If too much closeness in your intimate relationship is making you feel claustrophobic, this episode is for you. What should we do when closeness becomes too much?

Today I talk about the importance of honoring our need for space. I also explain how to dive inside of ourselves to find the right words to say what we need from our partners and discuss the sorts of secondary feelings that can come up when we are feeling too much closeness. I also share the important work of reframing these feelings as a gift.

Listen in to learn what feelings of claustrophobia in relationships mean, what sparks them, and what you can do to turn that need for distance into deeper intimacy.

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Show Notes:


  • What does relationship claustrophobia mean
  • How to know when you need space
  • What happens when we suppress our need for space
  • Is it normal to feel claustrophobic in a relationship
  • What to do when one person is feeling too much closeness in a relationship


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Does Too Much Closeness Make You Claustrophobic?


Do you ever start feeling uncomfortable when there’s just too much closeness, or claustrophobic, or suffocated, or you just need more space, and you wonder what that is? That someone’s being available and you’re kind of pulling away. Stay tuned to this episode to learn more about what that is, what sparks it, and what you can do to turn that need for distance into deeper intimacy.

Hey everybody, welcome to the Deeper Dating Podcast. I’m Ken Page, and I’m your host. I’m a psychotherapist. I’m the author of the bestselling book, Deeper Dating: How to Drop the Games of Seduction and Discover the Power of Intimacy, the founder of the Deeper Dating® Intensive, and someone who’s really glad to be here, a student of intimacy myself my whole life.

In this episode, we’re going to talk about something that plagues a lot of people and I know has plagued me, which is this feeling of claustrophobia, when it just seems like there’s too much closeness or too much closeness too quickly in an intimate relationship. We’re going to dive into that in a minute, but I just want to say that if you want to learn more about the Deeper Dating® approach to deeper intimacy and self-love, just go to deeperdatingpodcast.com.

There are scads of free episodes. There’s transcripts of every episode. And if you join my mailing list, you can get some wonderful gifts. An audio meditation, a beautiful e-book and a personal journal to help you in your journey. And that’s all available for free at deeperdatingpodcast.com. And let me just say that if you like this work and you’re interested in it and you want to subscribe and leave a review, I would love that too.


When our innate need for space, for privacy and for distance, or even just like we get triggered around things that feel traumatic or vulnerable or intense...when we get the message that we're not supposed to feel those things, that… Click To Tweet


But okay, I’m going to jump in now because this is a topic that’s really close to my heart and I have been in so many groups where I’ve asked people if they experience this, and so many people have. It’s this experience of claustrophobia, like, “I can’t breathe. I need to get out of here. I need space.”

When closeness all of a sudden becomes too much. And obviously claustrophobia or a sense of suffocation or needing to get away means that we need more space. That’s pretty clear. What’s not so clear…

And the bigger issue is the honoring of our need for space, because I think culturally we are taught that when you need too much space, when you need a break, when you need to pull back, that that’s a sign that you are afraid of intimacy, you’re not strong enough for intimacy, you’re not loving enough for intimacy.

And really the truth of the matter is that intimacy is a profound force of nature and that act of rocking back and forth of moving into closeness and then coming back so we can find ourselves and reclaim ourselves. And then going forward again. This kind of rocking motion is really a hallmark of deep intimacy, but our culture tells us we can’t have it.


Does Too Much Closeness Make You Claustrophobic?

A big piece of this is recognizing when we need space, even if we don’t like the reason why we need it… that experience needs to be honored.


Here’s another place we can’t have it. In sex. Because if you think about how sex is portrayed, it is this fierce slam bang head on kind of intense… A friend of mine calls it collision sex. That’s one kind of sex. And another is this deep and extended beautiful intimacy that doesn’t include the fact that sometimes we pull back, we close our eyes, we go into ourselves, we find ourselves, we slow down, we change the pacing.

These are all things that are not allowed, and we’re taught that they’re kind of fear of intimacy. But what happens is that when our innate need for space, for privacy and for distance, or even just like we get triggered around things that feel traumatic or vulnerable or intense.


Don’t ignore your need for space


When we get the message that we’re not supposed to feel those things, that that means that we’re not up for intimacy. We feel ashamed. We don’t know how to protect ourselves. We don’t know how to ask for space. And what do we do then? We shut down and we build walls.

Walls are built when our psyche doesn’t think that we can protect ourselves sufficiently enough. And then we feel really shut down, and then we feel really screwed up like, “I just can’t love.” So many of us have experienced this, and I think that this is one of the absolute greatest saboteurs of love. Is this belief that the need for space is a kind of fear of intimacy and a pathology instead of a normal inherent part of the experience.


The parts of ourselves that we suppress, those are life force and life energy, and they have to go somewhere. So when we suppress them, don't validate them, feel ashamed of them, they turn against us, they actually literally turn… Click To Tweet


So I’ve got a lot to say about this, and I just want to say there’s the experience of what do you do when all of a sudden you feel a need for space. And maybe you don’t experience it directly as this kind of healthy, “Oh, I need some space. I need to go for a walk. I need us to slow down a little bit. I need to call a friend. I need to be alone. I need to go meditate.”

Maybe we don’t experience it that way. Instead, we experience irritation. This person, all of a sudden parts of them start really annoying us. Or if not irritation, we experience like our sexual desire goes away, or we start thinking about other people we like more or we start getting resentful. These are kind of unconscious ways that we go when we suppress our need for space.


Does Too Much Closeness Make You Claustrophobic?

The big ask: to find the right degree of distance and space and someone to give that to us is very liberating.


That act of suppression is a fascinating thing because the parts of ourselves that we suppress, those are life force and life energy, and they have to go somewhere. So when we suppress them, don’t validate them, feel ashamed of them, they turn against us, they actually literally turn against us. They dwarf us, they make us feel small, they make us feel inadequate. They make us feel screwed up.


Lack of space builds barriers


So a big, big piece of this is recognizing when we need space, even if we don’t like the reason why we need it… Maybe we need space because we’re feeling really judgmental of the person. That space is something we still need and that experience needs to be honored.

We might not choose to take space at that point because of our partner’s needs or because of whatever’s going on at the moment. But if we can’t dignify it and honor it and let it be okay, we’re going to go into all sorts of crap toward the person we’re with and toward ourselves.

So I hope that this piece is clear. When you, for whatever the reason, have a need for space and there’s not room in your psyche to think that that’s okay, and even that you have a right to ask for it, there will be some kind of acting out that you do or acting in against yourself, or both. The miracle is when you make room for this and then find words, you can find words that make your partner feel loved and seen and appreciated at many times when you ask for that.

And when that happens, the wall melts, our love comes back and we connect back with ourselves, which is just such a fabulous, fabulous experience. And I know that in my life I didn’t know that could happen. I thought a wall was a wall and the wall was me, and it was probably impenetrable and it was probably my fault.

Maybe it was the other person’s fault. It was somebody’s fault. There kind of wasn’t a way around it until I learned that there are precious words to make room for our needs, including our need for space. And when we do that and we’re given space, oh, is that the best feeling? And that’s also a feeling of mastery in love.

And also when we ask for what we want and it’s given to us, we kind of fall more in love with the person who does that. It’s very wonderful how that can happen.

For me, this claustrophobia was a really big thing. I remember at one point dating somebody who was a really nice guy, which already that was a big problem for me. That would make me claustrophobic, and did, right there, just that. But I remember we got under the covers and I had such a feeling of, “I cannot breathe. I can’t breathe.”

And he was fine with it. He was fine being under the covers. I knew that my “I can’t breathe” was not that I couldn’t breathe. It was that I couldn’t breathe because there was just too much closeness. And I at that point had no words for that. I could just kind of compartmentalize that, slip this into a category of another reason that somehow love scared the shit out of me and that that was a problem that was probably pretty unfixable.

Over time, I learned this amazing, amazing lesson. That I could ask for space, that I needed a lot of space. That often because of my fear, I needed distance. And when I found the right degree of distance and space and I was with someone who gave that to me, it was like a sense of liberation. My heart could open up again. I remember I spent all this time in therapy kind of torturing my therapist because I was like, “You feel too close now.”

So I would move back and then it would often feel like, “Oh, you feel too far away. I feel kind of rejected. I feel distant.” Or, “I don’t feel close enough. I want to move closer.” And she was fabulous. She let me really experiment with this, but it was a metaphor. It was a metaphor for trusting the degree of space that I needed.


The exquisite blend of space and connection and distance and space and connection is like the recipe for the cultivation of beautiful tendrils of intimacy and deeper bonding. Click To Tweet


And I want to say to all of you, do you relate to this in any way? Do you relate to this experience of not enough space, this experience of shutting down, this experience of telling yourself that there’s something wrong with you because you shut down? I’m just going to give a few different examples of this. This is a huge one. This is one I’ve seen in my practice a lot, and this is a real urban kind of thing, a lot.

Let’s say there’s two people that live in New York City and they’re getting closer and closer. They’re in love. They even feel like they’re really moving toward commitment. Maybe they’re really committed already and one person’s lease runs out and they’re like, “Well, what are you going to do? Take another year’s lease? That’s crazy. We love each other. Let’s do it.”

And the other person says, “You move in with me.” This is something I’ve seen again and again. If the couple is not at this organic phase where if the lease was completely not an issue, they’d be ready and they do it anyway, there’s probably going to be some backlash where the person whose place it is feels a little bit resentful or claustrophobic. And the person who’s moving in might feel kind of alienated or disenfranchised or not quite at home.

Here’s another example of that same kind of strange thing. Two people are dating long distance. They’re pretty far away. Let me say they’ve never met before. They met online. They’re in different states or they’re really far away. It’s difficult to see each other. They’ve been speaking, let’s say for a month. They really, really like each other. They’re very excited. It feels like a great, great relationship, and they decide that they’re going to have a date.

So how are they going to do that? Maybe they’ll meet in the middle and stay in a hotel, or maybe one person will go to the other person’s house and they’ll be together, let’s say Friday through Monday. I can’t tell you as a therapist how many times I’ve seen people do this, and not only as a therapist, but a person with friends. And I’ve actually done it myself too.

So all makes sense. It’s very far away. We like each other. We totally are adult enough that if we need space, we’ll take space. But again and again, I have seen this happen. It’s too much. It’s not too much for the conscious mind, but it’s too much for the psyche, that kind of closeness all at once, and it doesn’t give the new relationship the best chance.

In fact, it often makes it much harder for the relationship to grow because that exquisite blend of space and connection and distance and space and connection is like the recipe for the cultivation of those beautiful tendrils of intimacy and deeper bonding.

I guess what I’m saying in a way is we need more space than we tell ourselves we really need. And that bites us in the butt again and again. And this is particularly true for highly sensitive people. So what do we do about this? What do we do when it’s us who’s feeling that way? What do we do when it’s our partner who seems to be feeling that way?


Does Too Much Closeness Make You Claustrophobic?

We breathe, we tolerate, we find the words, and when it’s right, we ask for what we need to ask for: the key skill here is the allowance of what it is we need.


Well, when it’s us, we start noticing the telltale signs; judgmentalness, irritation. The person comes to see you and they don’t hang up their coat right, and you’re really, really annoyed. That means you’re probably feeling a little whatever that spasm is of discomfort, that the closeness feels like a little bit of invasion. It feels like too much. So what do you do about that? What do you do about that?

Well, in a case like that, you might tell the person, not right then, and in a really gracious way, how you like coats to be hung up. Or maybe you don’t say anything, but maybe you say something. Or you’re with someone and you’re feeling intimate and all of a sudden you just feel like you need some space.

Or Janeane Garofalo, she said once, she said, “Did you ever have the experience where you’re having sex with someone and in the middle of it you want to punch them in the face and say, ‘Stop fucking me?'” That’s that experience where the sex that she was having was not giving her enough space. And so there’s this kind of primitive reaction to try to get more space.

So it can happen in sex, it can happen in many different ways. It may mean that you just are very clear that you need a little bit of space, but you don’t know how to ask. It may mean that you’re feeling physically, you’re being physically really close, and you literally physically need more distance. You might need to move from deep kissing to holding hands.

Whatever it is, it needs to be normalized. And the more you develop a language, first inside yourself, you find the words for what it is you’re needing, what it is you’re wanting. Because remember, you may not feel, “Oh, I need space.” You may feel irritated, claustrophobic, like, “I can’t breathe.” It doesn’t matter. Whatever it is, you think, “What would help me now? What do I need?”


We need more space than we admit


You try not to succumb to the instinctual tendency to judge, to judge yourself, judge the other person. But you think, “If I was going to find the words for what I’d like right now…” Even if it feels radical, even if it feels weird, even if it feels like they’ll think I’m afraid of intimacy or I don’t like them, we got to find the words.

And then we present those words in a way that can feel like a gift to the relationship by saying what it is that we need and asking how that is and is it okay? Of course, we want to be sensitive. We do not want to do that when someone is bearing their soul or sharing something really vulnerable. We breathe, we tolerate, we find the words, and when it’s right, we ask for what we need to ask for. The key skill here is the allowance of what it is we need.

I remember I did the most incredible workshop once where I had to be the most frightened of intimacy part of me and all these people surrounded me, and I had to give them instructions about what I needed from them. And it wasn’t like to have them all disappear. They had to honor the exquisite need for space, the rawness that I felt at the moment. So think about that.

Think about a situation that now when you think of it this way, is actually a time that you needed more space and didn’t know how to ask for it. Take the time to honor, “What if that need for space was a gift? What if it was an intuition? What if it was an intimacy mastery skill? What if that’s my intimacy ninja place where I can admit that stuff and then say it in a gracious way and ask for it so that I can breathe again and connect again?”

We find the words with love for when we need space, and we kind of move past that primitive message that says, we always need to be bonded once we’re bonded, or we always need to be connected emotionally. We don’t need to disconnect and pull back to ourselves, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So that act of finding the words, and then sharing the words with generosity, and finding a partner who can hear that, watch what happens. Watch how the love grows. Watch how the love flows again when it was stuck when you can do that.

And you can do it for your partner too, and support and encourage them to find words for the articulation of their need for distance, of their separateness of identity, of their need for space. Honor that and validate that, and watch what happens.

A lot of really wonderful precious skills here that turn doors into walls and turn frozenness into flow.

Please do feel free to write to me and tell me your stories and your experience, or just go to Ask Ken on deeperdatingpodcast.com, and record your question. I’ll try to get to it in my Q&A sessions. Thank you all for listening. Please feel free to subscribe and I look forward to the next episode of the Deeper Dating® Podcast.


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