Why introverts need space in a relationship

As an introvert, it’s so important to take the space you need within a relationship. Ignoring this can lead to confusion, difficulty, fights and fear of commitment.

What is an introvert anyway?

The biggest difference between introverts and extroverts is where they derive their energy from. Marti Olsen Laney who wrote ‘The Introvert Advantage’ says ‘Introverts draw energy from their internal world of ideas, emotions and impressions’. This means that introverts need time on their own to replenish themselves.

On the other hand ‘extroverts are energised by the external world, by activities, people, places and things’ and can be quite happy going from one engagement to the next.

Often there can be a stigma attached to labelling yourself as an introvert. Extroverts make up approximately 50%* of the population, and traits of extroversion are highly praised, while traits of introversion are sometimes frowned upon.

Personally, I’ve never had any trouble identifying as an introvert. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had my head in a book. That’s one of the ways I love to recharge. Alone, with a book, in bed, with a cup of tea. Heaven.

Being around people 24/7 drains me. If I’m at a busy social gathering, after a while I feel depleted and need to slip away to recharge my batteries. I knew that about my personality.

But one thing I didn’t realise, was how introversion was affecting my romantic relationships.
* From the book 'Introvert Power', by Laurie Helgoe.

An unexpected revelation

The first clue I had to this was on a 7-week coaching programme many years ago. The programme was to help clear whatever blocks were in the way in my love life.

In the first session, my coach led me through a beautiful visualisation with the intention of letting me feel what it felt like to be in the kind of relationship I wanted. She got me to close my eyes, imagine I was at home, and the love of my life was there with me.

“He comes up behind you when you’re in the kitchen washing the dishes and puts his arms around you and kisses you. Imagine you can hear him upstairs, taking a shower… now he’s downstairs talking on the phone.”

On and on she went, describing him being in my space, doing normal things, and the more and more upset I began to get. I could feel my whole body tightening, my throat constricting, a feeling of panic rising in me. Tears started to roll down my cheeks.

I opened my eyes. “I want him out!” I said. “Get him out of my space!”

The coach looked at me, stunned. “What do you mean?” she said.

“I want him out of my space.” I said, the tears rolling down my face.

What was going on?

I felt ridiculous. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t this what I wanted? Here she was, describing this dream scenario, and all I wanted was for him to leave!

I felt constricted, trapped and panicky. Like I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t recharge if he was there all the time! There was nowhere to escape to. And what if I got sad or upset?

Back then, I didn’t realise that negative feelings were also something to be shared. I thought they were things to hide. I didn’t want to let him see me like that! This was long before Brene Brown and the power of vulnerability. Back then I thought you had to be perfect to be loved.

Intense feelings

One thing I did know was that at the beginning of a relationship, everything was so intense, and I would get overwhelmed with feelings. If I spent a few days at my partner’s place without time on my own, I always felt off kilter.

I’d need to retreat into my own space to process what was going on, and write it out. The idea of having someone there while I was doing that made me feel really uncomfortable.

Introverts and extroverts have different brain pathways

What I didn’t realise was that the brains of introverts and extroverts work very differently. In the brains of introverts outside stimulus travels down the acetylcholine pathway, which is much longer. As a result introverts think and feel deeply about things and it takes them much more time for them to process information. They need time on their own to clear their heads and untangle their thoughts.

Stimulus in extrovert brains travels down the dopamine pathway, which is much shorter and less complicated, so they process information much more quickly. They are much quicker to make up their minds and like to process things by talking it through with others.
That means, if you’re an introvert in relationship with an extrovert you’re going to need time on your own, whereas they may not. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s just the way you’re wired.

It’s so important to understand, because if you’re looking for space, you have to be the one to claim it. Your extrovert partner doesn’t need it in the same way. Understanding yourself and giving yourself permission to take time out is vital for your health and the health of the relationship. If you don’t, there can be serious consequences.

The housewarming breakup

During the coaching session, as I started to reflect, a memory popped into my head of breaking up with a serious boyfriend. At the time we were dating, I was in the process of buying a house in Belfast. I’d come back to live there after being away at college, and I’d been living with my parents. It took ages to find a house, but eventually I did.

The day I got the keys to the house, I threw a housewarming party. There was no furniture in there yet, people were sitting on the wooden floors or on folding chairs drinking, celebrating with me. My boyfriend was directing people to the toilet or the kitchen, and he was doing it, as though it was his house. As though he’d soon be moving in.

It wasn’t something we’d ever discussed, but I could tell that’s what he was thinking. I began to feel that constricted feeling. As the night wore on, and he directed more and more people around my house, I began to feel panicky. There was no way this was happening. There was no way he was moving in. I couldn’t have him there.

The feelings built and built, and that night I ended up splitting up with him as the party continued downstairs. It felt very clear. If I didn’t want him to live with me, then we shouldn’t be together. It was very straightforward.

Except it wasn’t. I had no idea what was driving me, I just knew that I couldn’t have him there. I thought it was because the relationship wasn’t right, I never considered that it could be something else. I certainly never imagined it could be something to do with the way I process information and feelings! The visualisation showed me that I could have this reaction, even with an imaginary person! This was a huge lightbulb moment.

A room of my own

As I unpacked it with the coach, I decided that if I was going to move in with someone in the future, I’d need to have my own space. My own room that I could write in, meditate in, be creative in or do whatever I want. A place I could retreat to if I was upset. A place that would let me process my emotions.

It seemed so self-indulgent, to have my own room. What about the cost? Wouldn’t that be more expensive? Why should I have a room of my own when he didn’t?

I breathed into all the objections. Could I give myself this? Could I give myself this space? If I didn’t, I knew I wouldn’t be able to give myself the relationship I wanted.

So I made a pledge to myself, that when I met someone I wanted to live with, that one of my conditions of moving in with him would be to have my own room.

Living together

That was my pledge and I stuck to it. When Oli and I were talking about moving in together, I told him that the only condition was, that I needed a room of my own. To my surprise, he thought it was a good idea! And he decided he needed a room of his own too! It makes sense because we both work from home.

I’d never lived with anyone before, and I was nervous moving in with him. But what I couldn’t expect was how easy it’s been. I can have my own space with him there. I can go off to my little room anytime, if I need to process things or meditate, and he can do the same.

I know that if I hadn’t insisted on my condition, things could’ve been very different. I’m sure we would’ve had fights because I didn’t have the space I needed to figure out what was going on with me.

5 questions to give yourself space

So if you’re an introvert, take a moment to think about how you can give yourself the space you need within a relationship.
These five questions can help:
1.  Notice how much time you can spend with your partner before you start feeling antsy. What’s your cut off point? Pay attention to it, and then go home when you reach it.

2. What do you need to do to process your feelings and recharge? e.g. journalling, meditating, time alone?

3. Would you like some alone time while they're in your space?  Let them know you may need to excuse yourself for a while to meditate or journal.

4. If they often stay at yours, let them know you may sometimes ask them to leave when you need some space. If you tell them in advance, and explain why, it makes things a lot easier, and no one’s feelings get hurt.

5. What do you need to be able to move in with someone? Do you need a room of your own? Or do you need even more space? Think outside the box here! Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter lived in separate houses next door to each other during their relationship, and it worked for them.

It may be quirky, but whatever you need, give yourself permission to have it. Introverts often feel they should suppress what they need because it’s not the same as everyone else. Stop making yourself wrong. Claim the space you need without shame. Otherwise, without realising it, it could be standing in the way of having the relationship you desire.

I’d love to hear from you!

Are you an introvert? How has this affected your relationships? Has it ever affected you moving in with someone?

And if you’re an extrovert, have you ever dated an introvert? Does it help to understand how their brains process information differently?

I’d love to hear your comments, please post them below.

4 Comments

  • Kennedy
    I'm introvert and it's really affect my relationship with others, what should I do?because I don't want it
    • Hi Kennedy, you can't change whether or not you're an introvert or an extrovert, it's actually to do with the way your brain is wired and the ways in which you recharge your energy. But you can definitely find some strategies to deal with the aspects of introversion that hold you back. In what way does introversion negatively affect your relationship with others? If you give me more detail, I can give some strategies to help.
  • Adele
    I've never considered myself to be an extrovert, because I feel like I've always been rather shy and I'm not the type to go out and party. However, after reading this, and going through my current situation, I'm starting to change my view that shyness and being a social butterfly has nothing to do with it. My boyfriend and I have been together for 3 years, the first two years were great, the last year, the one in which we lived together, I eventually saw a decline in affection from him. Once it came time to renew our lease he said he wanted to get his own place because he was realizing he was extremely introverted and couldn't get his me time where we were living (he didn't have his own space). I agreed to this new idea of couples who live apart together, even though I would prefer to live together. On our move out day, he said he needed a few weeks to himself, but a couple days later he was inviting me over for dinner. I took that as a sign that things were back to how they were when we were first living apart. Fast forward about 4 weeks to now, and that's not the case. He told me he needs a break (the one I think he wanted in the beginning but never got) and we've cut off all contact until he's ready. Up until articles like these, I've had a really hard time comprehending how he can feel this way, but I think I'm pretty much a true extrovert and he's the opposite. I hate sitting at home, especially on the weekends. I want to be out somewhere doing something. My boyfriend told me during this break he literally wants to just sit at home and chill. That sounds like torture to me, a couple of weeks of nothing but Netflix, books, video games, etc? I work from home so that makes it sound even more awful. So while this whole situation has been heartbreaking for me, I at least have a little better understanding of what he's going through.
    • Hi Adele, Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I'm so glad that the article has given you a window into his world. It sounds like your boyfriend just needs time out to recharge, and I'm sure that's much easier to cope with when you understand the reasons why. Your boyfriend may not understand the differences between introverts and extroverts himself, and he may not be able to articulate clearly why he needs this time out. It took me a long time to figure it out. If you're interested in finding out more about introverts, I found the book The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Lany very helpful. It might give you a further insight into your boyfriend's world, and put your mind at ease. He might find it useful to read himself when you reconnect. It can be a huge relief for introverts to read books like this, as it validates a genuine need they may not fully understand, and it then makes it easier to explain to others and take the time that they need. Every good wish for your relationship, I hope that you come back together after this break and it is stronger as a result :)

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