While you may have not heard the exact term “relationship exit” you likely have experienced this situation in your partnerships. Relationship exits are ways you block intimacy or create conflict as a coping mechanism to ensure there is enough space in the relationship. While it’s more common for avoidant attachment types to use exits as an unconscious strategy to prevent closeness or get distance, all partners use it for various reasons and sometimes these exits prevent the relationship from moving forward.
In this post, we share some common relationship exits that we hear in working with our clients at Center for Shared Insight in Denver, Colorado. We’ll examine reasons you or your partner might use them, and suggest alternative strategies to address your tendency to want to use relationship exits to prevent intimacy and closeness.
Common Relationship Exits
Exits are often disguised as legitimate excuses for someone to avoid a relationship. Some common ones might be alternative priorities, including caring for pets, spending time with aging parents, tending to kids, traveling for work, or working on an important work project. Others might be over prioritizing time for self, friendships, or even mundane to-dos if you hear something like “I can’t get together on Saturday as I need to go to the gym, run errands, and clean the house”. Sometimes, these reasons for not getting together are completely valid and they are things that truly need to get done, and other times they are reasonable excuses to avoid the relationship that you know your partner will honor, believe, and understand.
The motive for using exits is what makes them different from priorities. For instance, if you refuse to go on a long weekend trip with your partner because you are nervous about all that uninterrupted time together, you might say that you are uncomfortable being away from your elderly mother for three days, in case she needs something, and create that blocker in your relationship. In more extreme examples, these exits can eventually evolve into affairs, side-relationships, addictive behaviors (e.g. serial hobbies and workaholism), or other detrimental behaviors.
Some exits are emotional in nature. As dating develops, partners usually begin to share more of themselves with each other, starting with their likes, dislikes and interests, and over time, deeper experiences such as family dynamics, past losses, fears and dreams. An emotional relationship exit might look like someone who creates reasons or opportunities to avoid sharing deeper aspects of themselves, or it might look like someone who overshares early on in a subconscious effort to sabotage the relationship early on.
Some exits are disguised as conflict or even drama. When the relationship is going smoothly, the pressure of intimacy grows, and if a partner is uncomfortable with that, they may create conflict out of nothing at all. This might look like suddenly finding something wrong with the relationship that has been there all along (like an age difference, or the distance between your homes suddenly being too far). Creating this conflict or drama can result in needed space in the relationship, much like a true “exit”.
Exits are an easier way to create space than owning and communicating your true feelings. They don’t require you to talk about your fears, patterns, tendencies, or past relationship pain. They look legitimate and are often not met with a lot of resistance. Some relationships might even end because one person is creating so many exits that the other person doesn’t feel they have time for the relationship, or feel like they are not a priority in the other person’s life.
Of course, the best alternative to using relationship exits and conflict is to have an authentic heart-to-heart conversation with your partner about how you are feeling. Often though, it’s not clear to one partner or the other that they are even using exits to create space. If you find yourself using the same set of reasons for not spending time with your partner, and using alternate activities to avoid them, it might be time to examine whether this is a coping mechanism you have developed to manage your fear of intimacy or closeness.
Instead of channeling your energy and fear into that coping mechanism, instead try to channel that energy into the relationship by addressing the situation at hand with as much honesty and vulnerability as you can. Ask your partner to hold you accountable to these relationship exits or patterns to avoid intimacy as you take things slow and build trust in him or her. If you need some time for yourself, communicate that need by saying, “It’s important to me to have a weekend day to myself, and would love to see you on Friday night or Sunday.” Likewise, if your partner seems to need to a day to themselves, ask them, “I’ve noticed you have to work a lot on Saturdays, could you just use a day to yourself?” Commit to closing these exits if you are truly invested in the future of the relationship.
If you’d like to learn more about your own relationship exits and how they might be impacting your dating success, Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix Ph.D. has chapters devoted to understanding this tendency, and overcoming it. Our team at Center for Shared Insight can also help you identify and overcome these relationship patterns.