Coined by psychologist Shirley Glass, PhD, in her book Not “Just Friends,” the concept of windows and walls in a relationship is a metaphor for the ways in which two emotionally involved people can maintain intimacy—that is, by creating some degree of openness between them (the “window”) and some buffer against the outside world (the “wall”).
“A committed relationship needs this safe space or bubble to thrive,” says relationship therapist Genesis Games, LMHC. “And within it, an open floor-to-ceiling window with your partner allows the two of you to feel seen and heard by each other with full transparency.”
Why it’s helpful to create and maintain “windows” and “walls” in a relationship
A “window” simply signifies an open flow of communication between you and a partner, which is vital for you both to “understand each other’s worlds, stay on the same page, and clarify expectations, feelings, and desires,” says relationship therapist Jordan Green, LCSW, founder of relationship health and wellness platform Remble. “Open communication gives you an opportunity to catch the small issues and areas of improvement before they snowball into bigger problems.”
“An open flow of communication between you and a partner is vital for you both to understand each other’s worlds, stay on the same page, and clarify expectations, feelings, and desires.” —Jordan Green, LCSW, relationship therapist
For both people to feel comfortable sharing back-and-forth through that window, though, there also needs to be some kind of wall, creating privacy around the relationship. “Without that boundary, your person isn’t protected,” says relationship therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, founder of relationship-counseling platform Ours. “Consider the person who fails to think about how their partner is feeling and constantly invites other people over without a warning. Letting the wall fall casually in this way disrupts the sacredness of the connection.”
That doesn’t mean the wall between your relationship and the outside world needs to be impermeable, though. In fact, it should have some windows, too, allowing external forces into your relationship on occasion, says Earnshaw. “Just like in a real home, things get yucky if you don’t sometimes open the windows and get some air,” she says. “The ‘air’ in a relationship is your friends, jobs, hobbies, and so on.” It’s just that your connection to any of these things shouldn’t overpower the one you have with your partner. “It’s the same way that you wouldn’t keep windows in a home wide open all the time to avoid letting in rain and snow,” says Earnshaw.
“When you keep the window open to others, but closed to your partner, they lose their ability to be connected to you.” —Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, relationship therapist
When you start to let your relationship’s outer wall break down and become too much of a window, you’ll notice that the window between you and a partner also starts to become a wall, reversing the roles of each. “This might look like working all hours of the day and night, allowing your energy to drain from the relationship, or sharing all personal details of your partnership with a friend, family member, or coworker,” says Earnshaw. “In doing this, you keep the window open to others, but closed to your partner, which means they lose their ability to be connected to you.” It’s this separation that can eventually open the door to cheating and affairs, she says.
How to maintain the “window” between you and a romantic partner
Keeping an open or transparent window of communication typically requires going back to relationship basics, says Games. “We often forget to ensure that we’re meeting our partner’s core needs, like wanting to feel loved, valued, heard, accepted, and supported.”
According to Games, even taking small actions in everyday conversations can satisfy those needs. She suggests offering up your undivided attention to a partner while they’re speaking (that means no sneaking glances at your phone) and asking questions afterward to make them feel heard, considering their input when deciding upon something that affects you both to be sure they feel valued, and taking their side in conversations that involve a third party to show your support.
All of these relationship best practices can ensure that a window, not a wall, remains in place between the two of you, as can doing your part to be transparent. “Remember that vulnerability invites vulnerability,” says Games. “If you want your partner to feel comfortable opening their inner world to you, you need to be willing to do the same.”
How to keep an intimacy “wall” around your relationship (without spending *all* your time with your partner)
It’s clear that some sort of wall between your partnership and everything else is necessary to allow for emotional safety, openness, and all the other benefits of a transparent window between the two of you. But again, that doesn’t mean that you can’t lead a rich life outside of your relationship, too. The idea is to do so in a way that doesn’t compromise your partnership along the way.
“The balance of time spent together and apart looks different for every couple,” says Green. “The important thing is that you and your partner are in agreement around the amount of intimacy, connection, freedom, and exploration you can each experience in the relationship.”
As a result, it’s important to ask your partner outright whether the amount of time and energy you spend on the relationship is meeting their needs and supplying the emotional safety necessary for them to be vulnerable. “As an example, my partner and I are very close, but we spend a lot of time on our hobbies, with our friends, and on our work, and yet, neither of us are bothered by that,” says Earnshaw. “Other people might feel uncomfortable having more time apart. There is no rule for this other than the rules you make together.”
To ensure those internal decisions are clear to both of you, try creating a structure, says Games. “For example, if you decide that Friday nights are date nights, then both of you can protect the relationship wall by not making plans with others on Friday nights, or in the event that something out of the norm arises for one of you, by consulting with the other first.” Of course, these decisions don’t need to be set in stone and can change with the seasons of a relationship, but having a structure in place can help keep both people accountable for maintaining the wall.
In the end, the right balance between windows and walls in a relationship is really about which of your needs are being met within the relationship and without. Too many needs satisfied outside of the relationship leads one or both people to be overly independent, creating distance in the partnership. And too many needs satisfied within the relationship can spawn codependency. By contrast, keeping that internal window open while using the external wall as a soft buffer is where intimacy, without over-dependency, can thrive.
That’s essentially what it means to embrace interdependence, says Green, “which allows you to express love without sacrificing yourself and to receive love without being dependent on it for your self-worth.”