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David Baxter PhD

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Couples can be too close for comfort
February 5, 2006
By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY

A relationship that borders on the claustrophobic is more common than people might think, says a California researcher who has been studying just how close is "too close."

Debra Mashek, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., says the idea of feeling "too close" varies with the individual and the couple. Partnerships that are "joined at the hip" might be fine for some couples but too much togetherness for others. She says what's clear is that when people feel as if the world revolves around their partner and they have lost their sense of self, that is definitely "too close."

Mashek says the area of study is important in mental health. When she asked specifics about feeling "too close," people in her studies described "feeling trapped" or "smothered" or "suffocated."

Mashek's work on the prevalence of feeling "too close" appeared in her 2004 book, Handbook of Closeness and Intimacy. Now a paper she has written on that phenomenon is awaiting publication.

The desire for personal space vs. closeness or intimacy varies by the individual, which can create problems if the partners view their needs differently, says Arthur Aron, a psychology professor at the State University of New York-Stony Brook who co-edited Handbook.

"The basic issue about being too close is being closer than you're comfortable with," Aron says. "For some people, even slightly close is too much, and for other people being enormously close is great."

In one of her studies, Mashek asked 611 undergraduate college students how often they felt "too close" to their partners. She found that 57% experienced that feeling at least once during the semester.

"If we look at the ones who said it was 'too close,' a lot of people said they felt 'too close' within the past month but now everything is cool," she says.

What's key, Mashek says, is "finding a way to re-establish the balance between the 'we-ness and the me-ness' of what a relationship is all about."

Other studies involved 1,200 students who looked at overlapping pairs of circles and selected the one describing their relationship; another study involved 100 non-students who completed surveys.

Harry Reis, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester who has studied intimacy and close relationships, says gender differences are apparent in the type of closeness desired.

As an example, women may want more closeness in communication, while men may want it through shared experiences, such as a recreational activity.

He says close relationships can take a toll, especially when a partner dies. Studies show the survivor might have significant problems because life was so structured around the other.

For couples who work together, the type of work and the relationship itself make a difference. Studies show that doing things that are novel and challenging strengthens the relationship, Aron says.
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