Moving in Together: Personal Space

This may be a personal quirk, but I firmly believe everyone needs some personal space, a spot in their home that is “theirs.” Much like Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” but it may actually be a chair, a spot on the porch, a corner of the attic, or any place else that works. Unsurprisingly, introverts seem to place more importance on having personal space than extroverts, but I’ve known many an extrovert who had their favorite chair to curl up in while they talked on the phone, an god help the person who was sitting that chair when the extrovert wanted to call their best friend.

I don’t fully understand the psychological importance of having a personal space. I expect that this need is at least partly cultural, and people who grow up in more communal cultures will experience personal space very differently from those of us in the very individualistic US. I do distinctly remember reading a New Yorker discussing the way everyone in NYC public transit so pointedly ignores each other and never even says hello—a practice that many newcomers to the city see as rude. In crowded New York City, this “ignoring” each other is actually a way to create some psychological privacy, in a place where physical privacy can be near-impossible.

In any case, when polyfolk move in together, everyone will sooner or later lay unofficial claim to a spot in the home as “theirs”. if you are moving into an entirely new home together, this is usually a fairly smooth and unconscious process. Denice gravitates towards the sunny spot in the living room where she feels most comfortable, while Dave finds himself spending a lot of time at the kitchen table, and Danny (and Danny’s iPhone) put down roots in the office.

Of course, Dave’s personal space also being the kitchen table can cause conflict between Dave’s need for whatever he uses the table for and the rest of the family using the table for cooking and meals. This kind of thing will just need to be negotiated as it comes up.

On the other hand, if Danny is moving into a home that Dave and Denice have lived in for five years, Danny may have trouble finding a spot. Maybe Dave and Denice have put every corner for their home to use. Maybe Danny feels like he’s intruding if they pick a spot as “theirs,” even an other-wise unused spot. Maybe Danny gravitates towards the spot that Denice’s best friend always sits in.

Normally, tis kind of thing will sort itself out naturally. If it doesn’t, then don’t be afraid to sit down together and talk about it.

If one of your poly partners is having trouble finding a spot to be “theirs,” I would consider that a sign that they aren’t feeling comfortable/welcome/at home. Humans are creatures of habit. We like having our own little “nests” to come back to. So if you need a space and haven’t found one, don’t be afraid to talk with your partners about it. It may be a sign of deeper problems in the relationship or it may just mean that you need to rearrange the living room furniture so that one comfy chair catches the afternoon sun.

Relationship Space

Every so often I come across a discussion about designating something (Usually a bed, sometimes a restaurant or other outing) as being only for a primary couple. The idea is the primary couple needs something special and just for them, which is off limits to any secondaries (these discussions almost always involve hierarchical poly). These discussions can get heated. Some people chime in to support the right of the primary relationship to protect itself and its space. Others defend the secondary relationship and saying the couple’s bed makes OSOs second-class citizens in their own relationships.

When I was growing up, my mother had a room she set aside as an office. No one went into her office without first knocking on the door and getting permission. Even my dad, who ran the house in every other way, didn’t go in unless he needed to.

After I moved out of my parents house, I always had ‘my’ chair. Usually a comfy chair I could sit in for hours at a time, relaxing, reading, or napping. More than once, when I was sick or in my third trimester, I slept in my designated chair. It wasn’t discussed, but my partners, friends and roommates understood that the chair (whichever chair it was at the time) was my space, and they respected it.

My current partner’s space is his computer and desk. I can rearrange our whole home, paint the walls, tear up the floors, change everything and anything, and he won’t care. Touch his desk? Don’t. Ever. Touch. the Desk. I may (rarely) ask permission to use his computer if I need something I can’t do on mine, but his computer is his space. I respect that.

People need space. Whether literal space (their own room, chair or desk,) or metaphorical space (not being disturbed while they watch their favorite show, having a spa day once a month, whatever it is extroverts do to take care of themselves), everyone needs some bit of personal space.  In a healthy relationship, people respect that need for space and don’t intrude.

Relationships need space too. This is, I think, where the ‘couples bed’ idea comes from. The need and desire to set something aside for a relationship can be as normal and healthy as claiming a corner of your home as your personal space.

Some relationships don’t an official relationship space. My partner and I share so many things, from medical insanity to video games, we’ve never felt the need for a set space for our relationship. We need space away from each other more than we need space together!

On the other hand, my first triad needed couple spaces. I was so intent on our doing everything together, I didn’t realize the relationships between us as individuals were being neglected. If we had designated “Mondays w/ partner A, Wednesdays w/ partner B, Fridays they have guys night and Saturday is family day for all of us to spend together” our relationships would have been much healthier.

As you might have figured out by now, in theory I support a couple or relationship saying they need a specific space to be just for them. However, most discussions I’ve seen about ‘couple beds’ and other relationship spaces have problems. They are less about establishing personal space for the relationship in question, and more about excluding other relationships. Relationship space can be healthy–but it can also be exclusionary and damaging.

My mother having a room of her own wasn’t a big deal because we lived in a big house. Claiming a room just for her would have been a big problem if we lived in a small apartment, or if her office was the only room with an internet connection. My claiming a single chair in a living room with three chairs and couch, also not a big deal. Claiming the only chair in the apartment as ‘my space’ and making everyone else sit on the floor would be a really crappy thing to do.

A couple (or triad, or quad, or…) bed can be healthy if there’s a guest bed for OSOs to use when they visit. In a home with only one bedroom, a couple bed may mean going to your secondary’s home (assuming THEY don’t have a couple bed) or going to a hotel. This kind of restriction can make it difficult or impossible for the secondary relationship to function. Your relationship space actively interfering with other relationships is exclusionary and damaging.

There is nothing wrong with a couple (or triad, or whatever) deciding a certain restaurant will be their space which they always go to together. However when you are saying things like this: “We need space to protect our primary relationship!” “No, I will not be excluded from someplace just because you go there with your girlfriend!” You are demeaning the other relationships, saying they must respect your space, but do not deserve their own space.

Just like people, some relationships need more space than others. And like people, some relationships will use ‘needing space’ as an excuse to push others away or close themselves off. If you need designate relationship space, make sure your space is not crowding out others, and you aren’t using ‘needing space’ in an unhealthy way. Once you’ve done that, go ahead and establish the space you need.

And remember to respect the space others need too!