The 6th Love Language: Distance

Jessica Wildfire

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Photo by Kirayonak Yuliya

The most romantic thing my friend’s husband ever did was take a vacation by himself. He left her the house for an entire week, so she could finish her dissertation—with zero interruptions.

When my friend told us, she almost squealed. She’d been working on the stupid thing for months.

My friend used her week wisely. She taught her classes, then went straight home to write. She took little breaks to grab coffee and go for walks. Her husband didn’t hound her with texts or phone calls. He let her work, and only checked in once or twice to let her know he hadn’t gotten mugged or died in a car accident. Later that semester, she defended on time. Adding that PhD behind her name filled her up with gratitude.

What she so desperately needed was the thing her husband gave her: time alone, to focus. “He gets me,” she would say.

Now that’s love.

The 6th love language is the hardest.

By now, you’ve probably at least heard of Gary Chapman’s 5 love languages. They describe the ways we care for each other: quality time; acts of service; gifts; words of affirmation; physical touch.

Just one little problem here…

There’s been one extra love language staring us down the whole time, neatly summed up as the need for space: “If you love someone, sometimes you have to leave them alone.”

It’s counter-intuitive, I know. We’re conditioned to think if we love someone, we should never get tired of seeing them. So when they claim space for themselves, we think it’s personal. We assume there must be something wrong, when there isn’t.

People speak the 6th love language all the time, without knowing. It happens when your Tinder crush flakes at the last minute, or your wife disappears for an hour. They love you, but they don’t know how to explain what they need. They feel guilty for wanting time alone.

Love is about setting boundaries.

Anyone with an artistic or “intellectual” side understands how exhausting it gets to live with someone. If you’re in the house, you’re seen as “available” even when you’re trying to concentrate.

Love is a 24/7 job, but you need little boundaries.

You can’t let your soulmate feel entitled to pop into your workspace every time they want to share a cat GIF.

But you can’t lock yourself up all day, either.

Always be within reach.

The 20th century artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera knew this dilemma, which is why they lived in separate houses connected by a bridge. They gave each other the space and privacy they needed. It flew in the face of what everyone thought about love, but they didn’t care.

They lived alone, but always within reach.

Most of us can’t afford to build separate houses connected by a bridge, but we can use it as a metaphor. We can pay more attention to the people we love when they need to be alone — but close by.

Demanding all of someone’s time isn’t love.

The ones you love crave time to themselves. For reading. For knitting. For practicing their violin. For painting or sculpting. Or maybe they’re the kind of person who relaxes by tinkering in the garage.

They need people in their lives to allow that, instead of assuming they’re always free. Expecting someone to give up their personal interests to watch The Bachelor with you isn’t love.

It’s selfish.

You can wear a relationship thin with demands. Nobody can be their most exuberant, best self every waking hour.

This is one step beyond self-care.

You could say all we’re really talking about is turning the 5 love languages inward for self-care. True, but there’s a difference between caring for yourself and letting someone else do the same.

It doesn’t feel great to get stood up or flaked on. And it rocks your confidence a little when someone you’ve loved for years suddenly wants you to go away for a few days.

That’s where the 6th love language really kicks in. Loving someone calls for a little patience and self-sufficiency on your part. It means you let them go on their trip, or give them a weekend afternoon, knowing they’ll come back grounded and ready to meet your own needs.

Your loved ones need daily time to decompress.

It’s a myth that when you love someone, you see and accept all of them. That’s impossible. Most of us don’t truly relax anymore unless we’re completely alone — when we have nobody else to worry about.

Solitude brings a peace of mind you can’t get any other way.

In that safe bubble, we finally let our guard down and air out our minds. We unpack and process our emotions.

We can’t do that with someone else around.

If you love someone, part of you is always paying attention to them, especially when you’re sharing the same space. You’re on.

It goes double for anyone with a personality disorder.

You feel an intense need for solitude when you’re autistic — or even just atypical. Those of us on the spectrum spend mega-kilowatts of energy accommodating everyone else’s social expectations.

So does anyone with anxiety or depression.

We go out of our way to mime everyone else’s love languages. Every day feels like dancing on a stage. The way to love us back isn’t to give us a gift or a hug, or a compliment, but to just let us breathe.

Atypical personalities need #6 more than anyone.

Maybe you know an atypical person. Watch what happens when they’re overstimulated, or trapped at a social function where everyone ignores their polite goodbyes and keeps talking. They’ll start acting annoyed at the slightest provocations. They’ll space out.

Eventually, they’ll shut down.

They might even walk off in the middle of conversation. If you love them, even just as a friend, don’t call them rude.

Let them leave.

Better yet, learn to spot their cues. They appreciate it when someone can tell when they’re socially done. That’s how you love an atypical person, enjoying the moments you’ve shared — and respecting their down time.

You can give them what they need.

The best way to show someone you love them is to do exactly what my friend’s husband did. Understand when they’re stressed, or socially tired. You don’t always have to plan a big vacation.

You can go into a different room. You can grab a coffee, or hang out with your friends for an afternoon. You can go to bed a little early, or let them stay up late without making them feel guilty about it.

Tell them when you’re doing it, and explain why. You can even come up with a schedule if that helps you communicate better. The main thing is to trust them, that they’re asking for time because they need it — not because they don’t love you enough.

Be careful about abusing #6.

Think about all the ways we abuse the other 5 love languages. When we get lazy, we pass off a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day as a gift. We call doing the bare minimum an act of service.

We take other people’s love for granted. When someone gives us something nice, we don’t use it. Someone helps us move, and we promise to take them out for a beer — but we never do.

The same goes for love language #6. If you tell someone you need an afternoon to yourself, don’t squander it.

It’s about the exchange.

The whole point of love languages is about give and take. Someone gives you the quiet time you need, and you return the love later in their language. You can’t keep score, but you can pay attention and avoid take-take-taking all the time. If you always want to be alone, that’s a problem.

This could be just the beginning.

We’re in the middle of a huge cultural and economic shift that we barely understand. More and more of us aren’t working 9–5 anymore. We make money in a gig economy. We work nights and weekends. We sleep and eat on different schedules from our partners.

All of that has implications for how we love in the 2020s. What worked for our parents won’t cut it for us. We’re having to rethink love from scratch. A 6th love language could be just the beginning.

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