Keep Your Distance: Understanding the role of Personal Distance in Relationships
Is distance simply a mathematical problem?
When I was a little girl, distance was simply a mathematical problem. Yet after I graduated from an all-girl high school and entered university, I stepped into a space where men and women had to coexist. That was when I began to realize how “distance” could be such a profound and incomprehensible issue in interpersonal relationships.
Strategy of “keeping a safe distance”
When I first started college, I kept distance from my male classmates — I even avoided eye-contact. Soon after, people began to call me a “nun” behind my back. This strategy of “keeping a safe distance” actually caused much awkwardness. I was at an engineering school where men outnumbered women. Every time there was a team project, I would be in trouble if I couldn’t find any partners. So later I began to readjust my distance with the opposite sex.
I was worried that if I got too close to someone, he might get the wrong idea and think that I liked him. I certainly did not want some guy to think he could take advantage of me. To help me keep the right physical distance with the opposite sex, I joined a group that studied psychology. I tried to learn how to maintain a good and suitable distance with the men in my work and study. When I talked about this issue with some male classmates after we became more familiar with each other, they said, “Please, lady! We’re scared too! If we get too close to the girls, we might be accused of sexual harassment!”
Later when I had a boyfriend, it was even harder to handle physical distance. According to psychology books, you’re supposed to be able to gauge the emotional involvement of a couple by their physical distance. So when I started dating my boyfriend, I would often secretly glance over at him to estimate how many centimeters we were apart from each other.
He had no fluctuating romantic emotions
I remember thinking, “Two days ago when we walked together, we were 8 centimeters apart. Yesterday when he sat next to me, we were 5 centimeters apart.” I thought to myself, “Hmm…that’s good…there’s some improvement—he probably loved me more yesterday than the day before!” Then the next day I would think, “Hey, today he is 10 centimeters away from me. Oh no! He doesn’t love me anymore. Was it something I said yesterday that upset him?” My emotions actually fluctuated up and down with all the measuring of the centimeters between us!
Eventually I ended the distance-measuring, I realized that he was a total woodenhead and a definite exception from the psychology books! Often when I walked with him, we would wind up leaning in different directions—he never even cared which way I was heading and only focused on his own way. According to the books, this would mean that he didn’t care about me nor loved me. Yet our relationship was steadier than ever—because wood is wood: he had no fluctuating romantic emotions, he was constant. So I ended up throwing away the books.
Personal distance is a profound relational issue
In courtship, parents and experts would often suggest that the couple keep a suitable distance between each other to avoid sexual urges and prevent pre-marital sex. Yet that is not so easy to do—after all, it requires a great deal of self-control for a couple in love to keep such a distance. So after marriage, you would think that there shouldn’t be any more issues with physical distance, right? Yet there may still be problems. The wife may hope that her husband would often hug and kiss her—just like how parents would hug and kiss their kids to show affection—but not necessarily end up in bed. Yet many husbands don’t like using hugs and kisses to show intimacy either because they feel it’s irritating or else because that would make them want to have sex.
Personal distance between the opposite sex is such a complex and delicate matter. A different yardstick is needed depending on whether it is in the workplace or at home, among various types of relationships and cultural backgrounds. Every person has their own different yardstick in mind. Wouldn’t you say that this is a profound relational issue?