Do you like horror movies? Some people do, others don’t. Some people love romantic comedies, others hate them. Movies, hobbies, foods, styles. It doesn’t matter what it is; we all have our own interests and preferences – things we like and things we don’t.
A natural result of this is putting our energies towards those things we enjoy (and not towards things we don’t).
Sure, there are benefits in expanding our horizons and trying new things. But if we don’t like something or we decide it makes us uncomfortable, it’s alright to avoid these things.
When things are just personal tastes and preferences, it really doesn’t matter if you like them. You can choose to ignore them without doing any harm to yourself or those around you.
But not all of life is like that.
Sometimes there are things we need to deal with, whether we like it or not. No matter how awkward or uncomfortable it makes us feel.
It’s easy to say “I don’t like horror movies so I won’t watch them”. It’s a bit tougher to say “I don’t like paying bills so I won’t pay them”. I mean, you can, but over time there may be some impacts of making that choice.
Bills are just one obvious example of things we can’t ignore.
The fact is, there are a lot of things we have to do. If we live on our own, we need to pay rent or a mortgage. Which means we need some sort of income – which usually comes in the form of a job. Which means we need to show up at work and put in enough consistent effort to hold a job.
We need an income to live. And we need to both manage our income and live within it. At the very least, jobs and bills are something we need to deal with.
We may not like the restrictions this places on us, and we may feel uncomfortable when we look at our bills and our account balance.
But it’s not something we can ignore.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I CAN ignore things that make me uncomfortable. That won’t make them go away though, and has consequences of it’s own.
In fact ignoring problems tends to backfire over time, as small problems often grow into something much larger when they are not addressed.
Avoidance in Relationships
If life were just about me, it would be easy to do what I want and avoid the things that make me uncomfortable. Yes, this is unhealthy and there are usually negative consequences for doing this. But if I choose to do this, hey, it’s on me.
However most people don’t want to be alone. There is a natural tendency to seek relationships with others, both as friendships and intimate relationships. With friendships you can still get away with avoidance to a degree, as your friends only see you sometimes. In intimate relationships however this will ultimately cause problems.
Intimate relationships can be wonderful and rewarding. But they can also be challenging.
Life doesn’t always go down a happy path, sometimes things don’t go the way we want. Because people are different all relationships occasionally run into conflict, and some of the most common conflict areas are the following:
- Children (can be whether to have, or child rearing once you have them
- Chores/Domestic Work
- Sexual Expectations
- Family (dealing with extended)
- Elderly Parents (care of)
- Life Priorities
None of these are fun, or easy topics to deal with. And yes, at times it would be easier to just ignore them. But for a relationship to thrive (or even just survive) the couple needs to find a way to navigate these in some way.
Navigating them involves accepting the each member of the relationship may have different ideas, accepting each persons opinion as valid, and working through the problem to find a common ground.
When something affects the couple and has impacts on them, the issue NEEDS to be addressed and dealt with.
It doesn’t matter if we like dealing with the problem or not, if we feel it’s an issue for us personally or not, or if it makes us uncomfortable. If it’s a problem in the relationship, it’s a problem.
This isn’t like choosing not to watch scary movies. These things matter.
In life, we can’t just pick and choose the parts we want to deal with and ignore/avoid the rest.
Avoiding problems puts stress on the individuals, on the relationship, and over time it will threaten to destroy the relationship if a different path is not found.
When Avoidance Becomes a Problem
No one likes to deal with difficult or uncomfortable issues, and unless you love conflict (which some do) everyone will try to avoid things sometimes.
However when avoidance becomes a pattern of behavior, or a default ways of “dealing” with issues and conflict then it has become a problem.
According to Merriam-Webster avoidance is an act or practice of avoiding or withdrawing from something.
As noted, we all do this sometimes. But why does it become a (very broken) method of coping for some people?
One explanation for this can be found in the Fear Avoidance Model.
This is a psychological model that believes avoidance is driven by pain, and fear of pain. Conflict and dealing with conflict comes to be associated with discomfort, which can be physical or psychological.
Due to this fear, over time people start to avoid situations associated with this pain in the belief that doing so will “protect” them from it. However this same act of avoidance over the long term does more damage than good – as people will increasingly restrict their life to only include things that are “safe”, resulting in disability and depression.
Avoidance is strongly linked to anxiety, as anxiety is based on fear. So an anxious person will often avoid situations that make them uncomfortable, even to their own detriment.
In extreme cases, anxiety can cause people to avoid life; and they end up trapped in a cage of their own making.
These extreme cases are often referred to as Avoidant Personality Disorder. Wikipedia describes this as being characterized by the following traits:
- Hypersensitivity to rejection/criticism
- Self-imposed social isolation
- Extreme shyness or anxiety in social situations, though the person feels a strong desire for close relationships
- Avoids physical contact because it has been associated with an unpleasant or painful stimulus
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Severe low self-esteem or Self-loathing
- Mistrust of others
- Emotional distancing related to intimacy
- Highly self-conscious
- Lonely self-perception, although others may find the relationship with them meaningful
- Feeling inferior to others
- Uses fantasy as a form of escapism to interrupt painful thoughts
Communication and Avoidance
It is often said that communication is the most important thing in a relationships, and there are a number of quotes like this:
Communication builds closeness and mutual understanding. You build intimacy through letting the other person in and being vulnerable around them. This doesn’t happen without communication. In fact, in its purest for physical intimacy (sex) is really just a form of communication.
But we are all different, with different ideas and beliefs. And these differences provide the potential for conflict – especially in areas that make us uncomfortable.
I’ve written in the past on conflict, and how dealing with it is one of the most important relationship skills you can have. Conflict allows us to improve our mutual understanding of each other, and understanding is important to the long term success of any relationship.
Well what happens when you don’t communicate well, or perhaps not at all?
Avoidance is really the complete opposite of communication. Indeed, it is a refusal to communicate.
If communication is the lifeblood of a relationship, then avoidance is one of the biggest roadblocks to a happy relationship.
Avoidance often goes hand in hand with silence, or the silent treatment. What is often overlooked is that silent treatment is a form of punishment and control. In fact avoidance/withdrawal and the silent treatment are leading form of emotional abuse.
A Better Way
I believe avoidance is one of THE biggest killers of relationships. But instead of ending relationships, it often leads to couples being “unhappily married” or in “bad relationships”. Because problems happen, and not only are they never addressed, but they are also never discussed and never out in the open.
Tension and body language makes it obvious problems exist, but they are avoided, leading to unhappiness and resentment.
We all have things that make us uncomfortable, and dealing with problems is never easy. But if you are someone who falls back on avoidance as way of “dealing” with issues, then your happiness and potentially your relationship depends on your ability to learn a different way.
As shown in the fear-avoidance model, avoidance is a destructive coping mechanism. By using avoidance to cope, people end up shutting down and withdrawing. As the model shows, the avoidance is due to fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of consequences.
Guess what? Life happens. And yes, things DO have consequences. This doesn’t mean you can’t deal with them and get past them though.
Avoidance goes hand in hand with anxiety, and one of the main components of anxiety is this fear of what “could” happen. Effective anxiety treatment is all about showing that yes, things can happen, and yes actions have consequences. But the consequences are almost always much less than the anxious person believes. Anxiety is about irrational fear (though it seems very rational at the time).
Like anything else in life, the only way to improve something is to do it. Avoiding is the opposite – it involves not doing. So it also involves never improving.
Take a chance, and try to overcome your fears. Try to actually tackle issues head on instead of avoiding them. Start small, and hopefully you will find the fear is greater than the reality.
Over time you can take your life back, and instead of avoiding you can start living.