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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

A Guide For The Recovering Avoidant

‘Avoidant’ is the term usefully coined by attachment theorists to define those of us who, through no fault of our own but with full responsibility for our condition, have grave difficulties around intimate relationships.

We may want – in principle – to be close to people, but in reality, we tend to find ourselves feeling claustrophobic and sickened whenever we grow overly involved with anyone.

We long to sleep somewhere on our own after love making; we want to make independent plans for the weekend; we rather ungratefully cool whenever a partner becomes too affectionate towards us. Or if a relationship threatens to work, our thoughts turn as though by some automatic process to the charms of other people.

Researchers tell us where this comes from: somewhere long in our pasts, our relationships with our caregivers did not go as they should have done. Someone let us down, someone implicitly taught us that love was not to be trusted, someone injected us with a dual suspicion of ourselves and of the solidity of any bond with another. And so we learnt to associate distance and solitude with safety.

We may be high functioning in many parts of life; when it comes to love, we may – till now – simply never have been able to get things to work.

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952, via Wikimedia Commons

It sounds dispiriting and even rather dangerous to be around but we can find hope in an important detail: that there is a substantial difference between acting avoidantly from unconscious motives on the one hand and on the other, feeling drawn to avoidant responses while being actively and preemptively aware of what is going on. There is a difference, in other words, between acting out and insight.

The latter does not miraculously remove the problem but it gives us an enormous advantage: the capacity to warn others that we care about – and might well in a rational part of our minds be sincerely trying to build a relationship with – that we are not fully well.

Arguably in love, we don’t need – and are in any case unlikely to find – perfection; what we need are people with a more or less solid grasp on some of their leading imperfections who can then warn us of them with charm, grace and apology before too much damage has been done.

There is a sizeable difference between ruining a weekend for someone by mysteriously deciding at the last moment that one has made other plans – and explaining to the partner on a Thursday evening that the prospect of 48 hours in their company, though fully welcome in theory, in practice has generated an awkward set of emotional responses that lie outside one’s full control and for which one feels embarrassed and thoughtful. There is a sizeable difference between acting madly and sharing the temptation to do so ahead of time.

For the recovering avoidant, the following speech might be helpful: ‘I’m so sorry for being peculiar. I care about you a lot. It’s just I’ve observed that when I do care, something odd happens. A part of me tries to manage the distance and find fault. A part of me, that dates back to a defence mechanism of childhood, needs to put some walls between us because proximity feels at some level odd and frightening. It’s how I learnt to cope way back and the mechanism still operates within me now. It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s that being around love and depending on someone brings with it terrors on account of dynamics in my past that I am working on. I am trying to switch off the alarm. I am a little crazy but I have a good therapist. I am committed to the work. Please bear with me – but I would understand entirely if you couldn’t.

None of this is perfect, one wouldn’t necessarily wish this kind of relationship on anyone one cared about. But in the real world, which is where many of us have to live, we cannot magic away the condition.

The 25 percent or so of the population with avoidant traits have options. They can have all the neuroses that their condition lends them. They can feel eerie whenever someone is too close to them, they can want to get away after too much time together, they can hate cuddling, but they can put in the effort to acquire one advantage. They can know they are damaged. They can give a map of their follies to those who depend on them. 

Furthermore, once they have laid their hands on the maturity to be able to say ‘I find love so hard and so frightening,’ it might even become a little less so. And, on the other side of the equation, once one has been thoughtfully warned, one may just find the sad behaviour easier to bear or at least easier to understand and, where necessary, to get cleanly out of the way of. 

We don’t just have the option of being avoidant or not. The madness can be invited into the relationship and addressed without shame or mystery. We can aspire to a valuable third position as we work on improving ourselves: that of the recovering avoidant, the avoidant under no illusions as to their sanity and daily committed to learning to slowly bear the ecstasy and sublime risks of mutual love.

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