Experiential avoidance is a term, used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), that refers to the mental acts or behaviors that we perform in order to stay away from feelings or thoughts that we don’t like. For example, it you have a feelings that you don’t like, such as sadness, you are likely to try to find a way to get rid of that feeling. Along with this feeling, you are likely to also experience a range of thoughts such as, “I shouldn’t be upset,” or “Just snap out of it.” What people often do next is to try to avoid whatever it is that may be upsetting them. It makes sense, right? If something feels bad then we just stay away from it and then we can feel good and happy all the time.
Any chance you see a problem here? The challenge lies in the fact that “negative” feelings are a part of our experience as humans. No matter what we do, we are going to have to come in contact with the full range of emotions that we are capable of feeling. So why do we do avoid negative or uncomfortable emotions? Because we are told all the time that we should just do what feels good. All you need to do is to turn on the television to see, that as a culture, we value being happy and are given a multitude of ways to buy our way into that feeling. Relationships are no different.
According to Walser and Westrup (2009), the “story” that society gives us for what a good relationship can be explained like this: “A good relationship is a happy relationship. And a happy relationship is one in which you feel happy, your partner feels happy, your family is happy about your happiness, and even the dog is happy!” Walser and Westrup (2009) go on to say that, “Good relationships aren’t about being happy. They’re about vitality and about manifesting life to its fullest within the relationship.” So what does this mean? It means that you and your partner will feel the happy feelings such as joy, pleasure and love as well as pain, sadness, anger, fear, anxiety and more. This means that in order to be in a successful relationship, we need to be willing to work with our partners as we we travel the myriad of human emotions.
You may ask, What happens if we just stay in the happy, honeymoon phase forever? Well, there are a few problems with that. The first, is that these negative feelings give us valuable information. If you forget that you were sad, angry and hurt when someone in your past did something that upset you, then you may find that you allow people back into your life that may treat you that same way again. A simple example relates to the feeling of anxiety. Without the mechanism that creates anxiety, humans would never have survived because we would have lost that famous “fight or flight” response that has protected our species since the beginning of our existence and has helped us escape basic threats to our well-being such as predators or dangerous situations.
Another problem is that we cannot experience the good without the bad. A classic example is that with love comes pain. In order to truly love someone, you will feel the pain of losing them at some point. If you have ever met a couple who has been together 50 or more years, you can see that they know this deeply. Hilary Stanton Zunin says it best when she explains that, “The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief. But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love.” So, we learn that in order to really experience the wonder it is to feel this deep human experience that we call love, we must be willing to also feel the pain of loss.
In addition, we know that we cannot go back and undo something that has happened. This means that you can’t erase hurt feelings once they have been felt. So, despite your best efforts to forget that you felt sadness when you broke up with your first love or that you were hurt when your partner forgot an anniversary or some fact or event that was important to you, it is impossible to do so. These experiences are part of what make you who you are and they influence the choices that you make.
Like experiences, our thoughts also cannot be erased. So, once you have the thought that something was hurtful you can’t simply unthink it. If you say to yourself, “She is so inconsiderate.” You aren’t going to forget that. It is actually more helpful to just observe it. You can then either accept it and move on or you can take some time to challenge the thought because you know that it was just a quick reaction that doesn’t really reflect your overall opinion.
So where does this leave us? The most important thing to take away is that being in a relationship means experiencing the ups and downs. This does not mean that you have to stay in an unhappy partnership. What it does mean is that you don’t have to beat yourself (or your partner) up because you may be struggling. Simply start by thinking about whether this is the person that you want to be with in both the good moments and the hard ones. If so, then it can help to simply be mindful and notice what kind of moments you may be having at different times throughout the day or week.
As we move forward in this series, we will begin to use the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to begin to explore how focusing on your values, accepting yourself and your partner, being more open and present and committing to what is most important to you, can help to create a more meaningful connection in your relationship.
Dr. Stephanie Davidson is a licensed, clinical health psychologist and co-founder of the Rowan Center for Behavioral Medicine specializing in the use of cognitive-behavioral, humanistic and existential approaches to treat patients with a range of medical and mental health challenges. She has a strong interest in acceptance and commitment therapy and other mindfulness-based interventions to heal the body and mind. Her focus is on collaboration with the goal of assisting patients in adjusting to difficult experiences and achieving a greater sense of well-being, balance and peace in their lives.
Walser, R. D. & Westrup, D. (2009). The Mindful Couple: how acceptance and mindfulness can lead to the love you want. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.