Few things are as frightening or nerve-wracking as a man needing space. Maybe he comes right out and tells you he needs some space, or maybe you notice he’s backing away … you haven’t seen him in a while, his texts or calls are shorter and less frequent, and you can just feel it in your gut that something is amiss.
If you ask him what’s going on and why he’s being this way, he might come right out and say he needs some space (which does nothing to assuage your mounting anxiety), or he might say something to indicate it in an indirect way, like he needs to focus on work right now, or he’s really stressed, or he thinks you should be spending some time focusing on yourself. Even worse, he may pretend like everything is totally normal, making you feel crazy, even though you know you’re not crazy and something is just not right here!
A man might ask for space in the beginning of a relationship, or when things are more serious, or even after you’re married. No matter what, it’s a horrible feeling and you can’t stop your mind from spinning and fearing the worst. You try to figure out what you could have done wrong, and you strategize about ways to make things better and get the relationship back on track. This usually doesn’t work; if anything it makes the situation even worse.
Here’s the thing that’s important to realize: men are not women. The way they process and experience things is different. Taking space is a natural coping mechanism for most men, just as seeking out support from friends and loved ones is a natural coping mechanism for most women.
When a man needs space, it often has little, if anything, to do with you.
But let’s get into it a little deeper and look at common reasons and scenarios where men need space, and what you can do about it.
The number-one reason a man pulls away is because he is stressed. The source of his stress could be the result of some issue in the relationship, but it might not have anything to do with you at all.
Men don’t typically like to talk about their problems and see it as a sign of weakness. A man prides himself on being able to solve issues and can feel extremely unsettled and off balance when problems emerge in his own life that he’s not able to resolve. Men will typically view themselves as weak and incapable if they voice their feelings or lean on other people for help or support. A guy might do it, but he’ll typically feel like a loser or weakling for asking for support or even talking about his feelings. The way women handle difficult emotions is probably much more psychologically healthy and healing, but it is what it is.
To cope with whatever stress he is facing, a man will typically withdraw and go deep into what has become known as a metaphorical “man cave.” He will want to hide away until he has reached a solution. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s sitting down and strategizing on ways to solve the problem. Sometimes he’ll just immerse himself completely in something else, like playing video games for hours on end or immersing himself in work or sports.
Men have a much harder time processing and handling emotions than women do. They don’t have the same kinds of support systems, and sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings just doesn’t come naturally to them. For him, escaping from his feelings temporarily is sometimes more beneficial than trying to sort through them.
A University of Vienna neuroscience lab found that men become more self-centered and less empathetic when they’re stressed out. Women, however, react in the opposite way, becoming “prosocial” and better able to distinguish their own emotions and intentions from those of other people. So it isn’t personal, it’s just his process!
What to do: The biggest mistake a woman can make when he is in this mode is to force him to talk about it. And even worse is when she tries to solve the problem for him.
Even though your intentions are pure, when you offer up solutions he feels emasculated. Men need to feel like they are in charge of their lives, like they are capable of solving whatever comes up. He prides himself on being able to solve things, and when you try to do it for him he gets the message that you don’t trust that he’ll be able to figure it out on his own, and it makes him feel even worse.
When he is under stress, just give him space and try not to take it personally. If you get angry or frustrated with him, he will just see you as another source of stress in his life, and it will put more strain on the relationship.
Why is this so hard? Even though most women know about the “man cave,” they still have a hard time accepting it because women cope with stress very differently. When a woman is upset, she will typically want to talk about it with those she feels closest to. Talking about it is therapeutic, and a solution isn’t necessary.
Because of this, if a man doesn’t want to talk about his problems, the woman can take it to mean that he doesn’t feel close to her, or doesn’t fully trust her or care about her. She feels shut out and rejected and may come to resent him for it, thus exacerbating any problems that already exist. It’s important to realize that when a man pulls back, he isn’t shutting you out. It is just his process, and he will be back and better than ever once he has a handle on whatever it going on.
If he does come to you, don’t try to solve the problem for him. Just listen. You can offer advice if he asks, but only if he asks.
TAKE THE QUIZ: Is he Losing Interest?
Space in a committed relationship
Another main reason a guy can need to take space in a relationship is if his needs aren’t being met or he feels unappreciated. Guys aren’t always able to articulate their emotional needs. It could be because they’ve been conditioned by society not to talk about such things or because they don’t have the language to express what it is they want and need. Some men don’t even realize their own emotional deficits, and that is an area where you can be a huge help to him!
A man won’t always come right out and tell you what he needs from you, but he will know it when he gets it. So he might not tell you that he really needs your approval and appreciation. Maybe you do show him appreciation, but he needs more and he doesn’t know how to tell you that. Instead, he backs away. He isn’t as present or engaged, and you feel a palpable space forming and don’t know how to break through.
MORE: 3 Reasons Men Pull Away
What to do: Try to pay attention to what lights him up and what shuts him down. If he is already deep in the “man cave,” engage in an open, empathetic dialogue and ask him what it is that you could do more of to make him feel good. You might be surprised by what he tells you. And no matter what it is, try not to get defensive. Your instinctive response might be, “I do that all the time!” but try to restrain yourself and hear him out.
You can also voice what it is you need from him. In any relationship, it’s important to check in with your partner to make sure both people are happy and getting what they need to feel loved. When you approach him from a place of genuinely wanting to make the relationship better and wanting to make him feel loved, he will be receptive to you.
Space in the beginning of a relationship
Many women, myself included, have been in situations where they’re dating a guy, things are going great, they’re spending more and more time together, getting closer and closer … and then he starts pulling away. He might say he needs space, or he might just start taking it without warning. And the woman is baffled. What went wrong? She thought everything was going so well!
These situations usually happen for one of two reasons. The first is a very subtle, sneaky one. It comes from a mindset shift that happens within you. When a relationship starts to get a lot more serious, a lot of women reflexively freak out and become consumed with the fear that things won’t work out. This fear causes them to cling tighter to the relationship, to associate their self-worth with how the guy feels. They think about the relationship constantly, obsess over what things mean, and analyze the “signs” looking for bad omens.