Approach-Avoidance Conflict

An approach-avoidance conflict is a special and compound case of conditioning. It exists when the same condition has become a conditioned stimulus for both pleasure (approach) and pain (avoidance). In human affairs it is usually other people that become this type of stimulus. This is at root a biological dilemma that affects the arousal and autonomic systems. There are four elememnts that will be active simultaneously: the approach conditioning, the inhibition of the approach conditioning. the avoidance conditioning, and inhibition of the avoidance conditioning. This is never a stable situation, it relies on precariously balancing and constant management of one's exposure to the stimulus. When the balance begins to fail great upset usually erupt in the emotional equillibrium. Where approach-avoidance conflicts exist, arousal is usually kept high.

This is more than a mixture of likeable and unlikeable which can be averaged into a medium or lukewarm attraction for the stimulus. It is the coexistence of two strong drives that actually increases the strength of each. Decision making is very problematical and choices take on survival importance. Partial steps, compromise, and the option of later changing one's mind seem unavailable. A common example is an adult child returning to his or her childhood home for a holiday dinner, where there has been a history of humiliation at dinner but of course pleasure has transpired at past diners as well. Such an adult child is often driven crazy at such an occaision even when nothing unexpected happens.

The parent child relationship often has approach-avoidance elements. The family therapy concepts of enmeshment and cutoff are examples of attempts to manage it. Most intimate partner violence is driven by an approach avoidance conflict in the primary aggressor that is highly sexualized.