After being in a nine-year committed relationship with someone who was painfully avoidant I have learned to spot the patterns of avoidance in my clients and the couples with whom I work with a keen eye. I see it come up even in the people who apply to my programs or reach out to me in the ways they do not show up for calls or respond when I take their application seriously and they may have had something else come up. I prefer the direct approach. Just tell me “no.” I have great respect for women who can stand firmly in their knowing and in their “no.” But usually, people avoid saying “no” because they think it will hurt the other person.
Avoidant people almost always manage to partner with someone who is the opposite of avoidant. Avoidance will generally mean that you will not get your needs met or feel seen and heard in a relationship, because it ultimately will require others to read your mind or figure out what is going on without you telling them. That puts a lot of responsibility on others for you getting your needs met. And they might not see what you need them to see. This is a set-up for all involved.
People develop patterns of avoidance for a whole variety of reasons.
Avoidance comes from:
- Protection from abuse. An emotionally overbearing or violent parent/home situation that you need to protect yourself from.
- Insecurity. Deep insecurity that tells you if you make yourself really small, no one will notice you and you’ll skate under the radar (again, to “safety”).
- Communication ability. You didn’t learn communication skills that would have you learn how to ask for what you need and want in a healthy way.
- Unmet needs. Not getting your needs met and feeling you perpetually will not get them met; so you cease asking, which turns into avoiding asking because the “no” you got over and over was so painful.
- Gender role conditioning. Gender roles that teach men to dodge and not directly address feelings. Gender roles that teach women they should take care of everyone else and forsake their own needs.
- Role modeling. You were taught not to complain, “rock the boat,” or make demands; and at least one of your parents is also avoidant and modeled that behavior for you.
Typically, a truly avoidant person will have several of these. For instance, you could have a violent father and an avoidant mother and your needs rarely got met. “No” was a mantra in your family. Or you had traditional gender roles in your family and your mother was care-taker to everyone and didn’t get her needs met so you learned that too, and maybe she was also incredibly insecure; and you took on the same insecurity and need to care-take everyone else so that you could feel worthy of even having a seat at the table.
Avoidance in Adult Relationships
You learned your avoidance patterns in an honest way in a home life where you had unmet needs, felt unseen or uncared for, or were conditioned not to rock the boat. Is that serving you in your adult relationships? I think it’s rare that consistent avoidance is healthy.
Avoidance can be healthy as a survival technique. It helps you get out of harm’s way. As a way of being in adult relationships it will land you in unhealthy dynamics, with unmet needs and increasing resentment.
How Avoidance Shows Up
There are so many ways avoidance shows up in relationships. Here are some common ways it can show up in a romantic/sexual relationship and typical alternative behaviors:
- Not setting boundaries and then passive-aggressively expressing them another way. (Or not at all, resulting in a build-up of frustration and resentment.)
- Not wanting to have sex but being afraid to say it so you do things to sabotage sex rather than just to talk about it openly knowing your “yes” and your “no” will both be heard and respected.
- Wanting sex but not asking for it directly, so you find indirect or passive-aggressive ways to get your sexual needs met.
- Wanting a different kind of sex, stimulation, touch, or emotional presence from your partner without being able to ask for it, resulting in disappointment and frustration.
- Not feeling like you can set limits or help direct the pace of sexual interactions, exploration, or terrain.
- Not knowing how to break-up when you are ready so you sabotage the relationship in other ways or stay in it way too long.
- Doing things you really are not into just to make your partner happy.
- Keeping yourself, your needs, your wants and your demands small, if not invisible, which completely disempowers you in a relationship.
If you recognize these avoidant patterns in yourself, it’s time to change them. It is not a simple task because you probably have a life-long pattern to overcome. But it is absolutely possible. I’ve watched women transform how they show up in relationships by addressing their avoidance, people-pleasing, passive-aggression and inability to communicate. Should you answer the call to take up more space, make more demands, and know that you have that right, it will absolutely change your life and your relationships. You will be able to fulfill your own desires and find people who are with you in that fulfillment. Avoidance will never equal fulfillment.