Are you in Stuck in the Avoidance Trap?

Many couples coming to marital therapy at Marriage Works relationship practice are suffering from disappointment and resentments in their relationships. In part this is due to their inaction with dealing with the issues head on.

This holding pattern can go on for many years, simmering below the surface, fracturing the relationship. The occasional explosion will occur and some problems might be discussed resulting in a honeymoon period of closeness and intimacy before the old avoidance pattern resurfaces and the resentment cycle kicks in.

Sometimes this crisis will take the form of an extra-marital affair or it may be embedded in workaholism, chronic busy-ness, gambling, alcohol use, or other third party preferences to the relationship. It is not uncommon for a couple to be in my office two years out from the infidelity with cycles of hurt and remorse playing out for both parties but no resolution.

Often I see a fixed pattern and story of a marriage in heart failure that builds to a breach rising into conscious awareness for the pair. Even after the reconciliation phase many relationships fail due to not dealing with the deeper issues that lead to the crisis in the partnership.

The real culprit here is the Avoidance Trap not confronting or being vulnerable with each other.

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Overtime in all marriages and long-term relationships there will be dissatisfaction and upset, it is par for the course. What really matters in a long-term relationship is how you deal with the particular issues in a direct and helpful manner. Many people fail on this point and do the opposite leading to ongoing resentment and emotional distance.

The other complaint couples have is “we don’t talk”, or “s/he doesn’t understand me.” I see people wonderfully resourced in dialoguing with each other about their business, children and day-to-day life but not really talking about their innermost feelings, hope, dreams and desires. They withhold from each other for fear of being vulnerable or not having the ability to be assertive, so emotionally shut down. Their partner feels rejected not quite knowing why, but gets there is a wall and they are on the other side. This can be dangerous to the relationship if another party shows interest and the spouse starts to open up to and away from the marriage.

We each come into the relationship with a set of tools and skills picked up from our parent’s relationships and how the men and women responded to each other’s pain and distress. What did you see growing up in your family history? Was it to comfort the other in times of distress or criticise and reject? I personally saw a gamut of criticism, defensiveness and sarcasm. Not much resolving.

Too err is human – it is human nature to avoid unsettling the status quo and no one of us is perfect. What gets us in to trouble is when this becomes the preferred manner of (not) dealing with the issues when they arise.

So what is wrong with avoidance when if it helps maintain a semblance of reasonableness in the relationship? Avoidance just doesn’t work!

Don’t get me wrong most avoiders intentions are good, although totally misguided in trying to smooth things over and not make things worse. It is the old Elephant in the room syndrome, too big a lump to sweep under the carpet you keep tripping over it.

Common misbeliefs include not talking about issues and avoiding them is it will lessen present level of (the already) stressed relationship.

Another misconception is restraint will protect someone from getting his or her feelings hurt, prevents the possibility of being rejected and not have to feel uncomfortable ourselves in confronting an issue.

And of course the magicalness of ‘time’ where just letting things slide will make then just disappear (yeah right!).

You may have a few more apparently plausible and legitimate rationales for avoidant behaviour but let me repeat Avoidance does not work! Healthy relationships allow for all expression of feelings the comfortable and the uncomfortable. In m experience when couples have experienced the most distress and unease in a session they have had the most healing. Curiously by being open and talking about the difficult issues in a healthy manner invite healing.

Avoidance is a short-term strategy that leads to long-term pain. Not discussing feelings of dissatisfaction, or upset erodes relationships foundations, causing distance and further disappointment and dissatisfaction.

In a lot of families assertiveness and intimacy may have been actively discouraged, shunned or not modelled in a consistent way. “Stop crying now, you are not a baby – it’s only a scratch”. (You are not allowed to feel your feelings.)

The temptation to avoid is a common problem couples grapple with and overcome. Each couple with has it’s own unique ways this plays out idiosyncratic to their partnership.

How would you rate your avoidance? Let us take a little quiz.

Think of this as a gauge as to the intimacy health in your relationship.

Below is a table read each statement and respond accordingly (honestly of course!) Don’t be a fence sitter just your first impression you know you best and only you will see your results.

Reflecting on how you would handle the situation by rating it with the scale of 1. Strongly Disagree 2. Somewhat disagree 3 Neutral 4. Somewhat Agree 5. Strongly agree.

1. Even though it may hurt my partner’s feelings, I still talk to them about the frustrations in our relationship  

________

2. Sharing feelings with my partner makes me uncomfortable so I seldom do it.  

________

3. I ‘keep it to myself’ when I am mad at my partner. ________
4.I cannot share my feelings because it makes my partner uncomfortable  

_______

5.I don’t directly with my anger _ they know by the way I act (i.e. I go quiet, withdraw, withhold, am uncooperative and emotionally distant etc.)  

 

_______

6. Dreams, goals and beliefs are the things I talk about often with my partner.

Scores on Questions 1_____________3__________5______________

Scores on Questions 2____________4__________6______________

The odd numbered Questions show conflict avoidance tendencies. How did you fare. While the even numbered questions show Intimacy avoidance in your relationship.

How did you find answering these statements? Were some harder to rate than others? Can you begin to identify a pattern?

Now take this a step further and answer from your heart of hearts how you think your partner would assess you. Are there similiarities or did you notice they see you differently. You might want to even ask them to take this little quiz themselves.

Here are the key ratings:

Q 1. Strongly Agree (5) Conflict Statement
Q.2 Strongly Disagree (1) Intimacy Statement
Q.3 Strongly Disagree (1) Conflict Statement
Q.4 Strongly Disagree (1) Intimacy Statement
Q.5 Strongly Disagree (1) Conflict Statement
Q.6 Strongly Agree (5) Intimacy Statement

“I love you – talk to me” is a plea from the heart. Listen to your partner here they are working for the survival of your relationship.

All of us could no doubt use some work on building our intimacy and ability to confront directly and assertively. How can you challenge yourself today to increase and build the intimacy in your partnership with safety?

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