Ideal Distance in All Relationships

It wouldn’t be an earth-shattering revelation if I were to tell you that there are varying degrees of relationship compatibility, would it?

Some relationships are meant to be close.  Others aren’t.


In fact, all relationships have an ideal distance.  I’m not talking just about soulmates or significant others.  Friends, families, the distance between you and your work, your pet, your hobby.  Any distance between two elements have an optimum setting.

But most of the time, we spend being either too far, or too close.  The ideal is hard to achieve.

When you are driving on a straight road, how much of the time do you actually spend going straight?  Surprising little.  Unconsciously, you’re making slight adjustments to your car’s direction so that you are moving forward in more-or-less straight manner.

This analogy also applies to relationships.  Even in a peaceful relationship where you and the other entity are pretty close to being in an ideal distance, you’re constantly going back and forth between being slightly too close and slightly too far.

While it may seem obvious, many people are trying to manufacture relationship compatibility between things that are more at peace when kept at longer distance.  Maintaining the ideal distance is not about creating a tie.  It’s a process of discovery, where you figure out at what distance the relationship vibrates harmoniously.  And putting structures in place so that neither entity drifts too close or too far.

Let me share a couple of examples from my personal life.

My wife and I built a cottage once.  It employed a building method/material called cob, which is similar to adobe.  It uses clay, sand, straw and water.  Though labor intensive, the method is simple in principle and any lay people can learn the techniques and build a structure in a relatively low-cost manner.

Anyway, this project was a great test to our relationship, to say the least.  We worked hard on weekends, getting up early (we were living in Texas at the time — and half of the year, it became too unbearable to work after 10-11AM) and toiling on our building.  We learned a lot, but I can’t say it was exactly a good time.  There was certainly a joy and pride of accomplishments, but we paid some great prices in the process, which we didn’t always enjoy.  We were tired and stressed, and didn’t enjoy each other’s company.

My wife and I spent our precious resting time — weekends —  working on this project at first, and then there was a period when we both worked on it full time.  This only exasperated our relationship.  We were constantly bickering and getting mad at each other.  When it really came time to rest and relax, the last thing we wanted to do was to spend more time together.

I am very proud of the house we built.  But I am also glad this pursuit is now behind us.  We abandoned the project (though it broke our heart to do so) when we decided not to postpone having kids and building a family.  Trying to pursue both projects at the same time were simply not possible.

During this time, obviously my wife and I spent too much time together.  Or more specifically, we spent too much time doing a wrong thing — working.  She and I get along terrifically when we’re on vacation.  (who doesn’t?) It appears that we’re not exactly meant to be in business together, though we are fine with being married.

To this day, my wife and I seem to get along better on weekdays, when I go off to work during days and we come together at night, primarily to relax.  Our time apart seems to cool whatever conflict may be going on and produce a bit of longing inside us, a desire to see each other.  During weekends, things can get trickier.  We’re great if we’re out and about having fun, but almost always miserable if we have to spend that time working on something.

So over the course of our marriage, my wife and I have figured out what formats of relationship work best for us, and the amount of time/distance between us that keep both of us happy.  In a close relationship like a family, we connect to each other in more than one ways: playmate, parent-child, business partner, and so on.  Understanding the roles we play and at what distance/frequency can help greatly in maintaining the relationships at a healthy state.

Here’s another example.  A good friend of mine and I make a habit of meeting once every so often to have a peer-mentoring session about our individual pursuits.  I am a musician and she’s in the film industry.  We’re both in the process of turning our passion into sustaining businesses.  We take turns discussing our status, challenges and plans, so we can receive validation, feedback and pep-talk.  It has been a great tradition and we enjoy our meetings immensely.

I was the one who instigated this meeting originally.  I recognized that while we weren’t exactly in the same industry, we shared common values and I felt that we would benefit from such an on-going partnership.  When I suggested this to her and she accepted it, I started out being the one who took the initiative and scheduled these meetings.  I like to book this kind of thing on a regular schedule, so that we can skip the hassle of trying to find a good time, and that worked for a while.

After a few months, I suggested that we reverse our roles — she be the organizer/scheduler.  I suggested this partially because I wanted this to be an equal partnership.  Since I had been the initiator for a while, I thought it was her turn to do so.

But for a few weeks after that, nothing happened between us.  She expressed the desire to get together, but never managed to book an actual meeting.  I quickly sensed that this was not a good arrangement for our relationship.  Both of us agreed that having that much time between our meetings were too long (since both of us felt the desire to get together) but the relationship was built upon me taking the lead in this particular matter.  I accepted this, took back my role, and since then I’ve been the one who determined when and how often to meet.  My friend is always eager and comfortable to have our co-mentoring sessions, and our partnership has blossomed into a long-term friendship.

In both of these situations, I was observing the emotional state of the relationship to give me indications of whether the distance was too far or too close, and whether each party was fit for the roles we were playing.  Let’s examine these aspects more closely.

1. Determine the ideal distance.

There is really no rocket science required to figure out the ideal distance between two parties.  You simply pay attention to your heart’s desire — how much, and in which direction.  If you are desiring more time together, then your current state is too far.  If you’re longing for a break, then you’re spending too much time together.

Yet we often misjudge this, because we have pre-conceived notion about how close or far a relationship should be (or want it to be).  If you are a lonely and insecure person, for example, it’s easy to attach yourself too closely to a person who happens to pay attention to you.  Your void drives you to minimize the distance so you get the false sensation of fulfillment from the other person’s company, even if the other party is suffocating from too much proximity.

This applies not only in human relationships, but also in your relationships to your activities, such as your job and your hobby.  It’s particularly hard with jobs, as they often require a set number of hours for you to perform certain actions.  If it’s an action you don’t care to spend as much time as they require you to, then a burn-out occurs.  You’re too close to that activity.

What happens when one party wants to be close, but the other party doesn’t?  Fascinatingly, our emotions act as the balancing force in this kind of situation.  Let’s say in a romantic relationship, you want to spend more time together and the other person doesn’t.  You beg and plead your way and create more time together.  The other person kindly plays along, and for a time you may feel that the relationship is at the right distance.

Except that kind of state is unsustainable.  If he/she plays along too long, or if the distance is too close too often, again the burn-out occurs.  You’ll sense that the other person simply runs out of the desire to see you.  Or he/she may be “checked out” during the times together.  You may be physically close, but emotionally you will not feel very close.  Your desires go unsatiated.

It’s very important in all relationships to let go of your preconceived notion of the ideal distance and allow the relationship to reveal its optimum state on its own.  Pay close attention to the involved parties’ desires — want to go closer or farther away?  Keep making adjustments, and soon you’ll hit the place where everyone seems comfortable and at peace.

2. Make adjustments according to roles

This applies particularly to close, multi-faceted relationships such as marriage, family, business partner and close friendships.  But it’s possible for a relationship to have different “modes” and have different set of requirements for each mode.  Using above examples, my wife and I shouldn’t spend too much time together in “business partner” mode, but should increase our “R&R” time together.  With my film industry friend, the co-mentoring relationship blossomed with me being the initiator.  My friend not being able to play that role didn’t necessarily mean that she didn’t want that relationship or that our distance was too close.  That particular aspect of the relationship assigned us certain roles, and once we accepted this, those roles naturally determined the ideal distance between us in that particular state.

To sum up, it is very helpful to know that all relationships have ideal distances.  And our emotions give us clues about where we are in relation to that harmonious, everything-falling-into-place state.  Don’t try to manipulate the relationship into an arbitrarily defined distance.  Instead, explore and make adjustments to discover where the comfortable spots are.  And constantly monitor and keep tweaking to maintain that ideal distance.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while all relationships have the optimum distance, relationships are not necessarily static.  The dynamics evolve and change over time, especially when one or both parties go through major life transitions, such as graduation, marriage, parenthood, divorce, retirement and so on.  Remain open-minded and allow any changes to occur.  There is no reason to get too attached to a particular arrangement.  If that structure falls out of favor, it’s possible to discover a new approach that can still provide the same peaceful relationship, perhaps in a different way.  It’s possible that the other party becomes no longer available to meet particular needs of yours — if this happens, simply move on and find other people who can fill that void.  Forcing relationships to be anything other than what they are is never a good idea.

Just allow your relationships to be what they want to be.  You never know — some of your struggling relationships may turn out to be surprisingly compatible, once you give it a breathing room or a little nudge to get closer.

Enjoy the discovery, and relationships as they are meant to be.

This entry was included in the Blog Carnival of Observations on Life, July 6, 2008.

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