Part III: The Love Avoidant – Home at Last

Ok. Here we are again. My last article in the “Love Avoidant” series.  So, we have explored the “what?” and the “how did this happen?” questions. In this final section, we delve into the “what do we do about it?” department. Hopefully, by this point, I have persuaded you that the walls of the Love Avoidant (LA) provide a false illusion of safety and security that only keep us from the closeness we most desire and deserve. Good relationships make us live longer and healthier – and make the living worthwhile – so, let’s see what we can do to reconstruct this particular defensive posture.


The heart of the process in becoming available to intimate love is the tuning into oneself. In other words, the foundation for secure attachment originates with loving attunement within. I must be mindful to the “me” inside. To that deep inner core which houses my source feelings, thoughts, fantasies, hurts and longings. In so doing, I become my own best caretaker. Like an air traffic controller, I pay attention to, monitor and respond to the many detailed happenings inside me. More specifically, this process involves:


1. Thawing. As we discussed in the last article, many LAs have walled themselves off as a means of necessary protection. Ok. Got that. But until the heart stops beating, we can’t just give up. There is bound to be life somewhere inside there. Some place, maybe very deep inside, some inkling of humanity has yet to be smoldered out. There are real feelings, wants and needs. If the LA wants to find loving contact, he/she has to both admit that something exists and be willing to find it. Thus, the journey is launched to becoming emotionally attached by increasing access to and awareness of feelings. Often this grand thaw starts in the patient loving presence of another. Or with the harsh realization that continuing to live in my self-defined prison is no longer serving me well. This takes us to the next step …


2. Grieving. Most LAs are not likely to reach out for help because they are having relationship difficulties. Contrarily, most are sadly comfortable with long periods of aloneness and non-intimacy. However, they may be lucky enough to either be dragged in by a partner or to ask for help for another reason such as an active addiction or a destructive attempt at self-soothing. Once in a setting to take a more honest look inside, the LA has an opportunity to explore his/her family of origin role and the childhood trauma that caused such a need for the emotional and relational blockade. In so doing, compassionate meaning can be attached to the reason for the over-protection as well as an honest assessment of no longer needing all those defenses.


3. Choosing. Having spent many years in analytic school, I am a believer in the value of insight. But, at some point, we have to make a choice. I tell patients that much of what I do in my office is brain surgery (except without the anesthesia and the unfortunate reality that you can’t just sleep through the process). At this point in our adult lives, the neural pathways in our brains are pretty hard-wired. Like an old-fashioned pinball machine, that ball is going down the same rut over and over and over again. I call it my “whoosh.” When triggered, I am whooshing through “Door A.” Plain and simple. I will think, feel and act in a certain predictable way. For a LA, that whoosh is one of independence, keeping life and others at arm’s length. In order to counteract this well-worn groove, I have to behave the opposite, despite the inevitable discomfort it causes. Intentionally and consciously, by choosing Door B, through moment to moment practice and repetition, I revamp the brain patterns toward true relational living.


4. Being Vulnerable. LAs avoid vulnerability. Anything but telling you what is really going on inside at the rawest, most primitive and human level. I am reminded of that saying that “what is most personal is also most universal.” When we admit our imperfections and talk about our truth in an authentic way, we are opening ourselves to genuine connection. When we self-disclose with our words, we move from feeling isolated and alone to being joined by and bonded to another human being. This is the seed-bed of human relations. 


5. Touching. Physical touch acts as a glue between people and certainly, between partners. Touch and affection has been shown to increase the secretion of oxytocin which is the same natural bonding hormone experienced between mother and infant. Thus, physical touch can increase our bond with our partner.


6. Staying. Overcoming Love Avoidance means that we commit to enduring feelings we would rather not have. Rather than fleeing, we pull up a chair and tolerate feelings of discomfort such as fear, suffocation, abandonment, rejection, contempt and even love. Rather than do our usual – walling off or running away – we put on our safety belt and we sit. Squirm as we might, we move from running to a place of curiosity, understanding and gradual acceptance.


7.  Remembering.  Being in an intimate, attached relationship does not mean that I give up my self.  I get to hold onto my power as an individual person.  I get to maintain my own separate thoughts, feelings, wants and needs.  I get to set limits and maintain my boundaries.  In fact, it is through remembering that I can hold onto my separateness, that I am more willing to soften my boundaries that I might enter a deeper level of connection. 


Like a colicky baby being swaddled by the patient and persistent love of a parent, over time and experience, we eventually settle into the idea that being loved and connected ain’t so bad. In creating a connection with a partner we do not want to lose, we become convinced that transforming our pattern of Love Avoidance is not only necessary, but also opens us to a whole new world … that of life’s vast candy store.  Many of us are entering its doors for the first time. It can be overwhelming in its wonder and endless possibilities. But, have at it. Indulge. And enjoy every bite of life’s sweetest offering – connective love.







Personal Essay: Happily Every After

Long before we ever have children, we have fantasies of what they will be like. When I was a childless twenty-something, my future daughter was unencumbered. She could choose her heart’s desire. At full range.  Unlike me, she would not have to fight to be her true self.  As part of the first female generation in my family line to not follow a traditional course, I had crossed the threshold.  I had broken the glass ceiling.  College beyond the Mason-Dixon line, a respectable intellectually-based career with my own salary, athletic accomplishments written up in the newspaper – these were now possibilities for my daughter, as opposed to being oddities for me.  My daughter could bask in the endless possibilities I had hard-won.  She wouldn’t have to like pink.  She could run and play without stopping to always be the nurturing one.  She could discover her talents without the risk of disappointing the holders of the mold of “what a girl should be.”  She would be free to explore all of who she is without the subtle and not-so-subtle messages of limitation.  The world was her oyster and I was happy to be the beacon of such opportunity for her.  


Or so I thought.


When my daughter was five, she was as coordinated and as smart as they come, yet pink pervaded me.  Everything was pink this or pink that.  (Wouldn’t my grandmother be pleased?!)  We did Barbies and princesses.  We bought magic fairy wands and read stories that end with “… and they lived happily ever after.” We got our nails painted.  We talked shop, girl-shop. 


There were days I looked in the mirror and asked, “is this me?”  “Is this my daughter?”  Without even trying, encouraging or force-feeding – there it was.  The princess resides naturally in the x chromosome.  I guess I could do the same thing that was done to me, only in reverse.  I could refuse her her choices and “make” her be what I want her to be.  I could tell her what she likes and doesn’t like to make her into my image.   But I can’t do that.  I won’t do that.  I know the fit of those shoes and I have spent way too much time and money on the couch to cram her toes into those.   


So, I bought pink and entered (kicking and screaming, mind you!) into the fantasy of being a Princess in fairyland.  Which brings me to another point.  How long do I let this go on?  The myth of life turning out happily ever after?  My life hasn’t unfolded like that nor has it been for anyone else I know.  So, either I’m in with the wrong crowd or my data collection accurately reflects reality – that princes don’t come, that things don’t always turn out happily ever after, that wands aren’t magical and sometimes the shoe just doesn’t fit. 


So, do I really want my daughter buying into this lie?  Do I really want to set her up for the biggest disappointment of her life by colluding with this magical but delusional fantasy day-in and day-out?  Can I really swallow this delusion enough to pretend gleefully?


Perhaps, the writers of timeless fairy tales weren’t thinking about the psychological development and the preparedness of real-life expectations for pre-pubescent little girls.  Or were they?  Perhaps, they did know the harshness of life and they were encouraging the prospect of dreams anyways.  That in spite of wicked step-mothers and sadistic witches who cast sleeping spells, hope prevails.  Forces of evil can be overcome and love wins over pain every time.  


So, I guess, from that vantage point, I don’t have the heart.  I can’t be the one to tell her at a tender young age that life is about suffering, that dreams sometimes falter, that grief and loss are inevitable, that nothing lasts forever.  I will get up tomorrow, the next day and the next perpetuating the fantasy of Cinderella at the ball in her gorgeous Size 2 gown, wearing glass slippers, dancing the night with the dapper Prince. 


And before I can bat an eye, my daughter will be fifteen and the fantasies of fairyland will have faltered on their own accord in the school of life’s hard knocks.   And she will be coming to me in the fullness of her teenage angst and woes telling me how hard life really is.  And at that point, it will be my turn to hold the fantasy – or the reality – that life also holds the good.  That miracles can occur, love does come in unexpected ways at unexpected times, that it is worth  keeping one’s dreams alive.


As a parent, we all want to give our children more than was given to us.  For me, I guess that means that, for today, I play Barbie and buy pink, knowing that tomorrow she may well choose to wear black and be in a rock band.  I guess I need the emotional flexibility for her to be both, all of that, whatever she needs to be for herself in that moment.  It also engenders in me a clinging to both sides of life’s experience – that I uphold the hopeful and the good, that I’m here for the inevitable let down, and that I am still willing and available to put my heart out there once again and wish upon a star.