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Hiding and Avoidance in Relationships

COUPLES CORNER –

Every now and then, couples come to therapy looking to work on openness in their relationship. Quite often, one partner may be less inclined to express emotion or intimacy than the other. For some time, I have been meaning to write about what can be experienced as “hiding” in relationships. What I mean by this is the tendency to feel discomfort when emotion shows up and the avoidance that can arise out of this feeling. This edition of Couples Corner is for all my withdrawers out there. The intention here is to shed light on why people hide things in relationships, and also what the impacts can be on the couple as a result.

Hiding behaviours are usually fairly old. They can form out of a need to feel safe. For instance, if you grew up in a family where there was little safety or space for emotion, you may have adapted to this by hiding the expression of emotional content altogether. Much like animals, out of necessity, we adapt to our surroundings in order to survive. Withdrawers learn that hiding is the best choice when feeling scared, anxious, stressed, or upset.

Imagine now, that for decades you have hidden the full expression of your emotions from those closest to you. You then, as an adult, enter into a close, loving relationship with a romantic partner. It would be expected that hiding behaviours shows up. After all, old habits die hard.

For many couples, the fact that their partner could be hiding something can be very challenging. If I love and care for my partner, they should feel safe enough with me to open up, right?

Unfortunately, this is not how it always unfolds. When one partner is in avoidance mode and concealing information, the other partner can experience a deep sense of betrayal and hurt. It can feel as though the relationship is not on honest footing and, therefore, is no longer safe for the expressive partner either. So what can we do in this case?

I once heard that the best way to open a coconut is not by brute force but instead by tapping gently on the precise location that will allow it to open to you. I tell you this not to share a story about my vacation, but instead to demonstrate how sometimes less is more. This is what I will often share with couples in session. If the expressive partner can patiently create safety and space for the avoidant partner to open up, the avoidant partner can learn, without pressure, that they can be emotionally vulnerable without fear.

There are some key factors that can help when trying to create this safety in your relationship:

  1. Remember that your partner is not intentionally trying to hurt you. They are likely caught in avoidance because they learned to feel uncomfortable with open expression of emotion and closeness in previous relationships.
  2. If the more pursuing partner begins to lower the pressure and urgency for the avoidant partner to open up, the avoidant partner must make a special commitment to try and dial-up and offer some token of emotional sharing. To start, this can be as simple as describing one emotion that they felt over the past week.
  3. The avoidant partner may need to work to repair the betrayal and hurt experienced by their partner when the hiding behaviours showed up. While we can create understanding for hiding behaviours, we cannot deny that they can add to relationship wounds.

The process of changing avoidance can take time, and for withdrawers, can be a life-long practice. At the same time, a healthy relationship can be the place to learn that emotions are not dangerous, and that vulnerability can create connection. And so I leave the avoidant folks with some food for thought: after spending so long running, wouldn’t it be nice to be found?

 

By Jennifer Goldberg, RP, M.Ed., CCC.

Jennifer Goldberg is a registered psychotherapist who works extensively with couples at The Counselling Group. She incorporates current topics arising out of her couples therapy sessions into themes and issues covered in Couples Corner. 

Looking for couples counselling? The Counselling Group offers a variety of experienced couples therapists who can support positive changes and growth in your relationship. For more information, please call 613 722 2225 ext 352 to speak with an intake worker today.

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