EXITS: How and Why We Avoid Intimacy
By Carol A. Anderson and Carole Kirby
Here are some questions couples need to ask themselves:
1. Why do we "perforate" our relationships with Exits?
2. What are some of the ways we use to avoid each other?
3. What can we do to gradually change this dynamic in our relationship?
To one degree or another, most couples in the Power Struggle structure their lives in such a way that true intimacy is
virtually impossible. The differing ways couples find to do this is often ingenious. Sometimes the things they do seem "natural"
or unavoidable because they are frequently in denial about why they don't spend more time with one another. Most often,
however, couples are not really conscious about why they do what they do. On the other hand, some are fully conscious of
why they seem to "need" to distance from each other. Whether they are aware of their motivation or not, in Imago Relationship
Therapy we call this dynamic "taking an Exit."
One definition of an Exit is "any behavior that acts out a feeling, rather than expressing it verbally." An Exit is an unfortunate
way of trying solve problems in a relationship. An Exit drains energy from the relationship which in turn contributes to
further disconnection and perpetuation of the Power Struggle. In his book, Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix,
Ph.D. describes this substitute need gratification as being like a hungry cow stretching its neck over a fence to munch on
green grass. Partners look elsewhere for gratification. This way of trying to solve relationship issues inevitably fails, and
can lead to misery, affairs, and/or divorce.
There are many conscious and unconscious reasons partners avoid each other, seldom spending quality, private time
together. However, continuing to practice these behaviors ultimately drains so much energy from their relationship, that, like
a balloon with a tiny leak in it, the relationship will eventually go completely flat! In our society "flat relationships" usually lead
to divorce. So, closing Exits is crucial to ending the Power Struggle and creating a vital and passionate relationship.
There are some problems with closing Exits, however. One problem is that, with good intention, you may attempt to close
an Exit too rapidly, simply by stopping the behavior. This seldom works, because the root of the problem has not been
addressed. Usually another Exit opens in its place, often equally or even more detrimental.
Some partners focus on identifying each other's Exits, then criticizing and nagging once they have been determined. Partners
need to know that this behavior not only reinforces the Power Struggle, but is an Exit in and of itself. Partners only use
Exits when feeling unsafe, unloved or some form of the worthlessness we call self-hatred. Therefore, if your partner's Exits
are nagged, criticized, or complained about, they will only open wider. Please understand that both of you have been
trying your best to solve a problem in your relationship that you haven't known how to solve otherwise. These very same
Exits probably worked well for you as children, helping you to emotionally survive childhood; however, now they are
sabotaging getting your deeper needs met for safety, connection, and intimacy.
Even though it may be difficult to do so, it is important that you both learn to respect and honor each other's Exits, as
well as remember that you have been trying to protect yourselves from the pain perceived coming from each other.
Stay in Dialogue about your deepest pain at the root of your own Exits. This mutual process allows each of you to see
how you sabotage your own needs creating more of the same pain you are attempting to avoid with your Exits. It is only
with validation and empathy that partners feel safe enough to begin to close Exits. Meanwhile, each of you can work on
becoming a source of Love and Safety for your partner. This mutual process deepens yours and your partner's
vulnerability and empathy thereby creating feelings of safety, trust, and respect. As both of you work toward creating a
Conscious Relationship and provide your partner with increased safety and love, each partner's Exits will gradually close.
You will move closer to a more satisfying, safe and passionate relationship, one you can trust has a solid foundation.
Source: Information adapted from Chapter 7, "Closing Your Exits", Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for
Couples" by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. We also wish to acknowledge the contributions and years of combined effort of
many Imago Therapists.
Looking at Ways I Avoid Intimacy
Carol Anderson & Carole Kirby
Complete the following in Dialogue. (Mirror each statement and then validate and empathize at the close. )
1. One exit I use is __________ when____________________ (describe behaviors occurring in the relationship.)
2. The core pain that I am trying to avoid by using this exit is feeling ________________________________________
3. and what that reminds me of when I was a child is (tell the story) ________________________________________
4. By using this exit, I sacrifice my deeper need of ______________________________________________________
5. which leaves me feeling ______________________________________________________
6. What hurts me about using this exit is ______________________________________________________
7. What hurts you about my exit is ______________________________________________________
8. What hurts our relationship & others in our family about my exit is ________________________________________
9. If I continue to use this exit, ultimately it will lead to ___________________________________________________
10. What I could do instead is ___________ and dialogue my deepest pain of feeling ___________________________
Note: Doing this exercise on each of your own personal Exits will help you understand how you are sabotaging your needs
and contributing to a cycle of pain and disillusionment. If you "dig" down to the root of each statement above, and if you
are totally honest with yourself and your partner, you will likely discover that you have inadvertently only created more of the
same feelings that you were trying to avoid by using that Exit. While Terminal Exits must be closed immediately, if you close
other Exits too quickly, another may open in its place. Instead, each partner must substitute positive behaviors for their
original Exit behavior. Owning your Exits and dialoguing about your desires and deepest hurt will create the possibility
for lasting change and intimacy. By doing the above, the Exits will gradually close and intimacy will be established.