Relational Evasion and Emotional Opacity
When I engage with families and couples as a therapist, I always emphasize the importance of emotional honesty and I’ve become accustomed to a few eye-rolls when emotional honesty is first discussed: “I get it, it’s better to be honest than to lie, that’s just being a decent person…” but to understand what is actually at stake when practicing emotional honesty, it’s important to recognize what is not emotionally honest. By looking at what emotional honesty is not, we can dive past those surface-level definitions of relationships to appreciate the full depth of relational commitment to our partners that requires emotional honesty.
We hear so much about “relationships” that we often don’t think about what relationality even means. We take it for granted as a simple, intuitive state of life—as “having a partner” or “being married”—when it’s really about the foundations of our engagement with others.
For something to be relational, two or more elements must both define themselves in connection to one another. Sometimes, we might be in a relationship without truly embracing and acknowledging the relational, reciprocal nature of being with another person. When this happens, we engage in relational evasion and become stuck in a state of emotional opacity.
RELATIONAL EVASION IS WHEN WE UNCONSCIOUSLY AND UNINTENTIONALLY AVOID COMMUNICATION IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS, IT IS THE SHADOW SIDE OF EMOTIONAL HONESTY.
It is a choice that we don’t realize is a choice: it simply doesn’t occur to us to speak honestly, often because feelings of discomfort or danger tell us it isn’t safe to speak up. When we don’t recognize that we are inadvertently evading emotional engagement, we contribute to our own emotional opacity.
Our partner does not have immediate access to our innermost thoughts and feelings—this is a normal part of being a unique, subjective human being. Rather than making our feelings and needs explicit through skillful feedback, emotional opacity buries our own perspective beneath our surface reactions, severing opportunities to help our partners understand how we relate to their actions (and vice versa). When we truncate these opportunities to communicate, we cannot create a shared reality with our partner that we both inhabit and value—losing out on opportunities for relational harmony and attunement.
But why do we struggle with evasion and opacity if they are so detrimental to the healthy, mutual understanding that makes relationships flourish?
In many cases someone doesn’t feel safe being emotionally honest, which often doesn’t have anything to do with the other person. When we are unfamiliar with emotional transparency and positive reception to our feelings, we may perpetuate opaqueness in order to feel safe and secure.
EVASION IS NOT CRUELTY, NOR IS IT EXCLUSIVE TO UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS.
It’s important to emphasize that evasion covers a very wide range of actions and emotions, it isn’t an accusation of toxic or intentionally harmful behavior. While evasion and opaqueness can compound problems in a relationship, they are not equivalent to outright contempt.
The instincts that drive evasive behavior often emerge from encounters with truly damaging communication styles, identified by John Gottman’s four horsemen of relationships. While relational evasion can intensify unhealthy practices like defensiveness or stonewalling, they aren’t the same: evasiveness is an unconscious or semi unconscious decision that prevents us from expressing our own thoughts and feelings, not an intentional attempt to shut down or belittle someone else. Evasion can and does occur in healthy relationships.
The choice of the term “evade” is intentional: we often learn to flinch or dodge intuitively, without thinking, based on our bodies’ sensory experiences. This is a healthy but maladaptive attempt to be invulnerable. Researchers such as Brené Brown have shown that vulnerability is our friend, even though we may resist it because it feels uncomfortable.
It isn’t malicious to try and protect yourself, but relying solely on those defensive instincts can get us into trouble. Emotional opacity might make us feel like we’re in an unchangeable state, a situation where we don’t have any choice, when we actually have the opportunity to make decisions that elevate our relationships.
WE CAN PREVENT EVASIVENESS AND OPACITY BY INDICATING WHEN SOMETHING IS WRONG OR NEEDS TO BE ADDRESSED.
Imagine you’re driving down a familiar road. You’ve traveled it a million-and-one times before and know every turn, every driveway. It feels comfortable and certain to be going down this road, even as you keep your eyes open for pedestrians, street signs, and crosswalks. Then, suddenly, the car in front of you starts moving to the side of the road without using an indicator! You weren’t prepared!
Suddenly, the flow of traffic is totally disturbed, and you have to make a split-second decision based on someone else’s behavior that you don’t understand. You might be worried about the driver, but you also probably feel annoyed. You don’t know if they need help, if they didn’t see you, or if they just made a mistake.
This is what it feels like when our partners are being evasive: we don’t know how to understand their behavior or communicate effectively with them. On the surface, they might be saying everything is fine, but their behavior suggests that there’s a problem they’re trying to swerve around. It might be a faraway look in their eyes, a strained tone in their voice, or a text that doesn’t get a response. A subtle miscommunication in a conversation goes unaddressed, or a rupture is left unacknowledged, obscuring opportunities to work towards mutual understanding and repair in our relationships.
Here’s the thing: the driver who didn’t use their turn signal may have had a legitimate reason for suddenly getting off the road, but without engaging with the other drivers around them and making explicit the actions they are taking, their behavior appears unclear, unmotivated, and unpredictable. We only see the opaque surface of the vehicle, not the intentions or needs of the driver inside.
WE DON’T HAVE TO IMMEDIATELY JUMP INTO A DEEP, ENGAGED CONVERSATION TO ENGAGE IN MEANINGFUL COMMUNICATION.
When we notice ourselves behaving evasively, there are actions we can take to be a little more vulnerable. Sometimes, like a good driver, we can simply indicate that we need to pull over and reassess the situation. A simple statement about how we perceive others’ actions or words transforms opacity into transparency.
When we say, “I think I’m misunderstanding you, may I say how I’m interpreting this?” or “I feel defensive because of the tone you are using, I need to calm down before we keep talking,” we act with honest intentions and make the conversation more diplomatic.
This is a skill that I like to call dissenting: the ability to respectfully and diplomatically interrupt the conversation to acknowledge where there is a disconnect. With proper dissenting, we can identify simple miscommunication, and we can engage fruitfully in the rupture and repair process that builds healthy relationships.
Are you feeling ready to practice the skills of transparent communication and dissent? I’ve compiled a PDF workbook on rupture and repair complete with examples and exercises that you can practice to build your relational skill set. This is a passion project that has condensed my entire approach and the lessons I’ve learned into an accessible resource that anyone can apply at any stage of their relationship. If you’re ready to practice conscious, transparent feedback in your relationships, then check out the Rupture and Repair workbook.