20 August 2013

Sharing Spaces (Chapter 6)

Here's chapter 6 of the book I started posting chapters of a few weeks ago.

“Let there be space in your togetherness.”
- Kahlil Gibran -

Sharing spaces with other people—even those in your life who you love very much—can be challenging. Whether you’re in the process of moving and consolidating spaces with a new partner, re-designing your living spaces for happy co-existence, or taking a stand for the spaces you feel you have some real right to, maintaining a level of awareness about what’s really going on in yourself and others can help change the tone and ultimate result of some potentially difficult interactions.

Moving and Consolidating Spaces

Before my husband and I moved in together, we had two condos filled with things that represented two different, well-established lives. So naturally, when we started unpacking at the new house, we had duplicates of many things. Rather than arguing about how much of a thing we needed, automatically suggesting all his things go (as some women have a reputation for doing), or getting into any of our familiar argument patterns, I decided to lay out all our wares for display. Here, in this corner, are all the tall glasses we now jointly own. Here, in the other, are all the short ones, then the plastic ones, then the cups, the dishes, the forks, and so on. Doing this exercise allowed us to see which sets were missing pieces, which styles looked nicer or were the right sizes for how we wanted to use them, and what we could realistically fit into the new cabinets and drawers. We were easily able to negotiate and decide together which things to keep, and which ones to get rid of.
Since I’m a purger and my husband is a hoarder, I used this method to avoid some of the drama involved in consolidating our lives. And the truth is, you can’t really avoid it all. Purging things feels good to some people, for others it’s always difficult, and sometimes it just depends on the items. I personally love getting rid of things I’m not using, or things I’ve outgrown. It’s liberating! Also, since many of these items are still usable and don’t have much personal significance, I feel good when I donate them to charitable organizations. But tasks like packing have a great way of forcing you revisit all kinds of memories, because often you do have some emotional ties to the objects you’re looking through. I can’t tell you how many times when moving that I’ve randomly looked though some old photo albums, journals, or memorabilia of whatever kind, and completely lost track of time because I was reminiscing!  These aren’t always happy memories, but they represent a snapshot in the timeline of my life—a measure by which I can see how much I’ve grown, how far I’ve come, and how much I’ve overcome. So, the question becomes: do you take these objects along with you when you move, or do you get rid of them because you never really look at them any other time, they represent the past, and it’s more important to live in the now? To be honest, I still struggle with this question, and I can see where some people (like my husband) might have more things they’ve accumulated over the years that they’re attached to. What’s even trickier is when objects do not appear to you to have any personal significance, but to the other person sharing the space, they do. For example, I only recently learned why my husband buys so much and so many varieties of canned diet soda that drive me crazy by cluttering our pantry—growing up, his parents didn’t let their kids drink soda. Having a lot of soda in the house today means that he has a choice about what he can and cannot drink—a choice that was not given to him as a kid. This is information about him that I needed to be able to understand why having so many beverages is important, and hopefully it allows me to lighten up on the issue a bit.
In addition to different “donation philosophies” and prior experiences, consolidating spaces is also difficult because the amount of things you have always changes to fill up your current physical space. I can see how this happened to me—after college I lived in various apartments around Hartford, Connecticut. Each had a decent amount of space in them, and so the number of things (clothes, kitchen gadgets, etc.) grew to fit. My first apartment in Boston was quite small in comparison, with minimal closet and cabinet space. I had to make myself fit, so I found ways to do it, including a temporary storage unit back in Connecticut until I was really ready to let some things go. My second year in the Boston area, I moved into a larger apartment in the suburbs, so again my amount of “stuff” increased. But when I finally bought my 1000 square feet condo in 2004, I had tiny closets and had to wean down my load (especially of clothes and shoes)!  It was from this condo that I moved into the house with my husband. My husband’s condo, in comparison, had been huge. He had a two car garage, and 2000+ square feet of space all to himself. Maddeningly for me, he also had a ridiculous amount of closet space for a guy, with (seemingly) just a little bit of stuff in each one. Because of where we were each coming from, our new house was bigger (in my view) and smaller (in his view).
Such backstories and the feelings associated  with them aren’t always obvious—even to ourselves—and when two people are going through the process of moving and consolidating spaces, it makes perfect sense that challenges arise. I think the best two people can do is to pay attention and recognize where they’re coming from, and then explicitly communicate that to the other. Doing so requires some heightened self-awareness and effort, but it can make for a smoother transition overall.

Thought Experiments
  • Try taking one thing that has sentimental value and experiment with letting it go. First, review it thoroughly and think carefully about what it means to you. Is there anything you have in your life now that brings about similar feelings? Do you still need the item to feel this way? Now put the item in a donation pile for a little while. If you don’t feel compelled to retrieve it after a month, donate it to a worthy cause.
  • If you’re currently in the process of moving in with someone else, think about and talk with your partner about your perspectives on “stuff”. Are there particular things you and they are willing to let go, or not? Can you have a meaningful conversation about why you both want to keep certain things? Once you understand both perspectives, does it change how each of you reacts to the other?
  • Think about the various places you’ve lived and some of the objects you’ve acquired in each space. What life milestones (however small) do you associate with them? Do these milestones make you more or less attached to the objects? (For example, I still have a Pottery Barn armoire that I saved up to purchase for my first apartment in Boston—it cost me the same as one month’s rent at the time, and it makes me feel proud of my independence. It is not an object I would feel happy about getting rid of!)

Balancing Common and Individual Spaces

When you are moving or consolidating spaces with someone else, a strong need to establish your territory in the new space typically arises. At the time I’m writing this, my husband and I have been in our new home for a little over a year. We’re still working on creating a shared space, as well as on ensuring that we (both pretty independent people) have individual spaces we can leverage whenever a need arises. There are many common areas: the kitchen, which opens to the living room, for example. We spend a lot of time in there together, and often share this space with friends when we entertain. But since we have a large house, we’ve also taken opportunities to support our relationship by keeping some of our spaces separate.
When we first moved in, there were two rooms on our third floor—one was finished, and the other only partially so. My husband kindly allowed me to take the finished room and use it as my meditation / yoga / reading / workout space. I can decorate exactly as I please, and I can retreat to my room whenever I feel a need to re-center myself. My husband took the room across the hall from mine as his “man cave”. He picked out and laid down the floor, and I helped him paint the walls whatever colors he wanted. In there, he has a cushy double recliner, a TV about as wide as I am tall, most of the video game systems, all his extra computers, wires, and other various spare parts.

Meditation Room (Hers)
Man Cave (His)

Now, I’m one not of those wives who have banished all of my husband’s things to one place—in many cases we’ve redecorated to make the common spaces ours, rather than hers and his. But on some level, keeping some separateness and independence is important.  It brings us closer because being together is always a choice we make, rather than something we have to do. My belief is that having a choice means you reduce the likelihood of feeling any resentment toward the other person when they are in your space, because you will have (implicitly or explicitly) invited them in.
There are also ways to make shared spaces feel shared, but still retain some individuality. I took an interior design class a few months ago, and since we needed a topic to discuss with the class, I decided to use our home office as my project. When we moved into our new house, my husband and I both had desks for our computers, and I had a bookcase. We threw down an old red rug in the center, put his desk on one wall and mine across from it, stuck the bookcase in the corner near my desk, and called it a day. We didn’t put any effort into this room because we knew we had plans to come back to it later.

Office - Before (Hers)
Office - Before (His)

Initially, my idea was to have two desks facing each other, with an L-shaped extension on each one, and then to use the vertical space behind each of the desks for shelves. This would allow the furniture to be symmetrical, and give us light from one of the windows. Since all the furniture would be on one side of the space, I thought we could add a “media center” on the other side, to store all the joint office supplies and common items like the printer. But about it just didn’t feel right. Putting two desks facing each other would mean, essentially, that when we’re both in the office working on our computers (which we often are), we’d be looking at each other. I suppose that’s OK if you don’t want to get anything done, or you’re not easily distracted. Although I share my life with this man and love him very much, it felt a little uncomfortable to think that we’d end up staring at each other. What if I was trying to work and he wasn’t in the mood? Or worse yet, what if he was!
In class, the instructor and several of the students helped me sketch out a revised plan on the whiteboard. We settled on corner desks, but what was more intriguing was the suggestion the instructor gave me about the area rugs. What if, instead an area rug that took up the full space of the room, we did quarter-rounds under each desk? This would tie the “his and hers” spaces together separately, yet visually relate them. I thought this was pretty fabulous, and is what we ended up doing.

Office - After (Hers)
Office - After (His)

What’s also interesting about the new design is that even though there is technically more furniture in the room than before, it feels larger. My husband just jokes about these areas being “our own little islands”, but what he also pointed out was how the large red carpet dominated the space. Before, wherever you could kind of see the hardwood floor around the rug, there was furniture. With our new design, the desks and the rugs take up the same—rather than different—spaces, showing off more of the floor. This also goes to show you that what’s in the space can completely affect your impression of it!  Designing a common space to meet the requirements of the people sharing it, as well as addressing the constraints and leveraging the opportunities of the room’s size and shape can make a big difference in the design.

Thought Experiments
  • If you share a living space, is there a balance between the common and individual areas for each person? In which direction is the balance tipped? Is everything a common space? Are the spaces slanted toward the preferences of one person? Can you identify ways this might be impacting your relationship?
  • If you can’t designate individual spaces, are there simple changes you can make to the design to ensure everyone’s needs are met? For example, can you create any his/hers arrangements within the same room, as I did in the office?
  • If this idea of common vs. individual spaces feels foreign to you—in other words, you wonder why you wouldn’t just share everything—that may be fine too. It all depends on your relationship, and how much mental and emotional space each of you needs to have reflected in your physical spaces. Talk with your partner or roommate to make sure you’re on the same page, and if you are, great!

Communicating Your Spatial Needs to Those You Love

Last year my friend Paige started dating a man who lived in her building. She and Martin got along fabulously, and quickly started planning a new life together. However, Martin had three grown daughters, and there were a few instances where Martin’s physical and emotional spaces was the subject of contention among the women in his life.
First, Martin and Paige had different philosophies about children being in their parent’s bedroom. When Paige was raising her son, he wasn’t allowed to go into her room without explicit (and one would expect rare) permission. She believed this taught him respect, and is one of the reasons he grew up to be a real gentleman. Martin, however, had minimal boundaries—his girls could be in that room as much as any other in his apartment. This complicated things for Paige, who was told she could stay at Martin's to take advantage of various amenities, such as air conditioning and better Internet access. Naturally Paige had many questions about how to navigate this potential minefield in her new relationship. How should she react when she found Martin’s daughters laying around on, or sleeping in his bed? Should she honor Martin’s philosophy and adapt, or make her discomfort known to him? When she moved in with Martin, would he accept the bedroom as a joint space, even though they'd be keeping his furniture? And would she get more of a say in whether his daughters used the room? Paige had to make her feelings about their shared spaces explicit to Martin (or risk discomfort and resentment), and Martin needed to be open to the idea of a mutually-made decision (or risk disrespecting and devaluing Paige's equal needs as his life partner).
There were also internal space issues that fostered some discussion between the couple: Martin frequently traveled on business, which meant he had limited time at home. While Paige understood that a loving father would spend time with his daughters, she often found her expectations of when she would see Martin were not completely in line with his thinking. There were also a few occasions where Martin didn't appear to effectively communicate his plans to everyone who was expecting an exclusive piece of his limited attention. How well or poorly Martin managed the situation had a direct impact on how much Paige and his daughters felt like they were in competition for his time and his love (i.e., his mental and emotional spaces). Paige recognized that the outcome would also depend on how aware each person is about how these situations triggered them into displaying less-than-ideal responses (including those in herself).  She knew that insecurities and losses experienced in childhood could have an influence on situations like this, and sometimes make her react oddly or more strongly than she preferred. Sometimes, even when intellectually we know we’re being silly, our hearts take over and we have trouble reigning in our emotions. Discovering and clearly stating each person’s needs, actively listening to each other, and compromising in a way that feels comfortable to everyone is what will not just save, but also strengthen relationships.

Thought Experiments
  • Are you spending enough quality time with the important people in your life? Are you giving each special person a good amount of your time and attention? Do you notice anyone around you “getting into it” over you? If so, what might you be doing to contribute to the situation? What might you do differently to help improve it?
  • What is your philosophy about how relationships between parents and children, or partners, are supposed to be when sharing spaces? Do other people in your life understand where you’re coming from? Try explaining your rationale to them, but more importantly, really listen to their position instead of defending yours.
  • If you are receiving less attention from someone than you would like, try and put your finger on why you want more. Be honest with yourself, and try to determine whether this lack is triggering feelings from from your past (before you say anything). If it’s a legitimate request, having done this exercise will make talking to the other person feel less confrontational to you both.

Claiming the Space You Deserve (and Knowing When Not to)

In college I liked Dave Matthews, so when I found out he was performing in concert close by, I called some friends of mine from Pennsylvania who were also fans, and we planned a visit which included four tickets to his Friday night show. As we made our way to what is now the Comcast Theatre, I smiled to myself, thinking Dave's was the kind of music that lended itself perfectly to sitting on the grass on a warm summer night. My friends and I arrived early and designated our space on the lawn with a blanket, then nibbled on some snacks we'd brought while catching up.
Unfortunately as soon as the music started, our lovely time started to disintegrate. More and more people filed in, and like a big city's Independence Day fireworks, blankets covered every blade of grass.  After a few songs, no one was able to sit and listen—you had to be on your feet or you’d be trampled. The young woman next to us smelled of pot, and was pretty drunk too. Her lit cigarette flailed about in her hand as she danced, in many cases getting dangerously close to our faces. Annoyed and sober, I tried to ask politely if she could please be careful with it. She mocked my request by overtly trodding all over our delineated space, dirtying our blanket and bunching it up everywhere. After that, all five feet, 100 some pounds of me nearly got into a knock out, drag down fight with this woman! I don’t know what it was about the venue or Dave Matthews’ music that prompted such behavior in people, but this was not at all what we expected, and rather than trying to reason with people, my group decided we were better off leaving prematurely. This turned out to be a wise decision—anyone living around Hartford, Connecticut might also recall that Dave's Friday night concert was actually the most tame of the three, with Saturday and Sunday nights including overturned and burned cars, a rape or two, and several other crimes.
While this concert story is an example of when you may not be able to claim your rightful space in a crowd, there are some circumstances where I think not backing down is the right thing to do. For example, sometimes when I go out West Coast Swing dancing, it’s a busy night and the floor can be crowded. From dancing with various leaders, however, I’ve observed that the way they handle the crowded dance floor has a direct affect on my experience as their follower. Regardless of their size, some men purposefully react to a crowd by taking up less space. They lead smaller moves, dance smaller themselves, get overprotective, and try to yank me out of harms way when someone is about to run into me. (As one might imagine, this often does more harm than good.) However, other leaders purposefully start to take up more space. They do this by extending their arms, traveling in every direction, and generally taking up more room in their part of the dance. They still watch out for people around them, but they lead big moves, as though they had all the space in the world. Sometimes this backfires, it’s true—but most times other people notice, and respond by giving us more space on the floor! In this situation, being assertive helps them (and their partner) claim the space they deserve. Having good instincts in one's internal spaces about what to do in crowded physical spaces can be a very important skill to develop.

Thought Experiments
  • The next time you’re out in a public space, take a few moments and observe people’s behavior. Can you spot examples of unkindness when it comes to each individuals’ personal space? What about examples of when others are respectful?
  • How respectful are you of other peoples’ spaces? See if you can find even more ways to show it. (For example, notice how close you stand to someone in the supermarket checkout line, and determine whether you should make any adjustments.)
  • Do what you can to claim your personal space when in crowds, but also recognize that it may not always be possible or desirable to do so. Pay attention and hone your skills—depending on the situation, it may keep you out of serious trouble!

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