Are you alone? Maybe that's okay. Image: Flickr/nicubunu
Here and elsewhere you can find hundreds of articles offering advice for starting relationships, thriving in relationships, ending relationships, and recovering after a relationship ends. Largely absent from these conversations are those who avoid relationships or are too uncomfortable to express their feelings while in a relationship. Sure, there are posts about perpetual bachelors and about loving yourself when you’re single, but even these single-person posts miss an important subset of people – those who are uncomfortable, avoidant, fearful or repelled by the idea of joining in any meaningful emotional exchange.
In next week’s post I will explore why some people are single when they so don’t want to be. That is in many ways a whole different topic. In this post I address a few of the reasons why people invest in remaining single or choosing not to partner, though there are far more reasons than I could ever describe here. Most importantly, the 5 reasons I describe in this post are meant to be combined to better understand yourself and other, in all your complexity. Nobody is all or nothing. You are a combo platter of different experiences at different times. By exploring a few theories as to why some people choose to be alone, avoidant, or have trouble connecting, I hope to provide a resource for people who can’t, won’t, or don’t want to enter into a partnered relationship. I’d also like to provide their partners (when they exist) a lens through which to better understand the experience of being with someone uncomfortable with connection.
Here are five of the many reasons people avoid relationships:
1. Blurred Boundaries in Your Past
If you grew up feeling unsafe, surrounded by chaos, upheaval, and loss, or if you experienced these painful scenarios in previous relationships, it’s possible that you over-control and guard your boundaries and your routine in order to feel safe. As a result, you built a protective wall around yourself. Now after living walled off for so long, you may feel phobic, uncomfortable and afraid to engage in an authentically intimate emotional exchange. You may be married to a kind of self-oriented routine in which you are guarded in how you live to the point of near total self-sufficiency. You may see your boundaries as a means of survival in a chaotic untrustworthy world. The rigidity of your routine and your carefully-protected way of being make it hard for you to allow anyone to intimately join you in your life. It is possible that a potential partner would alter your life too much and it would feel too uncomfortable. As a result, there may be a perpetual conflict: the desire to protect yourself from reentering the experiences of your chaotic past vs your awareness of and discomfort with your aloneness, maybe even an actual longing for intimacy. You may desire more even though you are afraid of letting yourself have it, or you may wonder if it's okay to be okay in your aloneness.
2. Guardedness and Rigid Boundaries: Confusing Signals from Past Caregivers
Did you grow up with rigid boundaries, with little to non-existent emotional involvement from caregivers? Or did you have that kind of experience with previous partners? If so, you may have internalized rigid patterns and routines, employing them in your own life to protect yourself from the intense feelings that would otherwise be evoked if you allowed in intimacy. You are so well protected that it feels like you don't know how to let in a connection. It's too daunting to attempt, and you feel so exposed and vulnerable that you shy away from intimacy. Emotional involvement feels like an alien language to you, and since you felt unlovable in your past, you couldn't possibly be lovable now. In this category and in the previous one, you may recognize that society or family think you’re “supposed” to desire more or you may legitimately want a relationship, but in both these scenarios, the previously established pattern of avoidance of intimacy – regardless of reasons – preempts your ability to engage further and cultivate an intimate relationship. Engaging would be at the expense of your protective wall. Recognizing this pattern in your life can help increase your self-awareness of your boundaries as something that feels safe right now when other things haven’t. Acknowledging and validating your legitamite need for safety given your models, and maybe even how you are wired can make it easier to become more expansive in how you relate, if opening yourself up is intriguing to you.
At another time in your life, you may have been emotionally engaged. Then bad things happened. It could have been as a child, an adolescent, as an adult, or throughout time. You might have experienced sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or a traumatic event like a car crash or military combat. Maybe something happened to someone you love or you have been directly or even indirectly affected by a world event. No matter its source, trauma is insidious and can impact you more and more over time. If trauma remains under-treated, it can affect and often pollute your hopes and expectations for the future. Your trauma may have made it seem a safer decision to avoid emotional relationships rather than risking the reenactment of trauma in a future relationship. As daunting as it is, allowing yourself to talk about your trauma in a safe space starts to dilute the power the trauma holds over you and begins to open up the possibility of trust and connection again.
4. Natural State of Being
Maybe you had a generally positive and very safe childhood. Maybe all your past relationships have been amicable. Maybe you’re generally open to new experiences and new ways of being. And maybe, still, you don’t feel drawn to a committed relationship. There are people who intellectually understand the idea of commitment, but just don’t feel interested in pursuing this kind of emotional intimacy at this stage. This doesn’t mean you’re devoid of the capacity for intimacy, or a cold fish, or somehow defective. It just means you may be disinterested or disinclined. This experience can be very natural and also very profound. You may not be drawn to relationships, and may just enjoy cultivating your individuality. Especially in this case, it’s worth continuing to increase your self-awareness of your tendency to be more comfortable in your aloneness. If you don't feel drawn to the intimacy involved in a relationship, it’s okay to respect this natural state. It’s who you are right now. However, if there is a partner involved, it is important to communicate about this issue to ensure you are on the same page and your partner isn’t longing for something you can’t provide.
5. Intense, Un-meetable Need
There are two basic groups of people who avoid relationships due to feeling intensely, overwhelmingly needy. Here are two of the many ways these manifestations of intense un-meetable need can look.
One, you may recognize your neediness to the degree you become phobic and deeply shameful about it. You recognize it is so intense that you retreat from others so as not to burden them with it. This experience and way of perceiving yourself feels like self-hate, especially directed at this unattractive part of yourself. You don't see how you can love yourself given the intensity of your needs and you can’t imagine that anyone else could love you, so you try your hardest avoid relationships altogether so as not to subject yourself to the shame. You feel like your neediness would overwhelm any potential partner and make this person hate you the way you hate yourself, so it feels simpler to just stay away altogether.
Two, you may recognize your intensity of need, but you try to work incorporate it in a productive way in your life. You realize it's the natural state of your being. This self-experience and self-awareness may have stemmed from having a very needy caregiver growing up who imposed that neediness on you, or it may be for other reasons. Either way, you (often inadvertently) may expect this same neediness in a partner, and therefore you abstain from intimate engagement. If you opt to explore a relationship, whatever you encounter has the potential to cause a number of conflicts. On a deep level, you may be aware that being attentive to someone else’s needs would mean putting your own needs second, which you already spent a good portion of your life doing, so you retreat to protect yourself. Or, you might feel repelled by the idea of tending to the needs of someone else primarily because your caregivers overwhelmed you with their neediness. At this point, you can’t imagine taking care of someone else’s needs. Maybe you are afraid to get involved with a partner for fear of losing yourself in your partner’s needs. No matter what the scenario, understanding your experience and working on feeling accepting and comfortable that you are where you are for good and understandable reasons can be calming and affirming and might help you to find ways to decrease the extent and intensity of your own neediness while still preserving your newly-formed boundaries.
Whether in a relationship or not, working to understand the reasons you may choose to be single or avoid emotional exchange can offer empowerment and insight into how to proceed and manage the pressure of society or family expectation. You may decide you're better off leaving your boundaries in place, despite the external expecation that you couple. Or you may decide it’s worth powering through your fears or needs or inclinations so that you can explore a more deeply intimate relationship. Either way, working to let go of the shame, anxiety, and at times self-hate that makes you avoid intimate relationships is a win-win: you find peace with your valid and very powerful reasons to remain single, or you can begin to discover how to shift your perspective and make room for intimacy in relationships in the future.
Join me next week to explore being single when you so don't want to be.