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Ambiguous loss: Avoidance and withdrawal

Topics: Couples, Family, Mental Health

Avoidant behaviours

After exposure to a stressful event, those affected may try to avoid related emotions. This is how they cope with trauma. A person might immerse themselves in an activity, shut down, or engage in substance abuse to escape their feelings. These are avoidant behaviours. People affected by trauma might also respond by withdrawing from family and friends. They might spend more time alone and turn down opportunities to socialize. Withdrawal behaviours include irritability, reduced communication, and limited involvement in family life. The give and take of both emotional and practical support are limited when a family member engages in behaviours related to avoidance and withdrawal.

Avoidance + withdrawal = Ambiguous loss

Impacts of avoidance and withdrawal on the family

When substance use, gambling, infidelity, or other vices are used to cope with trauma, SSOs can experience sadness, anger, jealousy, and/or depression. Poor communication can put the couple relationship at risk.


When PSP avoid and withdraw from family life, family members, especially SSOs, are burdened with added responsibilities. There may be significantly more demands on their time which can lead to role overload.

Over time, PSP families report that they have learned the signs and symptoms of a ‘bad call’. They know what to pay attention to and adjust their expectations. Sometimes these behaviours are isolated and manageable.


Family members can experience feelings of anger and resentment. These feelings arise from lack of intimacy and trust. Both physical and emotional distance and unpredictable involvement in family life strain relationships.

References for this page (click to expand)

Beks, T. (2016). Walking on eggshells: the lived experience of partners of Veterans with PTSD. The Qualitative Report 21(4):645-660. https://doi.org/10.46743/2160-3715/2016.2269  

Dekel, R., Levinstein, Y., Siegel, A., Fridkin, S., & Svetlitzky, V. (2016). Secondary traumatization of partners of war veterans: the role of boundary ambiguity. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(1), 63-71. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000163  

Miller, L. (2007). Police families: Stresses, syndromes, and solutions. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 35(1), 21-40. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180600698541  

Porter, K. L., & Henriksen, R. C. (2016). The phenomenological experience of first responder spouses. The Family Journal (Alexandria, Va.), 24(1), 44-51. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480715615651  

Regehr, C., Dimitropoulos, G., Bright, E., George, S., & Henderson, J. (2005). Behind the brotherhood: Rewards and challenges for wives of firefighters. Family Relations, 54(3), 423-435. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2005.00328.x  

Taft, C. T., Watkins, L. E., Stafford, J., Street, A. E., & Monson, C. M. (2011). Posttraumatic stress disorder and intimate relationship problems: a meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 79(1), 22.  

Waddell, E., Lawn, S., Roberts, L., Henderson, J., Venning, A., & Redpath, P. (2020). “Why do you stay?”: The lived‐experience of partners of Australian veterans and first responders with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Health & Social Care in the Community, 28(5), 1734-1742. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.12998  

Watkins, S. L., Shannon, M. A., Hurtado, D. A., Shea, S. A., & Bowles, N. P. (2021). Interactions between home, work, and sleep among firefighters. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 64(2), 137-148. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajim.23194  

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