People with avoidant personality disorder may see their symptoms improve by mid-life, but after spending years avoiding or withdrawing from other people.
In the TV series “Mad Men,” Don Draper, the advertising executive, has a shameful secret. Because of that secret, he can’t stay in love. He quickly pulls away, and the women who love him feel abandoned.
“Avoidant” people learned as babies and small children that if they cried or complained, they would be rejected or punished. As they mature, like Don Draper, they seem stilted and cold.
If you have avoidant personality disorder, you hide and pull back in relationships of all kinds, including at work. Draper, for example, is unkind to his young protégée, Peggy, who idolizes and then dislikes him.
Draper is talented and handsome. He seems calm — but he’s a TV show hero.
In real life, people with this problem usually seem tense, often striking others as shy, timid, or withdrawn.
Do you feel unable to handle social situations? Are you self-conscious, focused on what other people are thinking about you? Are you secretly sure you are inferior to the people around you?
Those feelings may make you avoid work that involves direct contact with other people. Fear of failure may make you stick to known activities. Even though you’re bored, you can’t seek out mentors or apply to new jobs.
Maybe you long for love but are afraid of dating. Over time, you may learn to get into relationships and start off enthusiastic and loving. But like Draper, at some point you pull away.
Securely attached people in healthy relationships aren’t focused on rejection or loss. They expect that things will go well, unless they see danger signs. If you are avoidant, you might test a new friend or lover, pushing at their limits to provoke a bad response. Or you’ll overreact to any signs of rejection and withdraw. You prefer to be alone so you can avoid pain. Once you’ve withdrawn, it’s hard for you to forgive the person who hurt you but also hard to move on.
You may attract people with an anxious style, who will go overboard to please you. They become consumed with worry that they’re not doing the right thing. They also may create little tests of your affection. When they withdraw you may feel more comfortable for a time, if you sense that it’s just a ploy. Underneath you know that you’ve found a partner who will constantly chase you, and you can keep up your myth of independence.
Are you the one constantly chasing? Romantic partners of avoidant people, like Draper’s women, end up feeling unloved, ignored, and empty. Eventually you can’t continue that way and need to clear the air.
If that’s you, be as tactful and objective as you can, explaining how you feel in response to specific behavior. If either of you walks away angrier or defensive, and no one makes an effort to repair the riff, you won’t have accomplished your goal of becoming closer. Do not expect significant change or for any changes to come quickly or consistently.
You may need to leave the relationship. Sadly, the two of you will have created the result you both feared.
Many people with avoidant personality disorder create a fantasy world that replaces real relationships. You might spend lots of time online, reading dating profiles and sometimes exchanging messages — but rule everyone out. You might agree to meet and be unable to show up.
In the Tennessee Williams play “The Glass Menagerie,” Laura is as fragile as the glass animals that absorb her. Meanwhile, her mother clings to memories of the past when she was the beauty in her small town. If a man was available, it’s clear that neither woman would know how to respond.
In real life, the symptoms of avoidant personal disorder tend to ease up in mid-life, especially if you work at building and keeping up social ties. It’s also not correct to assume that everybody who isn’t happily married at a certain age has a problem. Some people prefer to live alone, but are close to friends and family. If you’re truly happy and able to maintain the relationships you want, liking your space doesn’t qualify as a disorder. On the other hand, if people you care about complain that you’re cold or unavailable when they need you — or if you can’t keep any relationship alive — consider seeing a therapist to learn new behavior. You can learn to identify anxiety and change your response.
September 19, 2018
Janet O’Dell, RN