Are you an ostrich? - How avoidance can cause a break down in relationships.

There is a myth that when an ostrich feels threatened or stressed it will bury its head in the sand. Whilst research has disproven this myth as ostriches in fact flop over when they are stressed, it still provides an interesting theory of coping with arising problems. In a relationship there are obstacles that will occur as you progress down the line. These can be anything from changes in circumstances, conflicts in emotions or something as serious as infidelity. However, the way in which we deal with these obstacles can vary. So, what do we mean by are you an ostrich? 

The ostrich myth is a maladaptive way of coping with stressors, closing your mind and avoiding problems without solving them and is a form of avoidant coping.  Avoidant coping is higher in those who possess an avoidant personality or have developed an avoidant attachment type. An avoidant personality can stem from traumatic childhood experiences or events later in someone’s life whereby individuals form a way of coping by avoiding the fundamental issue caused by these experiences. (Finnegan, Hodges & Perry, 1996).

An avoidant attachment type is an evolutionary aspect that has stemmed from a very young age which becomes a template of how we behave in our future relationships. Psychologist Mary Ainsworth, theorised and looked into the different attachment types within children using the strange situation experiment and was the first to classify the term ‘insecure avoidant’ and which is more evident when a caregiver rejects their child’s needs and is insensitive. This is what the child learns from a very young age and shapes how they may view relationships growing up. Research by Hazan & Shaver(1987) showed that avoidant lovers were characterized by fear of intimacy, emotional highs and lows, and jealousy. 

Whilst having an avoidant personality disorder or possessing an avoidant attachment type is positively correlated with using avoidant coping, anyone can shut down and avoid confronting arising issues. Emotional stimulation (whether it be good or bad) can make someone draw into themselves and ‘bury their head in the sand.’ This can be because of a lack of confidence and fear of rejection, demonstrating that avoidant coping and ‘being an ostrich’ can impact relationships. 

The first stance on being an ostrich in your relationship can be an overwhelming sense of change, either in your personal circumstances or in your relationship. The sense of change can impact how well you feel the relationship is going. Instead of facing these problems head on, as and when they happen you avoid them, pretend that they don’t exist or try and hide them from your significant other for as long as possible until you can’t any more. Acting in this avoidant way creates problems for your relationship and can create a break down in intimacy. Not communicating these problems or tackling these obstacles through fear of losing your partner or expecting the issues to go away will just create more pressure.

Individuals who behave in this way are not necessarily avoiding physical confrontation. We avoid the way it makes us feel and look in the eyes of others. No one wants to be blamed or seen as the ‘bad guy’ who breaks up with their partner and be the cause of another person’s pain, so people deem it easier to avoid communicating these feelings and start to suffer internally. Before long, these internal feelings build up and often to lead to a break down in intimacy, closing the other person out and emotionally detaching yourself and in some cases infidelity. 

It’s not to say that lifting your head from the sand will definitely save the relationship, but it increases the chances of it being successful in the long run or ending in a respectful and mature manner with no animosity or wrong doing on the other person.  The truth is, some relationships are meant to end and some are meant to be forever. Keeping things bottled up and avoiding communicating will create un-happiness and frustration, so don’t be afraid to bite the bullet express your concerns or change of circumstances. If the relationship is meant to be, you will be able to work through and past it and if it is not then you can both close the book on this love story with dignity, loyalty and the comfort that you did all you could to try and make it work. 

On the flip side; if you are aware of a fundamental issue going on in your relationship and you still avoid confronting your partner this can exacerbate the issue. For example, when communication breaks down and your partner doesn’t necessarily treat you in the way in which you should be treated but you continue to act as if everything is normal avoiding that there is an underlying problem, keeping this in can build resentment. People act in this avoidant way as they lack confidence to approach their partner to find out what is going on in fear of the answer and getting rejected. Research has shown that we often stay in relationships, even if we are unhappy and turn a blind eye to problems in fear of becoming lonely but this in turn can stop you from finding true happiness (Spielmann et al, 2013).

There are many other reasons as to why we turn a blind eye to a relationship that is going bad; emotional affection, being habitual to bad treatment, dependence and the hope of change to name a few. 

Emotional affection clouds your judgement in relationships as we have an emotional attachment to our partner. It can be hard to detach yourself from that person and see what is really going on, so it’s easier to subconsciously avoid this, turn a blind eye and carry on as normal.  

Being habitual to bad treatment, is that you have turned a blind eye and buried your head in the sand for so long that this bad treatment becomes an everyday reality. You continue to avoid confronting the disrespect and bad treatment as nothing about his/her behaviour surprises you anymore, it is barely noticeable to you, only to others who might point out the severity of the toxicity of your relationship. 

Dependency on your partner is one of the biggest reasons for remaining in a relationship. Dependency can come in many forms, whether it be emotionally, financially or even family orientated. You have built a life together and if everything else is going well other than the relationship, its easy to avoid the anomaly in your life. If you have children together you may be dependent on your partner in many ways to be able to provide them with the best possible upbringing, whilst jeopardising your own happiness. 

The biggest reason of all to tie all the reasons together is that we bury our heads in the sand, as we hope that there will be a change. You tell yourself that this is only temporary, it’s just a phase, it will eventually pass, and you will get back to how you used to be before any of this happened. The reality is that is both parties or even one individual is behaving in an avoidant way until you communicate and confront what is going on it is going to continue lingering there.  

In order to move forward and to stop avoiding the issues, both partners need to lift their head from the sand so to speak. This is done by communicating and communication is key, if something is niggling away, then confront your partner about it. If you’re having second thoughts about the relationship explain to your partner why, they may have no idea that something they are doing is pushing you away. Don’t live in fear of confrontation, rejection or being alone, burying your head can make you feel safe for the time being but is not feasible for the long run. Don’t be an ostrich, as a happy healthy relationship has both partners with there heads rising above, looking over the horizon and tackling these problems as soon as they become visible. 

 

 

References: 

Finnegan, R. A., Hodges, E. V., & Perry, D. G. (1996). Preoccupied and avoidant coping during middle childhood. Child Development67(4), 1318-1328.

 

Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., Maxwell, J. A., Joel, S., Peragine, D., Muise, A., & Impett, E. A. (2013). Settling for less out of fear of being single. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(6), 1049-1073.