Transcending Upper Limits in Relationships

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Audio version

In their book, “Conscious Loving,” authors Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks state “In a close relationship, we have two distinct needs: closeness and independence. In a co-committed (conscious) relationship, both these needs are acknowledged and celebrated.”

This is such profound wisdom. I remember in my earlier years, when a partner would say they needed space, it would make me tremendously insecure. I would think, “something must be wrong.” Yet, as the Hendricks’ make it clear, a healthy relationship needs a balance of space and closeness.

Gay and Kathlyn are a long-married couple who, as therapists, have worked with countless numbers of couples over the years. In their work and in their own marriage, they have noticed that both closeness and space can cause us discomfort.

In what they call “the upper limits problem,” our fear of closeness and our discomfort with space, if not faced consciously, can result in us using unconscious behaviors to get space. Examples include starting an argument, getting sick, or having an accident.

Their book is one of the clearest I have found in terms of delineating our dysfunctional relationship patterns, as well as articulating a clear picture of how a healthy relationship could look.

Their description of the “upper limits problem” is what originally hooked me on the book because it so accurately portrayed an issue that had shown up in my relationships that I could not explain. There would be times when I’d be in the middle of an argument and I would be witnessing myself at the same time. My inner thought would be, “Why am I having this argument? It seems trivial and meaningless, yet I am fully invested in keeping it going.”

It was a classic upper limits situation. This type of argument would usually occur when things were actually going really well. In understanding it through the lens of upper limits, I see that things were going so well that I needed some space to integrate all of this goodness, but at the same time it was not my practice to ask for space, or even to recognize when I needed space, other than if there was something specific I wanted to do.

So instead, I would unconsciously create, or be willing to participate in, an argument, no matter how meaningless, to create the space that I needed. It seems rather silly in hindsight, but apparently it is common behavior based on the large body of clients the Hendricks’ have seen.

In recent years, with expanded awareness around these dynamics, I am more intent on paying attention to when I need space and when I need closeness, so that I create what I need consciously, and it is less likely I will create it in unhealthy ways. It is surely a practice, something I am still mastering. Yet, it is so empowering to see things more clearly.

The invitation this day is to examine how you’re balancing closeness and space in your relationships. Are you able to comfortably take space when you need it? Are you able to recognize when you need space? Are there any unconscious ways that you use to create space when the closeness gets to be too much for you?

Awareness of our own upper limits, which are temporary, can support us in living harmoniously in our relationships while growing into greater and greater closeness.

Enjoy the journey.

Want to learn more about conscious loving? Click here to learn about our upcoming online Conscious Loving course, based on the book.

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