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“Still Too Close for Comfort”: The Paradox of Closeness

In a previous post, we looked at some recent research on the hidden risks of closeness in romantic relationships. It turns out that the closeness that people feel in romantic relationships may not be so beneficial when it doesn’t match the closeness they would ideally like. People who don’t feel close enough to their romantic partners tend to be more depressed, less satisfied with their relationships, and less committed to their partners, and they, not surprisingly, think about breaking up more often.1 And guess what? The same is true of people who feel too close to their romantic partners. These findings raise questions about what couples can do when the closeness one or both partner's desire is different from the closeness they actually feel. 

Not close enough?

We have written before on the problem of wanting to feel more closeness. One solution is for couples to participate in exciting, new activities together. Couples who spend time doing fun and interesting new things together experience more closeness and satisfaction.2 Ever wonder why marriage counselors sometimes recommend that couples spice things up a bit? These benefits may be part of the reason: The more we share new and exciting experiences with other people, the more opportunities we have for personal growth through these experiences—what researchers call self-expansion. The more we go through the process of self-expansion with our romantic partners, the closer we feel to them.

Too close for comfort?

So what about those who feel “too close for comfort?” Well, that’s admittedly a more challenging issue to deal with. Consider the risks of feeling closer to your partner than you’d like to be (a.k.a., feeling “smothered”). Feeling this way might be threatening to your sense of personal control and identity—that is, there’s too much “we” and not enough “me.”3 The key for those who feel this way in their relationships may be to find a safe amount of distance within their relationships.

Finding that safe distance is, of course, the hard part. Clarifying the line between you and your partner may make you feel more satisfied with your relationship. You can set aside certain parts of your life for you to enjoy without your partner (for example, you can pick up a hobby or skill on your own, or reserve “me time” during weekdays by hitting the gym after work). Keep in mind however that this “safe distance” could potentially become unsafe if it comes at the cost of your partner’s satisfaction (told you this is the hard part!).

If the new, lower level of closeness you’re trying to establish is poorly matched with the level of closeness that your partner is OK with, things could become more difficult in the relationship. When partners crave opposing levels of closeness, it may be especially important that they communicate their desires to one another so they can mutually agree on a happy medium for their shared closeness. No doubt, this means both partners will need to sacrifice a little. However, being willing to make such sacrifices for the good of a relationship can enhance partners’ trust and make them both more committed to their relationship.4

At the end of the day, the most satisfying relationships are ones in which both partners want similar levels of closeness. In those cases, each partner can move toward the “we-ness” (and me-ness) they both want. This allows even the most “distance-craving” partners to simultaneously enjoy their personal space, as well as the unique benefits of closeness in their relationships.

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1Frost, D. M., & Forrester, C. (2013). Closeness discrepancies in romantic relationships: Implications for relational well-being, stability, and mental health. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(4), 456-469.

2Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. E. (2000). Couples' shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 273.

3Agnew, C. R., Van Lange, P. A. M., Rusbult, C. E., & Langston, C. A. (1998). Cognitive interdependence: Commitment and the mental representation of close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 939-954.

4Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(5), 942-966.

Fred Clavél, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles

Fred is interested in social support dynamics in romantic couples, the effects of context on relationships, relationships and health & well-being, and issues of the self in relationships. He draws primarily on theories of social exchange, attachment, motivation, and social cognition in his research.

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