Two introverts in a tiny apartment: Help!

Ever since we moved in, we've been at each other. What happened?

Published November 10, 2009 1:01AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I love your column, and I need some advice about maintaining one's personal space. At least, I think this is what I need. I apologize if this is rambling, but that's how I'm feeling at the moment. My co-habiting girlfriend is usually a warm, generous, person, but over the last month or so she has been under a lot of stress at her job, as her boss rides her constantly and unnecessarily. She and I have been friends for a few years and then fell in love and we have been living together for about three months now.

She comes home in a foul mood, and when I reach out to her, she ignores me and walks around the house in a huff. As I don't want to get into the habit of trying to "make" someone happy, her behavior usually causes me to retreat a bit. Not ignore her, but quietly go about my business cooking dinner or chores or whatever. I always say, "Well, I'm here if you want to talk about it." In my mind, I am giving her some space to wind down and relax, and I try not to act like the eager Labrador who has been waiting for its owner to come home. In other words, I don't expect her to fall all over me and entertain me at the end of the day. (By the way, because of my work schedule, I get home hours before she does.) However, she responds by being irritated at me for my silence, asking me angrily and over-sensitively "What's wrong?" when all I am doing is trying to help. I feel that in these situations, anything I do is wrong! (Also, we are both IN types on Myers-Briggs, if that matters. More specifically, I am INFP, and she is INTJ.)

When we talk about this bad dynamic, she gets angry and upset and says that she is "turning into her mother," who was a fairly angry and abusive person to her growing up. I love my partner, and I have supported her throughout this recent "crisis." She seems to want to change: she recently started taking an antidepressant and has begun counseling and exercising. She drinks very little and eats healthfully; she is never violent or "abusive." (But is she abusing our relationship? I feel pretty beat up every time this happens.) She is also looking for another job, as she believes that her anger issues stem from the way her boss treats her. I'm a little afraid that if it's not one thing, it might be another, if you know what I mean.

I must mention that on the weekends and vacations, she is a dream! She is smart and funny and kind and we have a blast. But during the week, her behavior when she gets off work is really getting to me. We live in a small apartment, so it's difficult to retreat to my own space when she's in a bad mood, which is two or three times a week. Once she's out of her ill mood, she expects everything to be hunky dory, and I sometimes end up pretty annoyed myself after being metaphorically slapped down for being nice and reaching out, and slapped down again when I retreat a little. We have gotten into a few heated discussions about this, and I need to learn how to take care of myself when this goes on. What can I do to show support to her while she figures this out, but also protect myself from feeling like it's my fault all the time? I tend to take it personally. We love each other and both want this relationship to work out. I'm starting to feel that "walking on eggshells feeling" that I've heard so much about. Should I make myself scarce around 5 every afternoon? Go to the gym or something, play tennis or whatever, to let her cool off after work? Is that overcompensating for her bad behavior?

Thanks for any advice you can throw my way.

Shacked Up and Slapped Down

Dear Shacked Up,

Given the marketing possibilities and the profit potential, I am a little surprised that real estate developers have not yet begun to build small urban apartments explicitly designed for healthy and happy cohabitation by two introverts.

In the ideal two-introvert urban apartment, alone time would be built into the space. One would not have to be greeted at the door. One could slip in and enter the alone chamber.

It's not that you don't love each other. The problem is that a small apartment does not meet the introvert's needs for solitude, recharging and personal space.

Call it The Cocoon, or perhaps The Nest. Such a space might have a branching entrance, so that as each person enters he or she branches off in her direction, toward a small, quiet, vibrant but serene space that is hers alone, where she stops to recollect herself and become oriented. It might be a space like a chambered nautilus.

There would be a common kitchen and common social space and if the apartment was for lovers there would be a common bed; but there would also be these tiny alcoves of personal space for spiritual renewal.

Some architecture student ought to do this as a project. Architect Christopher Alexander talks a little about this in his writing about how to situate houses to accommodate the needs of both introverts and extroverts. But more could be done, surely, with individual small-scale design.

Since it's only been three months, perhaps you can go back to the way it was before you moved in together. You needn't see this as a failure. Rather, you might see it as a recognition, a celebration, of who you are. You are two people who are fully capable of loving each other, but you must meet your own needs first. The fact that you did not realize how urgent were your needs for solitude and personal space is not such a bad thing. Now you've learned something. Put it to use!

I do wonder at the continuing dominance of the heterosexual marriage pattern as the assumed form for two lovers who wish to be closer emotionally and share more resources and material survival activities. I suppose the model goes quite deep -- and we do not really have any others competing for our attention in the media space. Would that we had more widely publicized models.

We fall in love and then we move in together. We do not say, well, we fall in love and then we think very hard before changing or discarding our painstakingly devised roles and systems; we think carefully before we make any change that might put undue strain on us, or prevent us from meeting some of the needs we were meeting very easily and quite intuitively on our own. We just plunk down a deposit and get keys made.

When we are on our own, before we move in together, we meet our needs for solitude and space in ways that are quite intuitive and natural. Ask yourself, what did I used to do to feel whole, complete, content? How did I ensure that I had what I need? How did I protect my much-needed space? Did I, for instance, occasionally not answer the phone or "hide out," or perhaps set up routines that kept me from having to interact with others more than is comfortable for me? Perhaps she used to walk around cursing, or she used to lie on her bed and be silent, and that was her way of getting over the hurts of the day so she could then come to you and be sweet and intelligent and charming.

You had some kind of balance; you had some kind of control. You were not emotionally naked in front of each other all the time. By moving in together you have stripped yourselves of the protections, the buffer zone that you had before.

One could go on. But my basic reaction is that you have moved into a situation that is nearly intolerable for both of you. There is no shame in realizing that this particular form of cohabitation does not meet your needs. You can still change this arrangement and remain lovers. I hope you do.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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