In the TV series Mad Men, ad executive Don Draper 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 protegee, Peggy, who idolizes and then dislikes him.
Draper is talented and handsome. He takes chances and seems calm, but he’s a TV show hero. In real life, people with this problem aren’t likely to be glamorous philanderers. They’re more likely to be isolated.
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 Once you’ve withdrawn, it’s hard for you to forgive the person who hurt you but also hard to move on.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 anxious people who 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.
If that’s you, and you want to keep trying, you can explain how you feel in response to specific behavior. Be as tactful and objective as possible. Do not expect any major changes to come quickly or consistently. Look for small improvements.
You can stop chasing and see what happens. In the end, the relationship may just fail.
Some avoidant people are shy, timid, or withdrawn.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.
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 by your forties and fifties, 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. (Read more about that from my PT sister blogger, Bella DePaulo.) If you’re truly happy and able to maintain the relationships you want, liking your space doesn’t qualify as a “disorder.” Maybe you might want a partner but at the moment, nobody suitable is showing up: Don’t automatically blame yourself.
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 relationships you value highly—consider seeing a therapist to learn new behavior. You can learn to identify anxiety and change your response.
A version of this story appears at Your Care Everywhere.