How to Deal with Avoidant Personality in Romantic Relationships
An avoidant personality can be confusing without sufficient understanding.
Posted Feb 08, 2021
If you try to create and sustain a romantic relationship with someone who has an avoidant personality, or the full-blown personality disorder known as Avoidant Personality Disorder, the experience can be extremely frustrating and unsatisfying unless certain conditions are met. Those conditions will be discussed later, but first, it's important to cite the symptoms of this challenging personality style.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), Avoidant Personality Disorder refers to a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative judgments in a variety of contexts, as indicated by four (or more) of the following:
- Avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.
- Is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked.
- Shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed.
- Is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations.
- Is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy.
- Views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others.
- Is unusually reluctant to take personal risks or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing.
Though the criteria listed above do not refer specifically to the impact of this personality disorder on a romantic relationship, it is clear that the symptoms can have an extremely negative impact on the quality and level of emotional intimacy in a romantic relationship. Because true emotional intimacy requires that both partners be open to showing vulnerability and communicating about their thoughts and feelings, the vast majority of relationships will suffer as a result, with one exception to be reviewed later.
Those with avoidant personality, whether male or female, often experience relationships as stressful and emotionally draining. These individuals have developed a life approach that is based on self-reliance (meeting their own physical and emotional needs).
Because they have learned to rely almost exclusively on themselves, they feel uncomfortable and often resentful when a romantic partner depends on them to meet emotional needs. These individuals are averse to navigating any emotions and often have little self-awareness in terms of identifying the emotions they feel, so others' emotions are even more confusing and frustrating. In short, for avoidant personalities, any negative emotions overall are unwanted and defied, whether the emotions are their own or someone else's.
What happens when the avoidant personality experiences negative emotions or is forced to acknowledge negative emotions in their partner? They retreat and isolate themselves, engaging in what is clinically referred to as a form of distancing behavior. They engage in overt attempts to detach from the partner and the emotional content by avoiding physical closeness (from hand-holding to cuddling to sexual activity); avoiding any deep conversation; isolating themselves in a particular area of a shared house or apartment; often refusing to make a future commitment; not saying "I love you"; not validating, fully listening or responding to a partner's feelings; walking ahead of or behind the partner when walking together; minimizing or outright dismissing legitimate frustrations the partner expresses toward them; and often engaging in addictive behavior in the form of sex, pornography, gambling or substance addictions to escape emotional conflict or complexity altogether.
For the partners of those with avoidant personality, the experience of trying to understand them is often extremely confusing. Partners often get mired in trying to figure out what the avoidant personality wants or is communicating, and the partners typically feel at a loss to do so and don't know what to think.
Part of the reason why avoidant personality is so confusing for partners relates to the fact that the diagnosis of Avoidant Personality Disorder isn't one that people hear on a regular basis in everyday conversation or in the media. Unlike narcissism or, to a lesser extent, borderline personality, avoidant personality is one that does not receive a lot of attention, rendering the public largely unaware that this unique set of personality traits is an actual disorder that has a label. Though some condemn labels as not meaningful or helpful, the partners of avoidant personalities would beg to differ; once the partners get educated about the disorder, suddenly a laundry list of confusing behaviors of the partners brings to light a sense of understanding and clarity.
Put simply, things begin to make sense, allowing the partners to understand that these individuals suffer from a true psychological pathology and thus reassuring them that they no longer have to take the emotionally dysfunctional behavior personally.
The restrictions placed on a romantic relationship in which your partner has an avoidant personality are chronic and severe. While the gold standard of a romantic relationship includes emotional intimacy and equality, relationships with avoidant personality are extremely different. Because of the restrictions inherent with avoidant personality, the avoidant individual does not seek emotional closeness or open and fluent communication about personal thoughts and feelings.
The overarching orientation of an avoidant personality is to be self-reliant and to avoid any true dependence on another person, regardless of whether that person is a friend, family member or romantic partner. These individuals function as autonomously as possible in life. It's important to note that they not only don't want to depend on you emotionally, but they also don't want you to depend on them too much emotionally. If you experience emotional problems or assert that you want or need them to meet your own physical or emotional needs, they will often feel resentful and turned off.
The chief motivation and self-protective defense mechanism of the avoidant personality is to avoid too much closeness with the partner, especially in times of stress. They operate from the following simple but problematic perspective: "The deal is that we coexist but run our own separate shows." A researcher on avoidant personality succinctly explains the dynamic by using the following metaphor: "I want you in my house, just not in my room... unless I ask you" (Tatkin, 2009). In colloquial terms, the avoidant personality experiences the closeness of relationships as messy and threatening.
Given such comprehensive challenges to a romantic relationship with an avoidant personality, the vast majority of individuals would find a relationship with such an individual to be frustrating and highly unsatisfying. Yet there are men and women who could make a relationship with an avoidant personality work. Those who could live at least somewhat contentedly with an avoidant personality are those who do not want or need a high level of emotional intimacy with their romantic partner. Such individuals may be content to live with someone and coexist, without needing a high level of communication about thoughts and feelings.
One way to think about whether you could have a good relationship with an avoidant personality is to ask yourself the following question: "How close do I want to feel to a romantic partner?" While the question sounds simplistic or even silly, the question gets to the root of the degree of emotional connection sought in a romantic union.
If you want a partner with whom you feel emotionally connected and part of a team, an avoidant personality is probably not for you. But if you are extremely independent, don't need a lot of emotional sharing or communication, and tend to accept your present circumstances in a contented way, you may be able to have a satisfying or semi-satisfying relationship with them.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, D.C.: Author
Tatkin, S. (2009). I want you in my house, just not in my room...unless I ask you. New Therapist, 62, July/August.