Avoidance therapy
October 29, 2009 7:20 AM   Subscribe

I frequently want to avoid the girlfriend, even though I always have a great time with her. This has happened with every girlfriend I've ever had. Is this an issue for you? How do you deal?

I'm a mid-20s male in a committed, long-term relationship of about 9 months now. We're really a perfect match in many, many ways from taste in food, recreation, great sex life, similarly extroverted, outgoing, sense of humor, etc, etc, etc. I mean, things are stellar. She's insanely in love with me and wants to spend tons of time together, which is fine, since I have a great time with her and I'm in love with her and I'm pretty sure she's it for me.

Except that I often find myself "relieved" in a way when I get to just go home and do my own thing.

I'm a typically extroverted person who is socially active, has many friends, etc. I always have a great time when we do hang out, but damn if I'm not fighting myself mentally up until we actually make plans and go through with them, in this weird reluctant kind of way.

Stranger still, it's been like this with every. single. girl. I've ever dated, from introverts to extroverts, all across the gamut, at the beginning, middle, and end of the relationships, no matter how crazy I was about them at the time.

I know everyone digs on their alone time, but the issue is omnipresent. I don't voice it and I usually just ignore it while I make plans and then go and have a great time with her, but I really can't understand why there's such a draw to avoid the girlfriend in that way.

I'm frustrated because it feels self destructive in that I really have something great here. And I'm confident that it's not a downside to this particular girl because again, it's happened every time I've dated someone. I'm not typically someone who feels much anxiety, and I'm never nervous around her or anything like that--we've known each other for years and we're extraordinarily close. But I still get pensive about spending time with her in general, and I feel like my alone-time-to-partner-time balance is way off for someone as otherwise extroverted as myself.

What gives? Are you an extrovert who finds this nagging trouble even in the best of relationships? Do you just grin and push through? It's not like I'm having a rough time here; once we do go out or hang out or spend the weekend together, I absolutely love it and have a wonderful time. But I can spend several hours nearly convincing myself I'd rather be by myself than go be with her, which seems so strange to me.

Moreover, she's a nurse, so she'll work 2 12s right in a row, meaning I legitimately have plenty of alone time already. She's not "smothering" me or anything of that nature, so I'm truly at a loss. She doesn't nag at all either. There's a bit of stress at work and I've always got a lot on my mind, but that's not going to change and I don't want to sabotage myself just because I'm insane.

Insight? Thoughts? Your experience or advice? (We live separately, by the way.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Being extroverted can mean a lot of things, and it may be the case that you're a type of "surface extrovert" (my own, made-up-on-the-spot term), where you like to be engaged with a lot of people on a shallow level, but diving deeper into a relationship makes you uncomfortable.

It's easier, I think, for some folks to surround themselves with a lot of friends and activities that they can take or leave, but when it gets deeper than that, it isn't as refreshing an experience as they'd like, and therefore will need some alone time.

My advice is to acknowledge you're seeing this trend of avoidance in yourself and work on changing it. You seem to like your girlfriend, so make an effort to contact her more often, spend more alone time with her without prompting, and see how it goes. It may take a little bit of self-induced exposure therapy, of a sort, to change this habit.
posted by xingcat at 7:35 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

IANAT, but this sounds like an intimacy thing. When we socialize with most people, it is a much more superficial than girlfriend-boyfriend.

Years ago I saw a PBS special with John Bradshaw, and although I think he is kind of creepy, one thing he said stuck with me---and that is that relationships are about growth toward intimacy. And it takes years. He said that often early relationships are a power struggle, and if people can work it out they grow toward more and more closeness.

It sound like pop psych I know, but I have found that there is some wisdom in it.

I am married but still need my own space and down time, which my husband knows but doesn't always care about. He can be with people 24/7 and would love it.
posted by chocolatetiara at 7:38 AM on October 29, 2009 [17 favorites]

The only thing I can think of is maybe you are putting pressure on yourself to "perform" a certain way when you are with her and your previous gfs? Do you feel like you are always truly being yourself? Maybe this relief to get away is a symptom of not being able to show who you really are. This is a total, random, wild guess btw.
posted by the foreground at 7:39 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you consider yourself an extrovert than chances are your persona around others, including your girlfirend, is mostly presentational. I agree with the foreground.
posted by hermitosis at 7:47 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

I first saw this essay here on Metafilter, and it has really stuck with me ever since. I am very much the outgoing introvert, and it sounds like you may be too.
posted by amro at 7:58 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

If this has happened with every girl you've ever dated, and it hasn't lessened over time, it sounds to me like you really don't like having girlfriends. There's no shame in that, being single is awesome and it sounds like you have a pretty full life outside your relationship, but it does mean you have a choice to make. Do you stay in a relationship that, deep down, you don't really want - knowing full well that it will end at some point because of the way you feel - or do you soldier on in a relationship, even though it makes you uncomfortable, because it's the socially acceptable thing to do?

To me, honestly, having a girlfriend/significant other is not worth it if you're not fully invested in it (nor is it fair to her, if all you're thinking about when you're with her is the time you'll have alone when you're not with her), which it sounds like you're not, even though you like her.

There is a massive amount of societal/peer pressure to be in a relationship, like it's the default mode of being and everything in life aims towards it and life is not complete without it. Don't listen to that pressure. If you feel better and are happier being single, be single.
posted by pdb at 8:02 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

There are at least two possibilities here:

1) You may be an "outgoing introvert", as mentioned above. You genuinely enjoy other people, but you need a certain amount of time on your own as well to recharge. That's OK. If you and your girlfriend marry or move in together, you're going to need to talk about this.

2) You may have problems relaxing and being completely authentic and intimate around someone you love, as the foreground mentions. You may not think you're putting on a performance around your girlfriend, as you love her and have so much in common, but the things you mention are fairly much on the surface.

Can you be a dork around her? Do you always have to be witty and entertaining, and do you worry sometimes that you might bore her? Can you fart around her? (No need to go overboard on this, of course.) Does she know about your worst characteristics? Is she aware of some things you've done or said that you're ashamed of? And when you're with her, are you concerned about always presenting your best possible face? That's exhausting, and crawling into your own lair after seeing her under those circumstances would be completely understandable.

Or you may have a bit of both going on. If you're an outgoing introvert, that's a perfectly valid way to be. You may find yourself more or less in need of alone time and space at various parts of your life, but as long as you can comfortably spend enough time with your girlfriend to make both of you happy, and she knows why you need to spend time alone, there is no problem here.

But if spending time with any girlfriend is the emotional equivalent of dressing up in a suit and tight shoes every time, while you worry about dripping gravy on your tie, then that's something you need to work on. You just may not have yet met the person you can truly relax around, or you may need to take some baby steps with your girlfriend and expand your comfort zone.
posted by rosebuddy at 8:25 AM on October 29, 2009 [9 favorites]

pdb says that those “stay away” voices might mean you don’t really want to be in a relationship. Maybe. But I’d like to suggest that that might not be true.

Lots of things in life that are pleasurable, valuable, important, etc, can also have components that are challenging, stressful and risky. When doing something challenging, stressful and risky, it’s pretty natural to encounter some feelings of resistance, even if it’s exactly the thing you most want to do. This is true whether the important/valuable/scary/risky thing is pursuing a new career path, writing a book, engaging in a romantic relationship, or anything else. For a lot of people- if you always listen to those voices in your head that say “It might be better not to do this”, you’d never do anything. (For myself, I know that this is definitely true: All the things in life I've been happiest to do have also been accompanied by some trepidation).

So one answer to your question might just be – accept it. Every relationship (heck, every *thing* in your life) has its pluses and minuses. For you, in this relationship, the plus is all the great times you have together, the minus is that you sometimes (often?) have this sort of unpleasant resistance feeling before you have dates. You also have a relief feeling after, which is actually a *pleasurable* feeling, so if you can see things a little differently (ie - try and shake the guilt that accompanies the relief), maybe that’s not even a downside. Lots of people, for instance, love to go on vacation, and also love coming home from vacation. That doesn’t mean they don’t like vacations. It's possible to love being in a relationship, and also treasure your time alone.

My guess is, if you stop worrying about these feelings, and let them be, and keep seeing this person, there’s a good chance the feelings will subside on their own. These are avoidance feelings, and while I’m no psychologist, my understanding is that one of the best ways to get over avoidance feelings is through exposure to the thing they are avoiding.

You point to the fact that you’ve always had these feelings in your relationships. Do you think this means these feelings will never go away? I’d suggest that might not necessarily be true. You are a pretty young person, and most peoples’ romantic feelings (and other feelings) change a lot when they are young. How you feel about romance when you are in your early twenties is probably not how you will *always* feel about romance. And while nine months may feel like a long time to you, it's still pretty early, in the grand scheme of things, in a long-term relationship.

Your post says you have feelings of wanting to avoid the date, but it doesn’t really spell out *why*. One useful exercise might be to actually try and write down all the thoughts that cross your mind when you are dreading the date. Are you worried the relationship won’t work out? Do you picture her saying something rejecting to you? Vice versa? Even the crazy, unrealistic worries, write them down. Then look at them – do they seem like rational fears? Do they come true? Some of them might not be so crazy – again, romantic relationships really *are* risky – people get hurt, feel bad, etc. That's realistic. Looking for real at the fears that come up might be helpful. Again - the trick is to look at these fears without necessarily thinking that they hold too much information- understand that it’s normal to have fears in a relationship, that most people have ‘em, and that the fears don’t necessarily reflect reality.

If, say, every time you go on a date, you’re harbouring a fantasy they she will insult you (or you will insult her, or the sex will be bad, or you’ll be bored in conversation, or whatever your fear is), it’s useful to know your harbouring that fantasy. Each time it doesn’t come true, you can learn to fear it a little less, especially if you're aware of it. Even if is *does* come true (maybe once in a while, you are bored in conversation), you may find that the reality isn’t as bad as the fear.

Anyhow. That’s a long-winded response. The short version I guess is: Dating is kinda stressful, even when it’s great. So it’s not so odd to have avoidant feelings about it. Both you and this relationship are young. Be patient. Don’t worry.
posted by ManInSuit at 8:31 AM on October 29, 2009 [31 favorites]

My first thought, which you've already acknowledged, is that everyone needs time to themselves in varying amounts. Being an extrovert means that you're probably often "on," and that can be draining. Sometimes the only way to truly decompress and recharge is to be alone.

I am someone who makes a lot of social plans with people I love dearly and thoroughly enjoy, but often, as in all the time, have the, "I wish I could just stay home," thought. So, I pretty much always have to muster up the effort to go through with it, but once I'm out, I usually have a marvelous time. Thing is, I don't think this is a bad or uncommon thing. I've had many a conversation with adults who "confess," that one of their favorite things about going out, is coming home and putting on their pajamas. I think life tends to be busy and stressful, not to mention overstimulating, and it's rare that we can control our surroundings. Unless you find yourself breaking plans, always having a terrible time when you are social, or never leaving the house, I think it's totally okay you have these thoughts and feelings, even when you are in a committed relationship with a woman you adore.
posted by katemcd at 8:31 AM on October 29, 2009 [5 favorites]

Lots of things in life that are pleasurable, valuable, important, etc, can also have components that are challenging, stressful and risky. When doing something challenging, stressful and risky, it’s pretty natural to encounter some feelings of resistance, even if it’s exactly the thing you most want to do. This is true whether the important/valuable/scary/risky thing is pursuing a new career path, writing a book, engaging in a romantic relationship, or anything else. For a lot of people- if you always listen to those voices in your head that say “It might be better not to do this”, you’d never do anything. (For myself, I know that this is definitely true: All the things in life I've been happiest to do have also been accompanied by some trepidation).

I think this is the best advice I have ever read on here.
posted by the foreground at 8:54 AM on October 29, 2009 [6 favorites]

Dude, I'm married and I'm still sometimes secretly happy if my husband has to work nights or something when we have to break plans and I get time alone. This just sounds like normal needing to be alone time if you ask me.
posted by gaspode at 8:55 AM on October 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

What are/were your parents like? Examine their relationship. That's where you learned about relationships.

That doesn't explain how you *feel*, but it's a start.
posted by Xoebe at 8:57 AM on October 29, 2009

IANAT, but this sounds like an intimacy thing. When we socialize with most people, it is a much more superficial than girlfriend-boyfriend.

Yep. I'd get therapy on this. Kudos to you for being able to recognize this.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:22 AM on October 29, 2009

What are/were your parents like?

This is the first thing that came to mind for me. Does your mother nag you a lot?
posted by ludwig_van at 9:25 AM on October 29, 2009

As others have said, you're likely an introvert.

You should not, under any circumstances ignore these feelings and see if they go away, because they probably won't. You also should not inflate them to the level of serious problem and find a way to end your relationship.

The mature thing to do here is accept that you have these feelings and work with them as best you can. Don't feel guilty for wanting to be alone - it certainly does not imply that you don't like her, or that there's something wrong with you. If you don't feel like spending time with your girlfriend, you're certainly within your rights to do so, although you probably would want to have a conversation with her at some point about this, so that later on she doesn't blow up a small issue like not wanting to go to the bar one night.

Of course, this doesn't give you carte blanche to avoid her whenever you want. Relationships are about compromise, which means that you should still be seeing her often, and sometimes going out when you don't exactly feel up to it. But your feelings matter too, and there's nothing wrong with them.
posted by TypographicalError at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do a little study about the Personality Types which have been examined and expounded upon, something similar to the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator. One of the things which really stuck with me when I first was learning about the MBTI years ago is that introverts gain energy from being alone and lose energy when being with people, and extroverts gain energy from being with others and lose energy from being alone. It just may be, you are truly introverted and being with others, even your girlfriend, takes a toll on you.
posted by hippybear at 9:31 AM on October 29, 2009

Do you internally have, or your friends/family express ideas/concerns/worries about the need for relationships with girlfriends to change, evolve, take "next steps" (whatever it may be, I do not imply anything specific). Unconsciously sabotaging current phase in order to avoid change?
posted by Jurate at 9:52 AM on October 29, 2009

I totally relate. Fortunately my girlfriend and I both love to retreat to our respective caves and do our little projects alone. I also spend a lot of time roving in the bush alone and she's delighted that I can entertain myself for so long. Being able to be alone, to me, is critical to having a relaxing, contemplative, get-to-know-yourself-and-the-world kind of life.
posted by klanawa at 9:54 AM on October 29, 2009

Not to get all pop-psych on you, but when you think of this problem, is there anything from your childhood that comes up? (Often these weird childhood patterns come up in intimate relationships even when they're not there in simple friendships.) Something like this seems like it developed because at some point it was needed and useful for you.

Possible example: one or both of your parents always wanted your company, so you learned to use your free time to get some space. A pattern developed -- they'd be the one to pull you in, and to have some balance, you had to always exercise your volition to get some space. That would make it challenging to voluntarily seek out company later.

If anything like that seems possible, get used to the idea that it might never really go away. Talk openly with her about it, framing it as "this weird thing that has come with me from my childhood," reassuring her, and asking only that she really try to understand what that was like for you as a kid. Once it isn't a hidden secret, but a quirk that both you and she know about and accept as part of your whole self, you'll both feel more peace about it, even if it's always still present. It doesn't mean she has to like the impact it has on her. As you become able to have a dialogue about how it impacts the relationship, and as you get to be on friendlier and more familiar terms with the thing itself, you might also be able to find ways to let go of it and realize that it's not something you need anymore.
posted by salvia at 10:04 AM on October 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

UH I have had the same experience as you and I would like to offer the opinion that there is not actually anything wrong with you, and that you don't need therapy or whatever.

Throughout my 20s every girlfriend I had, I felt this about, exactly. With the added irony that when I broke up with them, of course I felt intense longings to be with them again and I would question myself about what the heck was wrong with me.

I'm about to turn 30. This isn't a problem anymore. I think it really can be as simple as that. My friend remarked to me that her observations of guys seems to be that they tend to hit a certain age and then they decide it's time to get married and boom, they meet someone and get married. Simple.

I told myself I was ready for a serious relationship (and by that I mean, ready to be with someone for good) but my longing to be elsewhere and apart was my way of telling myself I wasn't. I'm not saying that you don't actually want to be with this girl (or more accurately any one girl); I'm saying I don't think this is something you need to sweat. We're all at different places. I don't think you can make yourself be somewhere you're not.
posted by danny the boy at 10:46 AM on October 29, 2009

It's not normal for two people too spend every waking second together. This is why people have hobbies and other friends and the like.
posted by The Whelk at 2:18 PM on October 29, 2009

You sound like an introvert to me. You need a lot of recharge time, regardless of whoever you are dating.

This sounds crazy, but you might want to somehow arrange (or have her arrange) times when you know she will not be underfoot or that you need to spend together. Regularly scheduled alone time, I mean. Especially if you live together later.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:22 PM on October 29, 2009

Maybe you don't enjoy going *out* with her as much as you do - maybe you would rather spend time alone-together, where you read a book and she surfs the net, etc. Just a thought. You might just occasionally need more space while you're with her. I'm an outgoing introvert who often feels this way.
posted by kitcat at 6:49 PM on October 29, 2009

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