The Intimacy of Personal Space

I always had my own room as a kid. I was pretty lucky in that way that I didn’t have to share it with a sibling as some people did. It was really nice to have a place in my house that I could really call my own and that I had a lot of control over. The rest of the house was definitely my family’s house and the spaces were shared with other people and others dictated the rules surrounding it but in my room I was in charge. Well, as long as I kept it clean enough that my parents didn’t have to step in that is.

As I grew up, this space became an extension of my own identity. I organized it the way I wanted, I decorated it with pictures and posters and my favorite things.  It was a place where I could retreat if I wanted to be alone, a place I could go with friends where we wouldn’t be interrupted. I place that I could share with whomever I wanted and keep away from those I didn’t.

This pattern continued, as I got older and moved out of my parents home. Now the house was an apartment and was shared with roommates and friends instead of family but my room was still my own. I could decorate it as I liked without having to negotiate with others and people only came in if I wanted them to. It was still my place, where I could be me and no one could tell me different.

The regular dynamics regarding this personal space changed in the face of a new private element to my life: romance. In high school, having friends alone with me in my room, even friends of the opposite sex, wasn’t a big deal but if it was a girlfriend then this took on a whole new meaning. You didn’t hang out alone in your room with your girlfriend/boyfriend, instead you went out on dates to the movies or hung out at school. If you were at home, you spent time in the living room or the rec room. Shared spaces. Open spaces. Sometimes this was because of parents’ rules; sometimes it was a personal choice too. Even if the plan was just to watch a movie or read a book, the perceived intimacy of being alone in your private space was too much.

As time passed and relationships grew in maturity and intensity, this slowly began to change. At first they might spend the afternoon in your room, after school sometime or on a weekend. Eventually afternoon turns into evenings and then evenings into nights and eventually those nights turn into overnights and weekends together. Eventually not only does the time spent together in private increase but so too does the sharing of space. Maybe at first it’s just a toothbrush or change of clothes. Then a book or two or other personal items build up and before long the idea of moving in together is broached.

For the first time, my personal space wasn’t entirely my own, it was shared. By this I don’t mean the uneasy truce of siblings or dorm-mates drawing a line down the middle of the room and claiming territory for their own. No, now, slowly, my room was becoming ours. When I think about it now I realize how significant the decision to move in with your romantic partner can be. Not only is it making a bold statement about the stability and future potential of the relationship but it’s also building on the idea that your willing to open up your personal space and surrender your complete control over it in order to share it with this new person. In order to build a place together.

Though significant, moving in this direction seemed natural to me. After all, growing up my parents didn’t have their own rooms but shared ‘the parents’ room together. In looking at house and apartment designs, there’s a master bedroom worked into most of them where the couple would share the room and the other rooms would be for kids, guests or whatever else they desired. This was just how it was done. This is what it meant to be a couple.

This past fall I had an experience that made me think more about this trend that I had before. Before starting school, my dad and I went and visited Casa Loma, a huge castle-like mansion built by Sir Henry Pellatt about a century ago located in Toronto. I find it sometimes very interesting to see what people do when money really isn’t a factor. When I look for a new apartment I have a wish list that I’d like to check off but available funds definitely restrict my options. For the Pellatts when they started building their home, there was no such limitation. While there were many things that were remarkable about the building, one thing really stood out for me; in addition to the many different rooms, including a number of different guestrooms, Sir Henry and his wife each had their own private suite.

The other ridiculously lavish mansion that I had seen this in was when I visited the palace of Versailles in France.  Though my history knowledge is limited, the understanding I got about Queen Marie-Antoinette and King Louis XVI was that their marriage was an arranged one when they were both very young and that though they probably grew to care for one another it would be a stretch to say they were all that romantic of a couple. The strange thing about Casa Loma’s separate rooms was that from what I understand the Pellatts were head over heels for each other. They were high school sweethearts and what records remain indicate that they were a loving and affectionate couple for the remainder of their lives together.

It was hard for me to understand why such a loving couple would chose to have separate bedrooms. Their house was big enough that they had their own offices and there were many other separate rooms available. Why then would they choose to have separate bedrooms too? Being in a position where I’m forced to have my own room due to distance after sharing it for half a decade, it was hard to imagine that I would opt for this arrangement by choice.

For the sake of discussion, I chose to put aside potential influences of cultural views of the time and to instead think about the idea more generally. I’ll never know why the Pellatts made the decision, but it presented an interesting question for myself, why would I make that choice and what would that choice mean. From a practical perspective I could see a lot of benefits of that kind of arrangement. You could decorate your room as you liked and wouldn’t have to argue about what colour to paint the walls. If you or your partner was sick or your sleeping patterns were out of sync you wouldn’t have to choose between disrupting your partner and sleeping on the couch. You could still chose to sleep in the same bed every night if you wanted to, the Pellatts suites were connected by a private door after all.

In thinking about all this, it made me reflect on how either arrangement created a very different conceptualization of the intimacy of shared space.  As I mentioned above regarding my own life experiences, sharing one room creates a unified space that belongs to the couple together as much as each individual separately. There’s a security and stability in that the other person is always there and you’re always together. In thinking about the Pellatts, their arrangement could be seen as just as intimate but in a different way. If they shared a bed at night, they would know that it was because they had both made that choice and they could make that choice every night of their lives. There wasn’t an assumption; instead there was the intention of both partners to share their space or to preserve their own independence as they wished. Maybe knowing that the person sleeping next to you is there because they chose to be is really where the sense of security in the relationship can be found.

I don’t intend to say whether one way is better or worse than the other. To be truthful I think that for many of us the financial realities of life could make the choice for us. All the same, I find it interesting to reflect on how we view our own personal space and how we chose to share it with those we love.

Maybe the really interesting piece is to reflect on what choices we actually made because they were what we truly wanted, and which ones were made because we didn’t even know we could chose.

3 thoughts on “The Intimacy of Personal Space

    • That’s very interesting. Cultural evolution in action, I suppose. Makes you wonder what a “typical” marriage/relationship will look like in a generation or two.

      • I think what it puts forward is the potential that the definition of a ‘typical’ relationship may becoming a lot more diverse and fluid which i think is a pretty exciting idea.

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