The expression caught on in the 1970s and is now so common as to be a cliché—but it’s still as confusing as ever.
The Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been praised for the “intricate,” “meticulously created” fictional 1958 world that the titular comedian Midge Maisel and her loved ones inhabit. But while the visuals of the series may be transporting, the dialogue, for the sociologist Jay Livingston, is occasionally jarring. He’s written a couple of blog posts about the anachronistic words and phrases characters have used on the show—“totally,” “kicking ass,” and “alternate universe” among them.
The second season of Mrs. Maisel just came out, and in the first episode, Livingston heard another modern phrase, this time spoken by Midge’s estranged husband, Joel Maisel: “I think it would be better to have a little space right now,” he tells her.
But in the 1950s, people didn’t ask for “space” in a relationship. According to Google Ngram, the phrase need some space was nearly nonexistent, in published books at least, until the 1970s, and it really took off in subsequent decades. The phrase likely entered the lexicon a few years before it showed up in this data (accounting for the time it takes for books to get to publication), the linguist Scott Kiesling of the University of Pittsburgh told me, “so it was probably there in the ’60s as a popular phrase.”
It makes sense that this phrase, which people use to assert their individuality within a relationship, didn’t catch on until the ’60s and ’70s, when the sexual revolution and the women’s-rights movement helped loosen the vise grip of marriage. The United States was emerging from a time when the median age of marriage was the youngest it had ever been, and the strict gender roles expected in heterosexual relationships meant that asking for “space” would have been unnecessary for most men and impossible for most women.
“Husbands, traditionally, and men in relationships had a lot of space because they were the ones who went out to work and who were still allowed to go out with their friends,” says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College. But space, she says, is “just not a concept that women in the 1950s and ’60s were allowed in relationships.”
In the 1970s, as young people began delaying marriage (a trend that would only accelerate in the decades to follow), and, presumably, spending more time dating before settling down, self-help books began to populate the nation’s shelves. “These new self-help ideas are specifically about getting people to recognize and accept their individual needs as opposed to the demands that family puts on you,” Coontz says.
At the same time, in the psychology world, Gestalt therapy was catching on—a form of psychotherapy that focuses on the individual’s needs and responsibilities. Fritz Perls, the German psychiatrist who founded the method, summed it up thusly in the “Gestalt prayer,” circa 1969:
I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.
Though the exact origins of needing some space are unknown, multiple people I spoke with for this story said that they suspected the idea came from the same stew that produced individualistic psychotherapy ideas and popular self-help. Indeed, it seems that the phrase is almost always used in reference to the self. Looking at Google Ngram again, it’s clear that “I need some space” is a far more common thing to say than “You need some space” or even “We need some space.”
Frequency of variations on “need some space” over time
Space for oneself, or a lack thereof, likely became a salient issue for couples from the ’70s on, according to Coontz. “That was a period when expectations of intimacy were actually getting larger,” she says. “This is the time when we first begin to think that men and women should be really good friends as opposed to just two gender-role stereotypes.” This creates the possibility for a deeper, more meaningful relationship, but when people start expecting their partner to fill more of their needs, they may find themselves feeling too close, too interdependent.
Wherever the phrase came from, once it was out there, it likely fueled its own acceleration. “Language gives you tools,” says Kiesling, “and tools often make you do things in particular ways that you wouldn’t otherwise do.” Once needing some space was a commonly understood term, it stands to reason that a person wanting some time away from her partner, or to put the brakes on a relationship, would likely ask for “space” rather than finding another way to convey her meaning.
But “space” is a vague thing to need, and that lack of clarity can be frustrating for the person who is being asked to give it. The phrase is so common now as to be cliché, and yet there are still seemingly endless Reddit threads, Quora questions, and Yahoo Answers posts from worried lovers all beseeching: “When my partner asks for ‘space,’ what does he really mean?”
According to William Bumberry, a couples’ therapist in St. Louis who works with the Gottman Institute, a person who says she needs space in a relationship is typically saying one of two things: Either she wants space from her partner, which Bumberry says is often “a step toward the dissolution of a relationship,” or she wants space for herself, to reflect on her own needs and desires, or on what is and isn’t working in the relationship. “In my experience,” Bumberry says, the people who ask for space for themselves tend to “at least come back and really give the relationship a good effort.”
Those are two very different messages, with two very different potential outcomes. “Space” could spell doom for a relationship, or it could herald a period of renewal. No wonder the phrase sparks such anxiety.
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Interestingly, according to Bumberry, the concept of needing space is particularly stressful for heterosexual couples. For gay and lesbian couples, he says, “there seems to be less panic over this.” Some research shows that homosexual couples are more upbeat in the face of relationship conflict and experience fewer negative emotions. And, Bumberry adds, “historically in the gay community, it’s been more easily accepted in an intimate relationship that you don’t possess somebody; they have a right to be themselves too.” The history of heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, carries a different message.
For any couple, being clear about just what “needing space” means and doesn’t mean can help partners know where they stand. Bumberry referenced a situation with a couple he works with, in which the woman was staying at her mother’s house. Bumberry asked if she and her husband were separated, and the woman said, “No, we’re just taking some space. Living at my mom’s isn’t about leaving the marriage, it’s about finding myself.” That’s a case where asking for “space” could easily lead to a misunderstanding without her additional clarification.
“To me, when somebody asks for ‘space,’ that’s like the title of an essay,” Bumberry says. “That’s the title—now tell me what that means.”