Keep Your Distance: Understanding the role of Personal Distance in Relationships

Written by Virginia Tsai

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?

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4 Responses to “Keep Your Distance: Understanding the role of Personal Distance in Relationships”

  • Steve says:

    I have lived in 3 places where the concept of appropriate spatial distance varies greatly. In eastern cultures, the tradition is to maintain large physical distances between loved ones, but strangers can be crowded into complete contact in a subway train. In Pacific island cultures, hugs and kisses on the cheek between strangers is commonplace, even a requirement of being accepted. In most of America, physical contact and close proximity between opposite sexes are commonplace, but just a little too much is called sexual harassment.

    In my attempts to be successful in these cultures, I have had to learn what was the “norm” and what the “expectation.” I adapted and not only survived, but I succeeded. Not only was I sensitive to the social norms, but I was sensitive to individual personal norms as well.

    In order for a person to be successful in any culture, one must be sensitive to the social expectation and then realize that there are individual differences and as such, be sensitive to personal expectations as well. No rules can substitute for being sensitive, except to communicate your own norms and expectations clearly as well.

  • Shelley Shelley says:

    I use to keep my distanc e from men becasue I was afraid of them. I was hurt by my dad, Iwas hurt by my husband, but not hurt with my uncles. I did not hate them, but ws afraid of them. I grew to tell my dad in a letter my heart to him as my dad. My husband and I divorced after 1 year of marriage. I now repect men in the creation that God had made them to be to me, as all men are not hurtfull. God did deliever them and we are now friends.

  • floyd says:

    For a man or a woman, “distance” can be two things. Close or not close. Simple right? Not!! The “right” or correct distance is what is implied by the relationship parameters established between two people. In private one way. In public another. People can tell if you and yours are connected. You don’t need to publicly announce your intimacy at every gathering.

    Now for the good stuff you’ve all been waiting for:

    Getting to know one another is more than physical, it is emotional, intellectual, psychological plus a little x factor which we may think about as spiritual or that quality which “clicks” to first make the connection and make it magic or not. It is easy to confuse them and our bodies, hard wired as they are to reproduce, may unbalance a person into one area of the senses. Youth is the reason and is a no fault thing. Just learn to live with it and hope you have the judgement to keep a bit of yourself to yourself and for that special person later in life when you meet them. But once you establish what you want from a person tell them. Watch their response. Be honest and look for an honest answer. It will save time and pain. If you are approached and want to maintain a friendship or professional “workplace” relationship but nothing more, be frank and in private tell them you are not available. You are committed to someone or to a course of action which precludes intimacy on the level required by the other. How to maintain the distance immediately after telling that person can be irksome. They may be hurt or offended or react in some other negative way. Be constant. Stay away without avoiding them. That means be very courteous always and friendly but never seek them out or display anything which may be taken for closeness which may be interpreted as a fondness you don’t feel or want. A man can be told and so can a woman, that you want distance by the way you respond to them, by your tone of voice, your facial expression and other body language and also by your habits. Most of all , don’t be afraid to give them the benefit of being aware enough to respect your wishes and the time for them to adjust to your behavior. They will eventually get it unless they are clingy, needy or selfish enough to want their own needs met without regard to your own. These types may play games to arouse your jealousy or otherwise get to you. They will stop at nothing in attempting to manipulate a response from you, but you must never allow yourself to yield to their pressures. Once you see the “games” for what they are you will have a difficult time not considering them pathetic. These losers should be jettisoned asap and if you must see them, at work or at school or elsewhere, use your voice, eyes and body to communicate your distance and desire to remain at that distance from them. If they still don’t get it, talk to someone in authority – no not your husband or wife or boyfriend but someone in whom you can confide the discomfort you are experiencing (a drastic example is your local Sheriff unless he or she is the problem in which case talk to a respectable religious person like a priest or pastor). Change your telephone number if you must, exit any venue in which they may appear and politely and firmly greet them then leave them if they approach you. Avoid being alone with them and if you are, like in an elevator or a car park, pretend to be waiting for someone, in a hurry for a meeting, reading or playing with your cell or otherwise preoccupied. A nod and abrupt hello and goodbye should do.

    Signals can get crossed easily in these times and often without consequence but occasionally you need all your wits to stay on an even keel with someone. As with most things an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Choose your “close” relationships with care and attentiveness. Watch for signs of neediness and clinginess. They will appear lonely and vulnerable and you will feel “pity” but don’t confuse your feeling sorry for them with affection. They can and will confuse your pity for love or some emotional excess which will be a drain on you and make the break from them more complicated. Keep your distance until you know your attraction is genuine and reciprocal. The most obvious reason is so they won’t chase away any legitimately available and suitable mate by hanging around and make a nuisance out of themselves by monopolizing your time or with stories about you being a couple and other mischief. Another reason is not to be a target for an emotional leech. Be careful out there. There is only one YOU! Bon chance!

  • Eagleswings says:

    This is one of the best articles that I have ever read-especially the last paragraph! In Eastern cultures, clear social boundaries are set in place for men and women which most members of society know and understand. But, as a Western woman I have often struggled with men who have often acted as sexual predators. When I was a teenager I often ended up in situations that were uncomfortable or even dangerous because my culture and the men and women who perpetuate it through their thought patterns, attitude and behaviour often advocate that ‘anything goes’. But through self experience I learnt the importance of setting boundaries for myself and for how other people treat me. It has meant I have at times had to be quite upfront and blunt with men who try to pressure me into doing something i dont want to do. Which resulted in some hurt feelings or arqwardness; which is hard as a woman because I feel an incessant need to please everyone and not to be seen badly within a group setting. But, on the plus side it has let the men in my life know where they stand and what i expect from them. My life is definately more fulfilling now but it is still an upward struggle trying to maintain my integrity and transparancy in a culture that has little or no thoughts towards respecting personal space or reputation.

    Reading this article raises some questions for me regarding personal distance Q1 How can men and women show respect and consideration for one another through the use of personal distance? Q2 How can men and women show respect for their own and other peoples relationships in regard to the use of personal distance? Q3 How can men and women be in close proximity to each other without giving off the wrong signals? I am sure there are people out there who have to deal with this issue on a daily basis, as there are many people in our lives who are “off limits” be it: a teacher/pupil-boss/employee/co-worker-a place of worship-friendships groups-boyf/girlf/married couples. I think in order for society to work well, it needs boundaries to enable safe and healthy relationships/friendships. I am glad someone has raised the issue of personal distance between the opposite sex. I think it is an important and often overlooked subject especially in Western society and I agree that it is a profound relational issue which deserves more of our attention and understanding.

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