Have you ever had a relationship with someone who appeared loving and interested in the relationship, only to later pull away when things got too “involved?” Did you raise a child who would hug you and show you unconditional love one moment, and the next totally detach from you as if you were a stranger? What about your own mother or father. Did they love you in a strange way, often equating “separateness” or “independence” with love or strength? If this sounds familiar, then perhaps this article is for you. About 5.2% of the US adult population is affected by avoidant personality disorder and almost every contributor (about 60) in the comments section claimed to have experienced a relationship with avoidant characteristics. This article will explore avoidant personalities and offer tips on how to cope with an avoidant personality.
Most of us struggle with attachment and need an appropriate amount of time to develop an intimate, loving relationship with someone else. Even children learn to love their parent(s) overtime and through various experiences. We don’t come into this world loving anyone, we grow to love someone and to cherish who they are. Once we understand who that person we love is, we develop normal attachments that help us communicate our needs, wants, and hopes. A wife learns that if she talks to her husband after work, she will more than likely be able to get him to fix the garage over the weekend. Or a son learns that when he draws his mom a picture she will make him his favorite dinner. Healthy human relationships are reciprocal and we understand what keeps relationships healthy and moving forward. We don’t typically fear abandonment, rejection, or loss without reason. We don’t feel the need to carry this burden. Healthy relationships are stable because everyone in the relationship understands boundaries, needs, wants, weaknesses, and even strengths.
But sadly, someone with an avoidant personality disorder, finds it very difficult to develop healthy relationships with boundaries. Individuals with this disorder also find it difficult to trust or express their deepest feelings for fear of abandonment, rejection, or loss. Avoidant personalities often draw near to people they love or care about, and later pull away out of fear. The avoidant personality almost has a very fragile ego, self-image, or understanding of how relationships are to operate. Many are loners or isolators who are too fearful to enter relationships or maintain the one’s they already have. It’s as if the avoidant personality engages in the “he loves me, he loves me not” game with every relationship encountered. Some people refer to the avoidant personality as “shy” or “timid.” But the personality characteristics far exceed shyness. There is an underlying fear of becoming “transparent” in a relationship or fully experiencing the relationship.
Many people with avoidant personality disorder live in a fantasy world that helps them feel emotionally connected to the world. For example, a woman with avoidant traits may fantasize that her boss is interested in becoming her husband and that they truly love each other even though he’s happily married with 7 kids. The avoidant personality seems to desire affection and acceptance, but doesn’t know how to fully experience or obtain it.
Symptoms of Avoidant Personality Disorder includes:
- Avoids activities that include contact with others because of fear of criticism, rejection, or feelings of inadequacy. For example, some individuals avoid work or call off because they are tired of feeling like their co-workers are ridiculing them for mistakes made.
- Unwillingness to engage in interpersonal relationships unless they are certain of being approved of or liked. My experience with avoidant personalities is that they will often push the limits to see if you will still approve of them. I once had a teen client who would push every button she could think to push on me until she began to believe that perhaps I was on her side after all.
- Preoccupation with rejection, loss, or ridicule. I would go so far as to say that the preoccupation can become an obsession. It is important for clinicians to differentiate social anxiety from avoidant personality traits. In other words, individuals with social anxiety also isolate, seem shy, are unwilling to get involved unless sure of being liked, and has a preoccupation with being accepted.
- Becoming easily hurt when rejection or criticism is perceived, experienced, or assumed. An individual may find it very difficult to forgive someone or get over someone who has not approved of them in some way.
- Inhibited or fearful of engaging with others is something that occurs a great deal for avoidant personalities. The person may not raise their hand in class or step up to ask a question for fear of being made fun of or of not being accepted. As a result, many struggle with social skills and fitting in.
According to MedPlus through the National Institute of Health, about 1% of the population has avoidant personality disorder. It’s important to keep in mind that personality disorders such as avoidant personality disorder is a long-standing pattern of character traits that have occurred over time. Research is still unsure what causes personality disorders but a combination of genes and environment have been cited. Other research points to no single cause of this disorder.
Having worked with a variety of adolescents who demonstrate borderline personality traits, I have had my fair share of experience with avoidance and avoidant personalities. As a result of consulting with many experienced elders in the field, I developed a list of approaches that families can take to cope with the avoidant personality. But this list is also useful for anyone dealing with an avoidant personality:
- Don’t force them to face you: If you consider all of the symptoms above, you will see that an avoidant personality struggles with many emotional and perceptual challenges that make relationships with others very difficult. To make matters worse, some individuals also struggle with depression or anxiety or anger management difficulties. These are called co-occurring disorders. Some individuals are held captive by their symptoms and struggle to be what others need them to be. Forcing the individual to “perform” in ways that they are not capable of performing in, will only shame them further.
- Give them ultimatums at the right time: Some people need to understand how their behaviors and emotional needs are affecting you. One of the biggest problems individuals face when trying to cope with someone’s personality disorder is feeling unloved, ignored, and empty. You must not forget that personality disorders include inborn, pervasive, and chronic behavioral patterns that are not likely to be changed. In fact, psychotherapy and medication are often not effective for personality disorders. Someone with avoidant personality has extreme social fears and it won’t be easy to “snap” them out of their state of existence so that you can finally have an equal relationship. It’s okay to tell the person that if they do not open their heart and mind to treatment or understanding how their behaviors affect others you will have to leave the relationship. After All, you have a life too. The individual needs to be reminded of reality.
- If you feel trapped, get out: The individual suffering from symptoms that hold them captive certainly needs you to understand them, but they also cannot help themselves or you. This makes getting out very difficult because while you want to help the person, you are “dying” in the relationship. This is often the storyline of women who are in abusive relationships in which the perpetrator claims “I need you” while they slowly abuse the person over and over again. Abuse at the hands of someone with an avoidant personality disorder often includes psychological and emotional abuse. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, pursue support groups for loved ones, seek your own therapy, separate, or leave the relationship completely. Your sanity depends on it.
- Approach things with grace and tact: Sometimes it is necessary to have a very frank conversation with the sufferer. But conversations should always consider everyone’s feelings, challenges, and needs. You want to attempt to walk away from that conversation with a feeling that something has been accomplished. If everyone walks away more angry, offended, or defensive, something is wrong. You want to express your concerns, your observations, and your worry in a tactful manner. If you can find some “objective” pieces of information to bring into things you should do that as well. Try to keep your opinions limited. You don’t want to trigger the avoidant person’s defense mechanism, you want them to think.
- Be mindful of their frame of reference: Sometimes trying to avoid triggering the avoidant person’s defence mechanisms is a challenge. Some individuals are sensitive and anything you say can be misconstrued as an attack on their character or abilities. When this happens, remain mindful that you are probably not the problem but that the person is defensive because of their symptoms. If you keep this in mind, you can at least attempt to control your own emotions in response to their defensiveness. You don’t want to lose perspective and add fuel to the fire.
- Understand that sometimes there is nothing to “save:” I’ve received multiple emails about this article in the past asking if the relationship with the avoidant person should be saved. My response has always been…maybe. Some relationships need to end and there is nothing left to save. Other relationships should have never began so ending it will be a great relief for everyone. Still, other relationships are more involved and will require more thought and planning. Ending a relationship dependents on a variety of factors including but not limited to:
- Your relationship status: marriage; years together; having a family together
- How open everyone is to change
- financial stability
Is this something you have noticed in someone close to you? Have you noticed your loved one show you kindness and love one day, only to later appear nonchalant about you and detached? Perhaps they have an avoidant personality.
As always, feel free to share your thoughts and experiences of this complex disorder.
All the best
This article was originally published on June 14, 2014 but has been updated to reflect accuracy and updated information.
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