Avoiding our family: Cowardly or courageous?

Whether we are 14 or 40, we have avoided sharing certain bits of information with members of our family. Why do we do this?  Who does it benefit? Do we withhold information or avoid the same topics when we are teenagers as when we are adults?  What kind of impact do these choices have on our relationships?

Most of the research on topic avoidance has studied dating or married partners.  The reasons why one might choose to avoid certain hot button items often then relate to feelings of uncertainty about the relationship – if I bring up this topic what will my partner think of me, will he wonder whether to stay in the relationship? These reasons have been summarized as self protection (from embarrassment or vulnerability), relationship protection (maintain strength, avoid deterioration), conflict prevention, partner unresponsiveness, lack of closeness, and privacy concerns (Caughlin & Afifi, 2004).

The few studies that have examined topic avoidance in younger cohorts, particularly between adolescents and their parents, noted a connection to feelings about privacy rather than uncertainty. Adolescents tended to avoid topics on relationship issues, dating experiences, negative life experiences, friendship issues, sexual experiences, and social inappropriateness (Guerrero & Afifi, 1995).

But what do we do when we are older? We know that family rules factor into our decisions about personal information – when are we to be open and share, when are we to remain silent and private, what do we tell to everyone and what do we tell to no one. But how does this really play out? Do the rules of the game change as we get older, and, therefore, so do the things we avoid?

When we are younger, our reasons for avoiding certain topics often have to do with protecting ourselves and our private lives. However, as we grow older, our rationale may change to that of protecting our aging parents – protecting their feelings of independence, assuring their role as head of the family, protecting their ideals of family life, or sheltering them from upsetting family news.

However, there will become a point, usually through accident, injury or illness, that these once avoided topics come to the forefront. And as much as we may want to continue pushing aside these topics, we have to remember that avoidance ultimately harms our relationships and our personal well-being. Avoidance can make you sick. Don’t be like the Cowardly Lion. Just have a little heart!

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