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BETWEEN US

We're getting territorial in the bedroom

May 15, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

The sitting room just off the master suite was supposed to be hers. Penny Bondy wanted a relaxing place for reading, watching television or hopping on the treadmill. But then her husband, Lee, took up building model ships -- precise 3-foot replicas of vessels that ruled the seas centuries ago -- and half of the sitting room. Today, a sofa, love seat and end table function as the demilitarized zone.

"There's my side and there's his side," said Penny Bondy, 53, of Agoura Hills. "I like to have fresh flowers around, but he has got his ships everywhere. I ask him, 'Does every flat surface have to have a ship on it?' "

"I have a good sense of humor about it," added Penny, who sought a resolution to the problem on Home & Garden Television's "Designing for the Sexes." "But it can be annoying sometimes."

In ways subtle and not, every couple must contend with the division of things and territory within the home, but few spaces carry the psychological significance of the bedroom. Within this most private and intimate area, the way these practical matters are settled can often be very telling of the relationship -- everything from how a couple love and respect each other and their differences to whether they're headed for divorce court.

"It gets at the whole dynamic of individual identity versus identity as a couple," said Carl Hindy, the author of "If This Is Love, Why Do I Feel So Insecure?" "The material divisions of assets and the like are a symbolic representation of the 'me' versus the 'us.' "

Of course, the "me versus us" is a frequently clash. "That map of a Civil War battlefield isn't going on my side." "That floral pattern throw pillow isn't going on mine." Over time, many couples simply split the room up with their sphere of influence ending at their half of the bed.

"We each have our section in the bedroom, if you will, sort of an unspoken rule," said Helene Ellis, 47, an office manager from Northridge. " 'This is my nightstand,' 'this is my closet' -- that kind of thing -- so don't put your stuff there."

Like many men, Helene's husband, Richard, has less closet space than his wife. When the couple doubled their closet space in a home improvement project years ago, the area was supposed to be split evenly, but it didn't work out that way.

"I'd be surprised if someone came in with a tape measure and it came up that I had 50%," laughed Richard, 48, a post-production supervisor in the entertainment industry. "I'd say she got about 60%."

Compared with some men, Richard did pretty well. "I'd put my husband's stuff in a broom closet if I could," said Renee A. Cohen, a psychologist with practices in Santa Monica and Torrance. "Even builders know this. In master suites there is a big closet and a little closet. Guess who gets the big closet?"

The amount of space one partner controls is typically perceived as a confirmation of that person's worth and importance, say psychologists. So, a partner's bid to expand their area of influence is sometimes a desire to be seen as more important in the relationship, they say.

"People are territorial," said Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. "It's innate to all species, including humans, and there's no reason why it wouldn't extend to spouses."

But sometimes an excessive number of off-limits signs on places and things can indicate a troubled relationship.

An exaggerated attention to personal ownership -- for example, my computer, my couch or my jewelry box -- can indicate a fear of commitment or a damaging secret, especially if violations trigger anger or lying.

"Sometimes you have your own computer because you want to know your e-mail is your e-mail," said Cohen. "But sometimes you have one because you want to look at porno."

"People who try to live too privately within a relationship don't have the ability to share or commit," Cohen said. "They're tenuously holding on."

But if couples hold on to their personal identities and trust that their sense of self won't be squashed, oftentimes restrictions will ease up or disappear altogether.

"As partners feel an increasing sense of security about the relationship, they are more likely to share themselves and their things more willingly," said Hindy, who is also a psychologist in private practice in New Hampshire. "All of a sudden, they stop putting name tags in their books and the off-limits sign on their album collection has come down."

Conversely, couples who share everything can run into trouble just as easily as those that throw up too many walls.

No boundaries around things can sometimes be translated into "I don't care how you treat me."

Permitting a partner to rifle through personal letters tucked away in a dresser drawer or allowing repeated entries into the bathroom when the door is closed may be signs that the individual has surrendered too much identity to the relationship.

"I ask couples sometimes what they do for fun, and they can't think of anything," said Hindy. "These couples weren't able to work out 'what is mine and what is yours.' They both have given everything up. And they've become isolated, with their main activity being to bicker and to blame the other person."

Ultimately what matters as claims are staked for things and space is what the couple thinks of the practices and ongoing negotiations.

"When one person is uncomfortable or unhappy with what's going on, that's when it becomes a problem," said Reis. "Otherwise, it's not much to worry about."

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