The Avoidant Partner
Some people avoid intimacy. Strangely, these people still form intimate relationships, and in a pattern that defies logic, they engage in lovemaking during the relationship’s initial months. What happens next can be the source of confusion, frustration and finally out-right anger for the partner. After intimacy deepens, the avoidant partner loses interest in being sexual, in hugging, kissing, and perhaps even holding hands. Some avoidant partners will seem to actively limit physical proximity, such as sitting closely together on a couch where contact may be possible. Most avoidant partners do not possess conscious intent to cause hurt but chronically rejects the other without awareness. Even if asked directly, the avoidant partner will deny any avoidance because it is not a part of his or her conscious awareness. Avoidance of intimacy falls along a spectrum from mild to extreme.
The sting of rejection is sharp if it is discovered that an avoidant partner has been taking his or her sexuality away by having self-pleasure in private or has been having an affair. Yet it is almost impossible for the hurt partner to embrace the reality that this is not a personal rejection. Avoidant partners are uncomfortable with closeness and real intimacy, which is what is really being avoided. Affairs are really far less intimate than long-term relationships and masturbation involves no risk of emotional intimacy. Hurt partners’ patience may be exhausted by such exclusionary sexual behaviors in conjunction with chronic emotional deprivation and choose to end the relationship.
Those in relationship with an avoidant partner commonly take the avoidance personally; it feels like rejection. They may question if the avoidant partner is angry with them or if they are no longer found attractive. Reactionary efforts such as going to the gym to get fit or experimenting with a new hair style to increase appeal are unlikely to alter the avoidant partner’s low level of engagement, and will fail to increase the amount of emotional or physical closeness in the relationship. A female partner may suspect that an avoidant male partner is gay or is having an affair due to the prevailing myth that all men want lots of sex. The negative effect deprivation of warmth has on the other partner can be significant ranging from anger to low self-esteem and even depression. The lack of closeness and sex may raise the importance of sex to an extreme make-it-or break-it status where threats such as, “Have sex with me or we’re through!” are not unusual; even if sex has never before been that important.
When confronted, an avoidant male partner is likely to say, “I am just not a sexual person;” words which contradict his or her active sexual behavior from the honeymoon phase of the relationship. If the avoidant partner is female she is likely to say, “Sex is not that important, why are you so obsessed with it?..I think you are a sex addict…you need to get help.” It is normal when deprived of affection and sex to desire these firms of nourishment to increase, just as someone starved of food cannot get thoughts of food out of their minds. This differs from an unhealthy obsession.
Avoidant partners developed this pattern in reaction to a childhood history which typically included some form of abuse or lack of emotional nourishment, even though the avoidant individual is likely to describe their upbringing simply as normal. Some families do not recognize or value emotions or emotional expression. In such families, emotional needs go unmet. A general and recurrent disregard for a child’s feelings can produce in them avoidant patterns as an adult. Work in therapy can help an avoidant individual outgrow these tendencies; however, their strong motivation to do so is a vital ingredient for successful growth and change. Why a partner was attracted to an avoidant individual may also be a useful direction for exploration. Andrew Aaron, LICSW