A Guide for Partners of People With Avoidant Personality Disorder
Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) will make its presence known in a person’s relationships, and if left unaddressed and unacknowledged it can stress those relationships to the breaking point. But the people who love those who have this pervasive condition can play a vital role in their eventual recovery, by offering them acceptance and understanding and by supporting their efforts to change with kindness, sensitivity, and compassion.
From the perspective of those who cherish them, the behavior of people with avoidant personality disorder can seem paradoxical. You know your loved one with AVPD as a warm, sensitive, and considerate person who can be witty and personable when they’re with others they know intimately and trust.
But when they’re in the company of new people, or those they only know casually, they can suddenly shut down. They become excessively quiet, as their body language and facial expressions reveal a level of stress and anxiety that seems clearly inappropriate to the situation.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has AVPD, you likely appreciate their tenderness and generosity. But you may have a hard time understanding why they can’t demonstrate those qualities all the time, to other people besides you and a few close friends or family members.
Unfortunately, this is the impact of avoidant personality disorder, revealing itself openly. AVPD is a life-altering condition, and it brings sorrow and struggle to the lives of those who must deal with it on a daily basis.
The good news is that people with AVPD are constantly in search of solutions to the dilemmas and disappointments their condition creates. They want to be understood and accepted for who they are, but they also want to grow and evolve.
Avoidant Personality Disorder and the Debilitating Fear of Rejection
The social difficulties of men and women with avoidant personality disorder can be traced to a profound and deep-seated fear of being judged, criticized, and rejected. In the company of others, they feel heavily scrutinized, and are often convinced that others can spot their discomfort or social ineptness and are judging them harshly for it. Their apparently overwhelming social anxiety is a manifestation of their struggles with chronically low self-esteem, which leave them frequently doubting their own worth and value.
People with AVPD are aware of these issues, and to some extent they know their insecurities are irrational. But simply knowing this is not enough to make the self-consciousness go away. Their feelings of inadequacy and inferiority are ingrained, and it can take many years of therapy, self-reflection, and other confidence- and self-esteem-building strategies before their worst AVPD symptoms begin to decline in strength and influence.
Ultimately, their journey to wellness is one they must complete on their own. But you can help them reach their goals and achieve a level of self-acceptance that makes those goals realistic.
Empowerment through Validation
What your partner with avoidant personality disorder will require from you, most of all, is validation. They need to know that you understand their struggles are real and have caused them much pain throughout their lives.
You should encourage them to speak openly and honestly about their feelings and experiences. Let them know you are ready and willing to be their safe harbor, so they know they can reveal their deepest fears and biggest disappointments to you without fear of being judged or rejected.
As you hear their words, you should make sure you’re really listening and absorbing what they’re saying. You’ll gain a firmer grasp on how AVPD functions and learn much more about how it distorts self-awareness and a person’s perception of the world.
Another way you can offer validation is by letting them know you realize how strong they’ve needed to be to survive, and that you respect them for their courage.
AVPD is a persistent condition that can affect virtually every aspect of a person’s life, which means those who have it must find ways to move forward despite its pervasive, daily impact. AVPD makes life more problematic than it should be, yet men and women with avoidant personality disorders continue to work to improve their lives, and as they attempt to cope with their symptoms as well as they know how.
Your relationship, and the life the two of you have been working hard to build together, is at least in part a result of your loved one’s determination to not let their AVPD destroy their dreams. Your partner is capable of accomplishing a lot, especially if their efforts are supported and encouraged by those who care about them most.
Creating New Bonds of Love and Support
While there are exceptions, for the most part people with AVPD won’t have many close or intimate relationships with extended family members, co-workers, neighbors, and others who are in their orbits but not in the same proximity as partners, parents, children, siblings, or lifelong friends. And of course, men and women who struggle to connect with their extended family aren’t going to have an easy time bonding or socializing with the members of your family, who are close to you but more distant from them.
If you try to create such bonds by throwing your loved one together with your family members at parties, holiday celebrations, or intimate family dinners, you’re likely to be disappointed in the outcome. Not to mention you’ll be putting your partner under stress, thrusting them into a situation that almost seems designed to make them feel uncomfortable.
It’s best to temper your expectations about such things ahead of time, by acknowledging that the normal rules about how to bring people together won’t apply in this instance. The only way to bridge the gap that prevents people with AVPD from widening their social circles is to take things slowly and gradually, and without any expectation that new connections will be made quickly or automatically.
Your loved one can successfully integrate into your wider network of family and friends over time. But that will only happen if you let the process progress at a pace that prevents your partner from feeling stressed or pushed, or judged if their social performance doesn’t live up to predetermined standards. You should talk to your family members and friends ahead of time and let them know that it takes time for your partner to learn to trust, which is necessary before they can begin to let down their guard and let others in.
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From Small Successes Come Major Victories
When you truly understand how strongly and instinctively fearful a person with avoidant personality disorder is about being judged, criticized, rejected, ignored, laughed at, or embarrassed, you’ll be able to appreciate and acknowledge their small successes—which, from their perspective, aren’t small at all.
For a person with AVPD, social success of any type could conceivably represent a significant breakthrough. Simple interactions that others take for granted can seem incredibly risky and uncertain for them, and when they manage to push through their fears and speak or interact, it represents an authentic accomplishment that should be reinforced with positive feedback.
Conversely, if and when they experience failure, because their insecurities got the best of them, you should be just as positive and encouraging. Let them know you realize how much they struggle to express themselves or assert themselves at times. Help them see their disappointments are only temporary setbacks, and that each small failure can be a precursor to bigger success later on.
Therapy and Treatment for Avoidant Personality Disorder
People tend to think of personality disorders as a kind of hardwiring that can’t be modified.
But this assumption is incorrect. When men and women with personality disorders perceive their conditions as problematic, and are committed to giving their best effort to change and recover, they can make great progress over the course of an intensive, long-term treatment plan.
This is especially true with avoidant personality disorder, since those who have it experienced years of disappointment, frustration, loneliness, and underachievement. They retreat socially and emotionally because they feel like they have to, not because they want to. If they are convinced treatment will make a difference, they will make a concerted effort to embrace the opportunity.
Outpatient and residential treatment programs can both be effective against avoidant personality disorder. However, if your partner has developed additional mental health problems (like depression or anxiety disorders) or substance use issues, the inpatient approach is definitely preferable.
Needless to say, it can be a struggle for people with AVPD to open up to mental health professionals. Their social discomfort and fear of being judged can be an obstacle even with people who are trying to help them, even when the climate is customized to produce healing and recovery.
For this reason, your partner’s chances of emerging from treatment feeling healthier and empowered will dramatically increase if you and others who care about them participate in your loved one’s recovery program. You can offer vital emotional and moral support in family therapy sessions, and during regular visits when they are allowed. You should also stay in close contact with the members of your loved one’s treatment team, to hear progress reports and get expert advice.
Your committed and consistent involvement in their recovery can provide your partner with the type of positive reinforcement and encouragement they desperately need, as they take the steps necessary to confront their AVPD head on.
During treatment and beyond, your role should not be that of a caretaker or protector. That wouldn’t be good for either one of you or for your relationship. What you can do is help them build a solid foundation for their personal reconstruction efforts.
It is important that your partner continue to acknowledge the existence of their avoidant personality disorder, even after treatment concludes. Acknowledging it doesn’t mean they will let it be the defining factor in their life, but being open and honest about it will help defuse it of its power and influence. This is a process that will start in treatment and must continue indefinitely from that point on.
You can play a facilitating role in your loved one’s ascension. But ultimately, it will be up to them to take responsibility for overcoming the most debilitating and limiting effects of their avoidant personality disorder. Thankfully, they will emerge from treatment equipped with the tools, insights, and deep self-comprehension they need to make a remarkable turnaround happen.
If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with complex mental illnesses. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.