Every relationship is the same. In the beginning, she is so charming, so engaged. It’s as if no one else in the world exists for her except the person to whom she’s attaching romantically. She’s lit up. Then a little time goes by—only a little—and she begins to feel far away. Her silences begin to stretch. Her face falls flat. The light in her eyes blinks out. Often, she seems quietly annoyed, as if she’d just rather be alone. In fact, she does go away for periods of time without checking in. Her partner struggles with confusion. She’s hot or cold now, and he never knows which version of her he’s going to get. The slightest misunderstanding between them and she takes off without a word. She is a love and relationship addict who negotiates her addiction from the confusing and seemingly counterintuitive state of love-avoidance. It can be said that she has intimacy anorexia. Intimacy anorexia is described as a syndrome or a “pattern in which one or both members in a relationship, typically the primary committed relationship, put up barriers, avoid, or withhold nurturing the relationship.” Intimacy anorexics may withhold affection, kind words, sex, friendship, sleeping space, or anything which isn’t criticism or blame. Whenever one searches the Internet or the fairly limited literature on the subject of love-avoidance, the topic is overwhelmingly discussed as a problem men experience. Men are said to be love-avoidant, while women are said to be love-addicted and these two types are frequently drawn together. However, the literature also states that 29% of men are likely to have intimacy anorexia, while 39% of women are likely. Given these statistics and the little information available, it would appear that more about women’s patterns for love-avoidance should be studied.
Attachment Theory and Love-Avoidant Style
One of the more predominant theories as to how and why sex and love addiction (and addiction in general) arises is that of attachment theory. In attachment theory, an infant’s bond with its mother or primary caregiver connects to how it later relates to fellow adults in various relationships. If an infant formed insecure attachments with the mother or primary caregiver—due to abuse, neglect, inconsistent care, or anxiety and stress on the part of the mother or caregiver—then insecure attachments with others may become a pattern throughout life. For someone with avoidance, the attachment style established with the mother or other caregiver was one in which basic needs may have been met, but other needs such as touch, intimacy, and love were not provided consistently, if at all. The infant learned the mother or caregiver was not to be trusted, therefore creating insecure attachments in future relationships.
Other theories relate to trauma exposure. If early bonds to parents or caregivers were good, it is likely someone with a love-avoidant style experienced a trauma, or a series of traumas, which primed them to be cautious of relationships—to feel they could not trust, or that nothing comfortable and good would last. Examples of such traumas may have been child sexual abuse, rape, domestic violence, or emotional abuse from a parent, sibling, or early partner. The consequences of emotional abuse are far-reaching, and it is important to recognize that physical abuse is not necessary for real and long lasting scars.
Behaviors of Love-Avoidants
No matter the cause, the problem of love-avoidance is graver than it may appear on the surface. A partner who appears to coolly detach for long periods of time does not only present a painful predicament for their loved ones, they are also very likely to be concealing risk-taking or addictive behaviors such as alcoholism, drug use, sex addiction, gambling, eating disorders, workaholism, or compulsive spending. And they are sure to be concealing or holding in a painful past which is not being managed or dealt with in a healthy way. The baseline of the love-avoidant style is that it is a disorder of emotional intimacy; it is rooted in an unconscious state of fear of vulnerability. The reality of love is that we must give ourselves and those we love the gift of our willingness to be vulnerable—or we are not truly loving, truly committing. Fear is the opposite of love after all, and it will keep us forever captive from the risk that is love, which is the only risk worth taking. It is the work of the love-avoidant to come to understand the cause of their pattern of pulling away from their partners and friends (a pattern rarely exclusive to romantic partners) and to work to heal. Sobriety for the love-avoidant relationship addict is self-defined, but happens often within the context of a kind and conscious relationship. One in which she chooses to commit, to remain present, attentive, and loving, and not to allow herself to slip away emotionally because the past unconsciously demands that she remain afraid to be real and connected.