They sat on their over-stuffed L-shaped couch with him on his side and her on hers. This scene was now commonplace. For the last two hours, they had been embroiled in an argument that had played out many times before.
The problem with their fighting style, as she saw it, was that they were too much alike: they were both stubborn, bossy, wanted things their own way, wanted the last word, saw compromise as a stalemate, and when feeling particularly hurt, could be very vindictive. Neither person would yield. That is, not until they were both over it and ultimately yielded at the same time.
LET’S STAY TOGETHER
Problems didn’t always get resolved so much as the two of them resolved to just get over it, hug it out, and go on about their lives together with a promise to try to do better.
But on this day, after having this same argument for the umpteenth time, and after already coming up with her exit strategy, there was a lull in the conversation; a hopeful lull that signified the worst was over and they were on the road to reconciliation. At that moment a strangely dismayed yet optimistic voice in her head chirped up and said,‘F — k! We’re gonna make it.’ She realized then that there was a part of her that had already called it quits, packed her bags, and headed out the door. And that part of her — that part that ran from intimacy any chance it got — was in a state of bitter disbelief.
Having read John Gottman’s book on what makes a marriage work, she remembered what he wrote about the likelihood of a couple making it. All couple’s fight, he wrote. But what sets a lasting couple apart from those who do not last, is how quickly they can recover from their fight and re-establish a connection.
After being here a few times now and seeing once again how they always manage to talk things through and end up back in each other’s arms, she knew that they were going to make it as they always had.
But what about that part of her that was already on the other side of the door? She knew that they hadn’t seen the last of it and that at some point when she was feeling particularly vulnerable, or just overly hungry that voice would pop up again and say, ‘I want out of here.’
GETTING TO KNOW HER DEMONS
By then she knew this voice well because it always came up at the least opportune time with self-defeating and relationship-annihilating messages. It’s something that many people have — the inner naysayer, who will do its best to undermine any good thing that comes into one’s life. She was well aware of all her inner demons: the saboteur, the naysayer, the victim, the abandoned child, and the runner.
The runner was that part of her that instinctually fled anytime it smelled emotional danger. This was her inner protection and just like an armadillo that senses a threat will curl up in its shell and roll away, it was primed and set to protect her from danger by putting up a full suit of armor and fleeing. In the case of “fight or flight”, she always chose flight first.
THE LOVE LIFE OF AN INTIMACY AVOIDANT PERSON
The biggest fear of the intimacy avoidant person is being emotionally suffocated. The fear of enmeshment or losing one’s self is so strong that a person will consciously or unconsciously distance themselves from their romantic partner as soon as they feel that the person is getting too close.
For many years she found one way after another to push people away. Afterward, she would think about what she had done with regret. It was so easy for her to find reasons to distance herself — she could blame it on spirituality or distance or her own nitpickiness.
But in the end, she always knew that she was pushing people away to avoid being hurt. She would abandon before someone could abandon her. Because of this, she could go months or years without romantic involvement as many intimacy avoidant people do.
FIGURING OUT WHY SHE WANTED TO RUN AWAY
In trying to understand where this impulse to high-tail it out of relationships came from, she did some research on intimacy avoidance. What she read struck not just one cord but all the cords. Much of it comes down to things that happened in childhood.
This is just a short list of commonalities for intimacy avoidant people:
- They were raised by a smothering or narcissistic parent whose emotional needs were put before the emotional needs of the child — CHECK
- They suffered emotional, psychological and/or sexual abuse by a primary caregiver or sibling — CHECK
- They were physically, emotionally, and/or socially neglected or abandoned — CHECK
- They were treated as a parent’s confidant, companion, or proxy spouse — CHECK
- They had to fulfill an adult role in the family such as looking after the house and taking care of one’s self in the absence of adult supervision or care — CHECK
- They felt responsible for caring for an overly burdened parent — CHECK
This is not a full list but it is comprised of all that is related to her upbringing. Taking that all in, is it any wonder that a person would run from intimacy in adulthood?
HOW SELF-SABOTAGE PLAYS A PART
The problem with growing up under such conditions is that it leads to a low sense of self-worth. People who lack a sense of self-worth often do not see themselves as worthy of happiness. When goodness does find them, it is often met with suspicion and distrust, as if it can’t be real, or if it is real, it is too good to last.
This leads to all sorts of self-sabotaging behavior such as –
- fault finding
- picking fights
- paranoid thinking
- irrational jealousy
- rejecting loving or caring gestures
- pursuing emotionally unavailable people
She could see how she had done many of these things throughout her romantic life and how some of them were still showing up in her current relationship. Add together any number of these and it spells disaster for a relationship. After years of self-sabotaging, she became aware of what she was doing and the toll it was taking on her happiness and her ability to build a lasting bond with someone.
HOW TRANSFERENCE PLAYS A PART
Another issue feeding into her instinct to flee had to do with transference or the human tendency to transfer characteristics from one person onto another person. Usually, transference in a romantic relationship looks like a person transferring traits from one or both of their parents onto their romantic partner.
With both abuse and neglect in her background, it wasn’t too long before she started seeing these traits in her partner. It was as if she were looking through a pair of glasses with the word “abuse” on one lens and “neglect” on the other. She was unable to see her partner as he really was because she was blinded by the lenses she was looking through.
Transference harms relationships.
Because she was seeing him through the lens of abuse and neglect she began to treat him and respond to him as if he were being abusive or neglectful.
Imagine that someone is treating you like you are a thief when you’ve never stolen a thing in your life. They treat you with suspicion and distrust and you’re left feeling angry and confused.
This is what she was doing in her relationship and it was choking the life out of both of them. And because she lived with this fear of abuse or neglect, her inner protection (the runner) would kick into gear and start making plans to get out of there. When in actuality, she wasn’t in any danger.
HOW SHE LEARNED TO OVERCOME HER INTIMACY AVOIDANCE
Overcoming these issues began with becoming aware of what was going on both consciously and subconsciously. She couldn’t begin to heal before she knew what needed to be healed.
After awareness came the task of identifying the traits of avoidance and becoming intimate with those parts of herself that sought protection and distance rather than vulnerability and connection.
How did she avoid?
What were her tactics?
What were the things that triggered her instinct to self-protect?
She wrote these things out and studied them so that when they arose, she saw them. Gradually, with enough time she became quicker at seeing her triggers and the following reactions.
At that point, she had the power to choose a different response. When she saw herself slipping into fault-finding and the subsequent impulse to run, she would say to herself, ‘This is your avoidance talking.’
She took small steps at behavioral changes. For instance, if she became upset with him, instead of grabbing her keys and leaving the house for a few hours she would just go to another room and read or do something to help her calm down and clear her mind, like meditating.
It became a practice of “doing the opposite”. Whatever her fear-based instinct was, her rational mind would take over and do the opposite. Rather than avoid, she would engage. Rather than find fault, she would express appreciation. Rather than withdraw, she would keep talking, even if what came out was just a rage of jumbled emotions. She knew that it was better to be a mess in front of him than to be a mess on her own.
HOW SHE FOUND HAPPINESS IN HER LONG-TERM COMMITTED RELATIONSHIP
Most issues, when given sufficient time and attention, resolve themselves. Over the course of her relationship, she became more comfortable with being uncomfortable. She saw her difficulties around intimacy for what they were and treated herself and her partner with greater kindness and compassion.
Whenever she came up against that knee-jerk response to flee, she would settle even deeper into her commitment to her relationship. Since running was always the first and easiest option, she would ask herself, ‘What if you take leaving off the table? What new ideas, solutions, and options might present themselves?’ And if she gave herself enough time, a creative solution would reveal itself.
As she was able to withdraw the transference she had put on her partner and put it in its proper place, she was able to see him for what he was: a good man who was working on his own shortcomings and demons, who loved her tremendously, and was always willing to sit down with her and talk things through.
She realized that in spite of all of her self-sabotaging and avoidant shenanigans, the two of them had created a strong and loving relationship.
And she felt tremendously happy knowing that, although there are no guarantees in life, all the signs showed that they were going to make it.
References: Weiss, R., https://www.robertweissmsw.com/about-sex-addiction/intimacy-avoidance/, Accessed 1/28/19.
© 2019 Tamara Jefferies