As marriage counselors, we work very hard to take a balanced approach to the marriage. We consider both perspectives and make sure that both partners are heard and both partner’s concerns are validated and explored.
One of the biggest concerns couples come to our Marriage Solutions offices with is the question of
“Why do they shut down every time I try to talk with them about something important to me?”
“Why do they attack me when I’m just trying to keep the peace?”
One of the reasons this happens is because people, often one partner in particular, falls into an “avoider” role where they shut down or pull away when stressed. This can seem harmless on the surface but over time it can really cause the relationship to struggle.
The non-avoider, many times called the pursuer, begins to feel uncared for and unloved. The pursuer then presses more for support and for the avoider to show up in the relationship…but they’re often met with more of the same shutting down and pulling away. It can be really frustrating.
The avoider struggles to feel close and intimate because they feel attacked by the pursuer’s innocent pursuit. The pursuer feels ignored and sometimes they feel their needs are minimized.
The truth is both partners are wanting connection…but looking for connection in unhealthy ways. In this post we’re talking a little more about the avoider side of the equation.
We hope this helps both partners to understand how our past shapes our present. That way you can get more of what you want in the present….true emotional intimacy and connection.
Abuse and neglect in someone’s past contributes greatly to their current relationships…especially their marital relationship.
Understanding the Avoider’s Past So You Can Gain New Ways To Interact That Help You Break Out Of Old Ruts
We’ve talked a lot about what makes someone an avoider in previous articles on our website here and here. We also explain more about why it matters and in different contexts. But there are some other areas I want to dive deep into because they also play a huge role in your marriage.
There are several things that can make someone grow up to become an Avoider. In this post we’re focusing on the aspects of your spouse’s past that make them an avoider.
There are several things that contribute to that from their past that we’ll get to in a moment. I don’t want to ignore the things that are happening now in your relationship that might cause them to avoid, that’s the the topic of another article you can find here.
What Makes Someone An Avoider?
Let’s talk about the contributing factors that make someone an avoider:
1. Violent or abusive behavior on the part of an attachment figure
Violence or abuse from a parent to a child or to a child’s mother is extremely traumatic. It causes a child to see the world as a dangerous place. But it also opens them up to seeing both parents as dangerous too. Dad for abusing and Mom is dangerous because she’s not leaving the Abuser.
Violent or abusive behavior from a parent to a child, causes a child to begin to see their parent as the enemy. But it is an enemy that they love and care for, so it becomes very confusing for them.
Often the child shuts down because they don’t know how to deal with the confusing feelings. A child in that situation will also shutdown for reasons I get into below.
What is an attachment figure?
An attachment figure is somebody that you should be able to trust, that you feel like you can go to in times of difficulty like a parent, grandparent, older sibling, maybe even a younger sibling, close friend of the family.
But what if you are abused by that person?
So if your “safe person” as a kid is abusing you, or your Mom or Dad, it tells you, “I cannot be open. In fact it’s dangerous to be open. I can’t even go to my own dad, he’s an alcoholic, and he’s beating the crap out of mom. He’s threatened to beat me, gets in my face, he hits me where I’ve had marks, I couldn’t go to school. If I can’t trust dad who can I trust? If I can’t trust mom to protect me when dad gets violent who can I trust?”
Avoider attachment is created by experiences of rejection, disapproval, or criticism from a person’s parents. When you add in abuse it further breaks the attachment bond between parent and child and results in the child concluding that they can only depend on themselves emotionally for support, and that NO ONE IS TRUSTWORTHY.
To survive they become an “Emotional Island” and become “Emotionally Blind.” They reason it’s far safer to depend on themselves than anyone else for emotional support.
In the mind of a child or teenager they start to wonder when they are being abused or aren’t being protected from the violence, “What does that say about me as a person? What does that say about my value, worthiness and lovability?”
Or “What does that say about me if my own dad doesn’t like me and he’s beating the crap out of me. What does that say about my value if Mom is verbally abusing me?”
So this avoidant relationship style we’ve been talking about on our website results in someone who struggles to process relationships.
They’ve been raised to be great at a lot of things that are all work related, but a lot of those skills that are good for work aren’t transferable to close intimate relationships. In fact, they kill close intimate relationships.
Avoiders may make great soldiers, go to Antarctica and live alone, they could be the sole human who goes on a one person mission to Mars, and they’re able to do it because they’ve turned off their conscious relationship needs for support.
Subconsciously those needs are still there in spades, but consciously the avoider would say, “I’ve got this, I don’t need anybody.”
2. They have parents who either outright says, or imply through behavior, that they need to be more self-reliant, more independent, and keep their feelings and emotions to themselves.
Kids sometimes hear messages like “You have got to be tough, you have got to stand on your own feet, because you can’t ever trust anybody in this life.” Or they hear messages like, “Suck it up, you’ve just got to bury it.”
And other times they receive messages from Mom or Dad that model extreme self-reliance and extreme independent behavior. They don’t ever experience any warmth or connection from Mom or Dad.
Treating kids at an age appropriate level is the way to go, but you’ve got to honor their emotions while at the same time providing guidance to them.
Types of Parental Roles
Avoidant parents if they even acknowledge something happened, won’t acknowledge the feelings aspect when they give guidance.
Anxious parents are all about the emotions without providing guidance.
Secure parents talk to their kids about their emotions and they are able to help their child channel their behavior into something constructive. Secure parents have the right balance.
As a parent start with just comforting and try to be there, and listen. Eventually you can say, “I went through the same thing, and that’s when I met your mother, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me I know right now it doesn’t feel that way to you but I’m always here. If you want to talk I’m here.”
But an advice only approach and advice that minimizes the underlying feelings is the most harmful approach I’m trying to caution against.
The other thing is they get these messages that they got to be self-reliant, it’s either outright told to them or it’s implied that they have to be self-reliant. They also get messages that are either told to them or hinted at that they can’t ask for needs to be met.
The message is “You must bottle things up.” It’s almost like sometimes they have to take care of their parent instead of being able to be open and honest about how they feel.
What if the parent is uncomfortable with their child’s feelings?
This is dangerous because if we don’t learn to process our own feelings, and understand our own emotions, we will end up repeating the mistakes our parents made with us. Even if we know for sure our parents were dysfunctional and what they did hurt us…we will repeat those same mistakes.
So you must become a do-it-yourself project and work out these issues. That is what we help you to do in our counseling offices. Marriage counseling with us will clear that right up because we have anew attachment figure….our spouse…and unlike our relationship with our parents growing up…we can change the here and now.
Statements like, “Grow a pair, stop crying.” “Suck it up. Be a man” don’t work. Children have to be taught how to manage their own emotions. And they do that in the context of a accessible, responsive, engaging relationship with their parents or primary caregiver.
If children aren’t able to do that they start to develop an insecure style of relating to people. And that insecure style follows them into their marriage, and contributes to their negative cycle with their mate.
These statements don’t draw children closer to their parents. They don’t teach them how to manage their feelings, or their emotions, or their needs. They just shut down, and pull away from you, and that’s how they respond to their spouse later in marriage.
There’s Great News!
You can still make up for lost time! Your partner is now your new attachment figure. If you didn’t have parents who were good attachment figures you have a second chance. Your partner is that person you can learn to go to and rely on in times of need.
You just need to learn how to change your insecure habits into a secure relationship style. We can help with that if you want. In no time you’ll be back on your feet and experiencing secure love you may have never experienced before.
If you’re the pursuing partner we’ll teach you how to understand the process and get your needs met in the relationship as well.
The Important Question In Relationships?
In relationships we always ask, “Are you there for me?” And if we feel like our important person is there for us we feel worthy of love and will have a secure relationship style. We feel like we can be open, and honest, and totally give ourselves to someone. The fear and anxiety goes away.
If you decide that you want to pursue marriage counseling we offer several options including virtual coaching from anywhere in the world and we offer in-person therapy and customized intensive retreats.
Brad and Morgan founded Total Marriage Makeover because they’re passionate about helping couples find the connection they deserve in their relationship. Their goal for you is to experience acceptance and the deep satisfaction of true, unconditional love with your spouse.