November 2007 I wrote about the casual relationship, otherwise known as friends with benefits. Thanks to a recent comment, we're getting back to it. To do this I am recommending you also watch a new video, PG for those of you who worry, the first and perhaps last video featuring a therapydoc who poses as me, of all people, on the Everyone Needs Therapy YouTube Channel.

The video requires a post in and of itself, so you'll have to wait a bit for more about the casual relationship and the inherent problems of these dyads. First, a foundation.

Rubberband theory is a way of thinking about relationships that has been around for as old as time. If your mother recommended that you play hard to get, she has an intuitive understanding of the psychological process inherent in the theory, a part of it.

Relationships aren't games, however, and there is no need to play games with people. Intimacy can be fun, but frankly, it is psychological work. Just try to make it a game of it. Go for it..

Rubberband theory is discussed in books (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus for one) and on blogs, but is much older than we are, for I learned it at the Center for Family Studies/Family Institute of Chicago a decade before John Gray's publication made all the noise, and we're grateful that he did, by the way. Do read his book about planets.

The theory here, the one that I learned, is that

(a) people need people, most of us do
(b) we also need individual space, uninterrupted psychological space in which to think, to live our lives; time to be creative, to work and to relax, all by ourselves
(c) most relationships start somehow and succeed when the needs of two people for psychological space match.

This often explains why parents tend to suffocate teenagers when they breathe within close proximity. A physics major might explain it better, but the needs just don't match.

But let's talk about love and being in a "relationship" that is intimate, although the theory underlies all relationships, parent-child, employer-employee, teacher-student, brother-sister, etc.

We start out as people attracted to one another and subtly negotiate how often we'll talk, get together in vivo, in person. Maybe it's a first date and one of us can't wait for the other to call, to initiate time together. When I met FD (a random meeting at a student union) he asked me for my phone number, but I wouldn't give it to him until he confirmed that he would call, not crumble it up and throw it away. My need for space at the time wasn't sufficiently broad enough to allow, say, a week to go by without hearing from him. He called within forty seconds, not a dumb guy.

You have to know yourself and your needs and be true to them.

So here you are, knowing you need someone in your life and somehow someone pops up, seems to be interested in playing this role. I've Finally Found Someone is in your head, and Bryan Adams, for whatever reason, is singing with Barbara Streisand.

And it's going well until one of you needs more space. The one who needs more space will just take it, usually, for there are no real chains, no leashes in relationships. No one can force anyone else to be with them, to communicate, make love, or even play. And when the person who needs space is gone too long, other songs, angry or sad songs become the songs of the day.

But not necessarily. Emotionally mature people realize that the center of life, the focus of a partner, a significant other, even a friend, cannot be, should not be, themselves. Life is about living, doing, giving, creating, learning, working, that sort of thing. This is not to say that a person shouldn't have a primary relationship, a Number One "go to" person. Having one a relationship like that is very nice if you can get it. Not everyone can get it, however, and we don't roll over and die because we are alone.

Or lonely. We shouldn't, at least.

So surely distance can be frustrating if you're in a relationship that you see as primary, loving, and committed, even if that commitment is sealed with only a handshake and a kiss. It is frustrating for both because

one distances, the other chases, then the first has to distance even farther, which is more work for him/her, and the needier partner has to chase again, and this goes on and on and on, and it's exhausting, frankly, psychologically.

A younger, less seasoned therapydoc will suggest what the therapydoc in the video below suggests, that the person who is chasing, who is begging for more time, more attention, should back off already. Give the space.

Be generous with time and space. This is the gift worth giving and is so appreciated that it truly buys love and gratitude from a psychological-space- craving partner.

The seasoned therapydoc, however, will get a couple like this into therapy and the subtext is different. Sure, we all need space, but the ideal, the most satisfying dynamic in relationships, really is intimacy. Although our hobbies, our jobs, our friends and our other needs for self-actualization are elemental to feeling good about life, it is intimacy with another that becomes a foundation, ultimately, for psychological security and serenity.

Humans are a lot like ducks.

We all need our support system at the end of the day, or maybe the end of life. Thus the therapeutic mission is about getting happy inside the smaller rubberband, not the other way around, and adapting to different sizes. Over time both of us are going to change. And both of us will need to accommodate to it.

This is the best reason, by the way, this theory, for tying the knot, being committed body and soul to one person, one person who will be around when you need someone to bring you tea. Your will need tea.

With sincere, non-accusatory, empathetic communication, all of this adapting business becomes less hard. It is what relationship therapy is all about.

Now, the video. The video is insufficient, of course, because it panders to the intuition and advice of less-than-seasoned therapists who recommend that if you give enough space to your partner that you will live happily ever after. Surely you know that not everyone lives happily ever after.

Not every relationship problem is even about psychological space.

You might say that one of the on-going jobs of relationships is finding the right amount of space, preferably the kind we experience when we first fall in love, the boing-y kind with the right amount of intimacy, the right amount of tension. But when in doubt, shoot for cozying up in a smaller, not a bigger rubberband.

Okay, here you go.



Excellent, amazing, wonderful, inspiring post! I so enjoyed reading it and I related to it on so many levels. I also learned a lot about relationships from it and that's definitely something I could use help with. Thanks! :)
Wait. What? said…
Aha insightful and very helpful for me- thank you!
Anna said…
John Gray! What a pet peeve of mine. While I think it made some progress in the public's needs, there was a substantial hole in his book. The examples were always in the negative- don't do X, Y, Z. Rarely, if ever, were there positive examples- do this instead. These things are good.
But this rubberband- the smaller one! Very interesting. How do you avoid compromising too much, as the bigger rubberband? Also, how do you handle it when the smaller rubberband really is constricting the life out of both of them? (As in, addiciton, abuse, mental illness?)
And a request for pardon if the videos addressed this. I can't watch it now.
therapydoc said…
Thanks all.

ANNA, believe me, I understand about the time thing. Will get to it.

The honest truth is I haven't read Dr. Gray's book, but the idea is good to thrash around, the differences idea.

There's research about how our (female) brain uses oxytocin differently than the male brain, and this affects our behavior, needing friends, in particular. Friendship gets us high, basically, whereas guys have yet to discover this, don't automatically run to their friends and don't need to under stress.

MARK has a nice post on something kind of similar, how we change and don't necessarily announce it at
Dr. Deb said…
What a great and informative post.
Retriever said…
Good post. Cute tho simplistic video. COmplicating things I thought of were: folie a deux, or people alternating the chaser/chasee role. Or people having different roles depending on the issue.

But I have to admit that, tho married 21.5 years, I just don't have any warm fuzzy feelings about relationships right now. I did in youth, when single. But these days I am sick with anxiety about all my kids, and spouse is at best a companion in misery. We feel like beleaguered medieval peasants, having to endure one disaster after another. We are loyal to each other in the sense that two oxen yoked to the plow are loyal (a medieval image of marriage). Plod, plod, plod, and the crack of the whip keeping us going.

Off to cheer myself up playing with the dog...
therapydoc said…
I'm pretty sure you'll weather it, or should I say, retrieve it, retriever.
Cate Subrosa said…
Oh, loved this one.

TherapyDoc on YouTube? Yay.

"Humans are a lot like ducks." Double yay.

Tying the knot as a knot in a rubber band? Triple yay.
Tzipporah said…
Interesting. What do we do when we are *forced* to give up space unwillingly (as when we have a newborn)?
Beth said…
Hi - sorry to leave this in the comments, but I was wondering if I could interview you very briefly for an upcoming post on my blog on societal anxiety (re: swine flu hysteria). If you'd like to do it, could you email me? Thanks - Beth
Anonymous said…
Can I take a minute to process?

Not something to be politely endured. I need to think this through.....~Mary
Scraps said…
Interesting. I watched the video. What do you do when it happens that you don't chase and don't chase and don't chase...and the rubberband breaks, because you're feeling the tension but the other person isn't?
therapydoc said…
TSIPPORAH, unfortunately, when you have children, this is what you sign up for. Or perhaps we should say, fortunately.

SCRAPS, they don't break. They're in your head. Takes years to even forget about them, depending upon how long they take primary residence
Esther said…
Insightful post. I have never been a romantic, so to speak, so the notion of a happily ever after is not my weakness. I kind of feel like I have learned backwards, because I figured out the whole fitting into a smaller rubber band thing without any explanation. I was never a very open person and learned to hide many of my thoughts from those closest to me. While I knew that was probably going to be a problem someday I still did not change it until the last year or so (been married almost 4 years). Anyway, I am now starting to believe some of the warm fuzzy stuff about relationships can happen. It just doesn't happen without work.
therapydoc said…
Esther, thanks. That word, "work", makes sense, but I'm starting to look at it differently, (read Rav Dessler, Strive for Truth), am thinking of relationship "work" as stressful, sure, but an investment. Less investment, less the pay off. And that's for sure. Although sometimes people invest and get nothing back. But this is worth an entire post, for sure.
Commenter Abbi said…
I liked this post, especially because i thought it was going one way, (that you were going to talk about how important space is) when it actually went another. Don't know if it was the post or how i read the post.

Anyway, after a few very kooky and painful relationships, I finally decided that the whole "space" thing is a crock. It's just code for "I don't know how to be intimate". Which is fine, but then don't enter into a relationship if you don't know how to behave. Or, alternatively, be open to learning how to be in a relationship if you don't know how when you start.

Anyway, I knew my husband was the one when he had no need for "space" and we could sit together and read for hours.
therapydoc said…
With you 100%, Abbi.
Syd said…
Thanks for a great post. I've struggled with the space issue for some time. I like intimacy and to be with the person I love. And have always thought that it was just my codie behavior and insecurities that made me want to narrow the rubber band. I've had to work at being away from my partner and becoming comfortable with just myself. Sometimes I'm happy with that, while other times I want to be closer. It has always been a perplexing thing for me in relationships. I will ponder what you wrote here more. Thanks again.
A.M. said…
Excellent post. I've been with a man for almost a year now, a mature male in his years, who pulls the disappearing act whenever I ask a question that is difficult or challenging for him. Of course, I never know ahead of time what subjects will trigger the disappearance, or shall we say my expulsion from the garden, as if I've been sent to the naughty chair indefinitely. Several times it's happened when he has posed a question to me that elicited, I guess, the wrong answer. When he retreats in response to what in most relationships are very benign topics of conversation, the message I infer is: "I want all the benefits of a committed relationship, so long as we keep it light and superficial; you may never have a response to me that runs counter to my own needs; nor may may you ever have a need that requires me to make adjustments or accommodations, because that's too much work, and if I have to work that means it's you making me work, in which case I'll teach you a lesson by disappearing."

It always happens, too, after we've had a really great time together, have become closer and started to share/occupy a more intimate space. I think it's partly some sort insecurity motivating him to push me away. I realize from your post that he's indeed uncomfortable with that smaller rubberband. Any suggestions other than leave the relationship?
Sidney said…
Dear, TD.

I love it when your readers are bored. The traffic is so flattering.

Please go on vacation more often, no wait, don't.

But I AM making kugel. Send reinforcements, won't you?

You are always welcome.

Miss you! Mwah.
Anonymous said…
Just scrolling back through your archives. This one really speaks to me this afternoon. I was starting to feel slightly guilty for the way we have been spending today. ;-) We've been married 35 year... Wife and I have been enjoying a leisurely Saturday, in and out of each others space today, doing simple things like drinking coffee together multiple times, talking some deeper things I have been thinking about our relationship this week, ran to a new local farmer's market stand, took a long nap together after lunch, etc. Anyway, I was again struck by how much I appreciate your taking the time to post these kind of insightful posts on line for the rest of us to enjoy. Wanted you to know! DM

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