Certainly, most of us will experience times in our relationship when we have particular difficulty expressing or communicating our feelings to our partner, or vice versa. This is frustrating in new or established relationships.
Some couples experience this as “stonewalling” which means one individual is unwilling to engage in further discussion even though the other individual is actively seeking to talk about the issue. Others find that while initially they or their partner may require a little time before they are ready or willing to discuss difficult feelings, they are ultimately able to come together and have important conversations.
As humans, few of us look forward to difficult conversations that cause us emotional stress. We don’t want to worry about upsetting our partner. Doubtless, 99.9 percent of us would love the opportunity to wave a magic wand and have tough relational issues resolved with no risk of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, or distress. Some individuals, however, have a particularly hard time when it comes to their emotions … especially the “negative” ones that they worry are wrong, “bad”, or potentially hurtful to someone else.
When a person habitually avoids dealing with feelings or engaging in emotionally charged dialogues, this pattern of relating is referred to as avoidant. Avoidant individuals avoid participating in situations that they perceive as emotionally risky to themselves or others, even though this behavior may create additional stress and relational difficulties.
If you or your partner have avoidant tendencies, there are learnable skills that will help any person gain the confidence and competence to engage challenging feelings and emotionally charged situations.
1. Understand where avoidant behavior comes from.
Avoidant behavior is always rooted in fear of undesirable consequences. Abandonment, disappointment, guilt, shame, blame, anger, grief, loss … avoiding feelings is a preemptive strike on avoiding a threat or threats the individual associates with experiencing and or expressing what they are feeling.
While avoidant behavior often feels aggressive to the other person, it is a fundamentally defensive behavior pattern that individuals engage in to protect themselves from real or perceived emotional or literal threats.
2. Be honest about the avoidant pattern, and get honest (but non-judgmental) about what is being avoided.
Avoidance isn’t a sign of weakness, stupidity, or lack of commitment. It is a sign of understandable anxiety that most of us experience at one time or another when we perceive that the stakes are high. Recognizing that you or your partner are acting in an avoidant way is also recognizing that the issue is important and meaningful, and that’s a good thing. We can be honest that avoidance isn’t a constructive strategy while also appreciating that the behavior arises from an individual’s apprehension about something they value and are anxious about damaging.
An important question to ask about avoidant behavior is, What is the risk that the person is trying to avoid by sidestepping this topic or concern? That helps us get to the core of the issue and create a safe space in which feelings can be discussed openly and honestly.
3. Differentiate between personality styles and chronic avoidance.
Some people are more assertive than others. Assertive individuals may seem outright aggressive in their willingness and/or desire to resolve issues immediately; they may perceive less assertive or shy individuals as avoidant. A person who indicates that they aren’t yet ready to talk about an issue or their feelings may be perceived as avoidant, when in their own mind they are simply taking time to think and process. The point at which “taking his/her time” becomes avoidance by another name is somewhat subjective, but it helps to consider known differences in personality and conflict styles when it comes to identifying avoidance.
4. Know your threshold for avoidant behavior and choose your battles.
There are issues that arise in relationships that are more important than others to one or both individuals. While avoidant behavior from a partner can be irritating and even hurtful, don’t let avoidance become the focus. When that happens, the individual can feel personally attacked (for something that is already a symptom of anxiety/fear) and shut down/avoid further. Keep your eye on addressing the actual issue that triggered the avoidant behavior in the first place.
If you’re concerned that your partner is using avoidance as a way to influence the resolution of an issue, that’s important. They may or may not be doing it intentionally, but the end result is a consequential disruption in healthy relational communication and functioning. Intentions aside, it’s important for any couple to be on equal footing and able to trust that their partner has the desire to communicate effectively and responsibly.
5. Get some helpful outside input.
If you have concerns that you or your partner might be chronically avoiding tough feelings, potential conflicts, or other relational concerns, consider seeking some professional couples counseling. An experienced, professional therapist can help create a welcoming, relaxed environment to discuss tough issues as well as avoidance itself, and provide constructive direction on how both individuals can communicate more effectively while feeling emotionally safe.
Like many innocently learned behaviors, avoidance can be problematic and even destructive in any kind of relationship. If you or your partner is engaging in avoidant behaviors to dodge unpleasant feelings or difficult conversations, it’s time to get honest about the purposes these behaviors are serving. Then you can get back to the relationship you want and the issues that matter.