Wednesday, November 2, 2011

This Relationship Corner: Territory

Did you ever have to share a room growing up? Perhaps you shared a dorm room in college. Or you were forced to share a backseat with one or more siblings on a long family road trip. (Even worse, you had to share it back when cars didn't come equipped with DVD players...the horror!) If you've ever had to share space with another person, you've dealt with the issue of territory. You also know how it feels when someone violates your territory, and that feeling is the opposite of a pleasant surprise.

Let's go back to that shared room. The Interpersonal Communication Book (11th edition) by Joseph A. Devito refers to our room as one of our primary territories. And a primary territory, be it your room, house, or car, is your most sacred space. You don't want just anybody coming in a violating it. Now, if you already have someone in that room, your side of the room becomes that primary territory, with your bed being the most important spot, the inner sanctum.

But if you did have a sibling, you didn't just trust that he/she would just respect your side of the room. No, to keep that unholy intruder out of your side of the room, the side preferred by your parents, America, and God, you had to mark your territory. While drawing a line down the center of the room would seem like the most ideal solution, that would involve keeping the floor clean, which is why just leaving your stuff on your side of the room was the preferred solution. Devito refers to this as a central marker - your stuff indicates that you have claimed ownership of the space.

Our stuff is the flag we plant, claiming space in the name of ourselves. Why do you think we save seats by leaving an article of clothing? When others see stuff in a space, they assume it's already taken and move on to less occupied pastures. (If you really want to save seats at the movies, bring some dirty socks. I guarantee no one will want to touch them let alone sit there.) When you put your stuff down, you are declaring ownership of the space.

Why do you think that you all reacted so badly when their stuff wound up on your side of the room? It was an invasion, is what it was, and their things on your side of the room was the encroaching army, slowly eroding the sovereignty of your borders. Their stuff on your side was a declaration of war, a demonstration of callous disregard of the unspoken treaty between two warring sides, and that meant it was on. So many sibling feuds can be traced back to someone's coat left on the wrong side of the room.

Because when you were younger, you did not suffer such violations lightly. If you were merciful, you simply threw the offending item back to the other side of the room with such force that it almost cracked the plaster. If you were not in a magnanimous mood that day, that invader was never seen again, a warning to all others who would dare cross into your territory unannounced.

It was even worse in the backseat, when your turf was so minimal that any violation was serious. If they even thought about putting a finger or toe on your part of the backseat, if they even dared look at it, it was a slap in the face and needed to be met with such resistance as could only be broken up by a parent threatening to turn this car around.

Fast forward a few years and now you're an adult, living on your own. You have your own little kingdom, be it a house or apartment, and finally you have space to breathe, room for all your stuff, and absolute power over what stays and what goes. This was most definitely me, and I loved my little apartment when I was in grad school. It may have been small and cramped, but it was mine. All mine. Until I got engaged.

Suddenly, my wife-to-be comes into my space, my territory, and puts little bulls-eyes on all my stuff. She was planning a full-on invasion and would offer very little quarter. Most of my furniture, my decorations, my meager assortment of appliances, all gone. Granted, most of my stuff was crap and got replaced by nicer things, but that's missing the wider point: is this my place, our place, or her place?

That's a question a lot of couples wrestle with, especially guys. We're usually the ones conceding territory while our girlfriends and wives take. And the invasion sometimes starts slowly. She'll leave one item in our place. Perhaps a pair of shoes, a few items of clothing, or the surest sign of a flag-plant: a toothbrush. It's all downhill from there. The next thing you know, your place is getting redecorated, the cool toys slowly get replaced by more decorative arrangements from Martha Stewart, and soon you don't even recognize the place anymore. The place is hers and you just live there now.

Or rather than her move in with you, the two of you move into a new place together. This time it's a blank slate, the both of you are invading, claiming it as your own. And it's still hers. And deep down, you know it's hers for one reason: there's more of her stuff than your stuff. There are more of her items and knick-knacks on the shelves, more of her furniture, and it smells the way she wants it to smell. She has a lot more central markers in place than you, and so it's easy for men to feel like that we're just renting a room in her place.

This is a bigger problem than it seems, because the point of living together, especially when you are married, is for the place to feel like "our" place, in which both of you feel ownership. It should never be about who has more territory, and it certainly shouldn't devolve into the types of arguments you had as children when someone was on your side of the room. It can be so easy for one partner to dominate the space that the other feels resentful and powerless, two feelings you never want to engender in your romantic partner/spouse.

So what do you do? Like all conflicts, and this is a conflict whether you realize it or not, there are two methods at your disposal for healthy resolution: compromise and the win-win solution. With compromise, each of you concede a space to the other person. Each of you gets a shelf, or you each get an equal number of things to hang from the walls.

Over the past decade, we've seen a rise in a unique compromise: the man cave. The philosophy of the man cave is simple: he gets one room to do with as he pleases, and she gets the rest of the house. For many men, this is the best solution, because they've come to accept that she's in control of the house, but they get one room just for themselves and their stuff, and that's a lot better than nothing. Throw in a large TV, some comfortable chairs, and a great surround-sound system, and you won't even care what the rest of the house looks like.

And men, let's be honest. When left to our own devices, a lot of the times our taste in furnishings is juvenile. Not that is isn't awesome, but when women set up a home, they think about having other people over. Your space says a lot about who you are, and the first impression anyone has of you is often your home. This is why women often go with more socially acceptable and less awesome furnishings - they want the both of you to make a good impression. Men, this isn't a bad thing. Sometimes we need to be grown-ups.

Fortunately, after grown-up time is over, the men can retire to the man cave for an evening of fun while the women will then talk about the men. (At least, that's what I tell myself, and you should too. Because you don't want to know what they're really talking about.) The system can work in compromise mode.

However, there's another solution that's even better. This one is tricky to pull off, but the rewards are better: the win-win. In this case, both partners have equal ownership of the space and make decisions about what they both want. The stakes are higher, and its more difficult than just ceding territory, but in the end, you will feel like the space is truly "ours" instead of "yours and mine."

While I mainly talked about heterosexual couples, the issues of territory are no different for same-sex couples. When you are living with or married to someone, you want to feel like you have some say in the relationship, and that's often reflected on who has more territorial markers. If you feel you have equal say, or if you have a system in place that makes each side happy, then that's a positive reflection on the relationship as a whole.

This is why the two of you should not take moving in lightly. It's more than just cramming both your stuff into a single space, it's an intricate negotiation. And like you and your sibling, it can quickly devolve into screaming and tears if you are careless or clueless. As long as you respect each other's feelings and territory and work for an equitable solution, you'll be on your way to building a good life together.

And if you have an awesome man cave, invite me over.

What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

Previous Relationship Corners
The Dangers of Soulmates

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