for me–except in the case of an even vaster need for space. Relationships in my life, and particularly female friendships, have suffered–and some have ended–due to what I’m told is my unreasonable need for ‘alone time’. This need has felt so shameful at times because, while I love my friends, the amount of time I can spend in the company of another human being is severely time limited. After a couple hours I start to feel I want to climb out of my own skin–like when cartoons unzip themselves and leave their outer shell behind like a pile of dirty laundry. The friendships and relationships that have endured have generally involved a mutuality of tolerance, meaning the other person has tolerated my need for solitude and I have tolerated what often feels like an excessive need for connection. As with so many things, there is no perfect amount of space in a relationship, marriage or otherwise. It is a spectrum that ranges from no space between us to mostly space between us. There is no right or wrong amount of space, only the right or wrong amount of space for two people.