It’s Complicated – The Dance of Avoidance
What is avoidance? Avoidance is the practice of staying away from difficult topics, situations, or people. Avoidance may look like only talking about superficial, or surface level topics, not talking or responding, not talking about emotions, missing events, or going out of our way to not run into someone.
I believe everyone avoids some things in life. I used to avoid the dentist because I hated going to the dentist. Then I found a great one and go in for my twice-a-year check up regularly. This type of avoidance is very different than avoidance in significant relationships.
Avoidance in Relationships
Most of us know someone (or may be the someone) who avoids being vulnerable and open in relationships. There are several different types of avoidance and several reasons for avoidance.
There may be temporary avoidance of topics, situations or people as a way to cope or help protect the other person. This is ok as long as this avoidance is communicated with your partner or loved ones.
For example, avoiding a conversation that’s likely to activate raw emotions can be more helpful depending on the time and circumstances AND if there’s an agreed upon plan for when the conversation will occur.
This may look like saying “Hey, can we talk about __________ later because I’m feeling __________”. Problems and disconnection in the relationship occur when there’s no communication about why the conversation isn’t happening and no communication/plan for when the conversation will occur.
Healthy reasons for this type of avoidance are, but not limited to, to take time to understand why you’re triggered, to plan how you want to communicate, if there’s limited time to talk and repair any injuries.
In my job, I have to be completely focused on my clients and the work we’re doing. Because of this, my husband and I had to come up with a plan of what can and shouldn’t be discussed during breaks. He understands that I can’t have those deep conversations during my workday because then I may be triggered. I avoid these conversations until I’m done with work for the day, unless it’s a true emergency.
There are long-term avoidance of topics as a way to protect us from feeling uncomfortable emotions or fear of consequences for sharing our thoughts and feelings. This is more dangerous than we think because we never allow ourselves to really process through the emotions and it keeps us in the emotion(s) all alone.
We are than more likely to act out with anger or detachment. I see this with couples that never talk about relationship injuries or traumas, or couples in which one or both partners don’t communicate their thoughts and feelings. The partners may create their own meaning as to why their partner is not communicating, such as “I’m not loved, I’m not important, I’m not a priority, S/he will leave me, etc.”.
These types of negative beliefs relating to emotions being unsafe to share tend to come from childhood messages we received from loved ones. These negative beliefs can be created in the current relationship if a partner is dismissive, avoidant, or highly reactive.
If you’re an avoider for the reasons stated in this paragraph, I would encourage you to think about the negative beliefs and underlying negative emotions (fear, anxiety, hurt, shame, guilt). In EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), we call this “taking the emotional elevator down.”
There are Solutions!
I had a couple that I worked with several years ago in which both partners were avoiders. He avoided communicating any feelings but anger and she avoided conflict at all costs.
Through our work together, and their hard work between sessions, he was able to identify the primary emotion (fear of being rejected by her) and she was able to identify that she was afraid of hurting him and afraid of being judged so she kept quiet. This lead to years of disconnection and hurt that began to heal and repair through open and honest communication.
Avoidance may be a strategy that was learned as a child, or it may be an adaptive behavior due to current circumstances. If we avoid undesirable things, we have short-term relief. It’s an instant gratification to avoid something that does not feel good.
In the long run, we’re hurting ourselves if we avoid these types of connections because we then stay stuck in negative patterns. If I never went to the dentist again because I wanted to avoid short-term discomfort, there is a high probability that I would do more damage to my teeth and gums.
If you apply this to relationships, avoidance leads to consistent and steady disconnection. In that scenario, the relationship has a high probability of ending. Sharing vulnerable emotions can be uncomfortable and scary but it’s the best chance to heal and maintain relationships.
This post was written by Minon Maier – LMFT