September 3, 2010 · 8:31 am
The bigger you are, the greater personal space you need. Sadly, this rule doesn’t apply on budget airlines, or if you’re pregnant. These days I keep bumping into things, like a cat that needs longer whiskers, because my inner compass is out of step with my expanding curves. And while my kicking baby invades my privacy, strange hands assail my belly. Worse, if I back off, the gropers look hurt, rejected. And annoyingly, they’re right. How I feel about their unsolicited pats tells me – with unprecedented clarity – exactly how much I like them. Or not.
Am I standoffish? Hormonal? Typical Brit? Perhaps. Perhaps other women adore admiring bump hugs. But my sensitivity to the boundary between intimacy and intrusion isn’t entirely personal. For a start comfort zones are culturally determined, influenced by habitat. In populous India, strangers stand closer than on the vast Mongolian steppe.
Yet social boundaries are as changeable as national borders. An Italian travelling in Tudor England noted in horror that if a visitor doesn’t ‘kiss the mistress [of the house] on the mouth, they think him badly brought up’. And it wasn’t the puritan Oliver Cromwell, but lusty Charles II who deemed kissing an unacceptable English greeting – because he was raised in France, which then considered face-on-face action vulgar!
It’s impossible to read the words ‘personal space’ without hearing an American accent, but the notion’s no more foreign than our cliché about not stepping on people’s toes. How you measure personal space is the problem. To solve it, 1960s anthropologist Edward T. Hall invented ‘proxemics’, a quasi-science, with diagrams of concentric rings, to divide social from personal space (4 feet and 1.5 feet from the body, respectively). But his yardstick’s too long for Japan, and totally impractical for the Tube.
There’s but one universal law of personal space: we perceive it via the psychological nervous system popularly called the emotions. It’s policed by the amygdala, part of the brain that hosts emotional memories. Hence you’ll experience a Pavlovian flinch when your smelly brother-in-law lunges for his annual New Year’s kiss. Luckily, you needn’t be a dog to retrain your amygdala. Move to Rome, you’ll soon learn to embrace acquaintances. And if social signposts are unclear, try my preferred marker of personal space: can you smell his breath? Then smile, step back. I guarantee he won’t be offended.
As seen in ES magazine
September 2, 2009 · 9:12 am
Did greedy doctors invent sex addiction to grab a piece of the divorce lawyers’ action? I only ask because commitment anxiety is rising, and not just adultery is being diagnosed as a disease. Fidelity, too, is suspect. Are you married, cohabiting, eyes for no other? Might you be – whisper it – co-dependent?
I am married and I am independent. Or so I thought. However, my spouse and I depend on each other. So the increasingly common term ‘co-dependence’ worried me. It sounds vague. But my dictionary says that a co-dependent couple features one who is an addict, and another who is addicted to their relationship with the addict. So me and my husband are okay. But then it struck me the definition is slippery. What if the addict is addicted to the relationship? And what if a co-dependency therapist had advised Victorian poet Robert Browning? Would he have eloped with ageing, invalid opium addict Elizabeth Barrett? Would we have their great love story?
‘In a codependent society,’ warns therapist Robert Burney, ‘everyone has to have someone to look down on, in order to feel good about themselves.’ Sounds like human nature. By this measure, love between any two imperfect or unequal individuals is unhealthy, and caring is suspect (caring could be ‘looking down’ in disguise). Is there such a thing as a relationship without any power imbalance? Isn’t one of the benefits of a relationship that you don’t have to be best at everything?
Burney is not the first to view love with a surgeon’s suspicion. ‘My love is as a fever, longing still/For that which longer nurseth the disease.’ In this sonnet Shakespeare described a disorder called romance, which traditionally occurred outside dull marriage (which was for babies, money, and dynasties). Only in the seventeenth century did married love come to be regarded the summit of human fulfilment. In our crowded world, such a belief is less tenable.
Twenty-first century romantics must commit to their job, friends, home, kids. Even had we the time, it is harder to be confident about prioritising one relationship. Fear of monotony, worry about monogamy, have increased our faith in other people’s right to talk us through our lives, and tell us how to live them. But if we over-diagnose our emotions, our love stories may end before they’ve begun.
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Tagged as co-dependence, companionate, elizabeth barrett browning, fidelity, independence, intimacy, Love, marriage, monogamy, robert browning, robert burney, Romance, sex, shakespeare