Today’s blog is about emotional unavailability, and how it relates to real life relationships.
Quite often, both with clients and friends, the topics of men, women, sex, and love come up. While we often label men as the ones who may be emotionally unavailable, women may be, too.
So why do some people seek an emotional connection, while others avoid it? Is there such a thing as emotional unavailability? Yes, yet at the same time it is not a pathological disorder by itself. It’s one way of being in the world and relating to others. How the emotional unavailable person is affected by this tendency, and how they affect others, can indicate there is a need for exploration.
It’s important to clarify that not everyone is looking for a committed relationship, or to settle down. It could be about timing, or simply that individual’s life choice. Where this gets sticky, and where people can get hurt, is when two individuals have different needs from a partner
There are two broad categories of emotional unavailability – permanent or chronic, and temporary or situational. In someone who is hardwired to build a wall around their emotions, this may have begun in childhood, as a result of a bad past relationship, as a result of low self esteem (in other words, if I don’t let you close to me, you won’t see how flawed I really am and reject me), or for any other number of reasons.
Temporary emotional unavailability may be due to a recent breakup, the death of a partner, or even something like needing to give all their attention to a work project for the time being. One reason some people may seem cut off emotionally is mental illness.
Mental health disorders, like depression, can affect a person’s ability to engage consistently, connect, or open up. Whether this is temporary or chronic depends on the person and the specific disorder.
Some signs of emotionally unavailable include
-Evasiveness or a lack of transparency – not that you need to know every move your partner makes, but they may disappear for days or weeks, they don’t follow through on plans, or they appear secretive.
-Rigidity – an emotionally unavailable person may be unwilling to bend on their structure, habits, or ways they do things. Giving up control equals vulnerability.
-Obsession with past relationships or perfection – being hung up on something unattainable gives the emotionally unavailable person a reason to remain detached and safe from opening up.
-Acting on sexual impulses early on, without an emotional connection. When the relationship gets real, the emotionally unavailable partner may start to sabotage the connection.
– Pay attention – if someone tells you they are bad at relationships, that they don’t like to talk about or even feel emotion, or they describe a pattern of unavailability and distancing in other relationships – listen to them. Chances are they are telling you the truth. That gives you the chance to slow things down and see exactly what that means as you get to know them.
Now for a quote:
You musn’t force sex to do the work of love or love to do the work of sex.
People who may not be able to connect emotionally, may still create a connection with others via physical intimacy. This may be more of a hookup than a relationship, with some of the benefit, but little commitment or emotional intimacy. This happens enough now, for both men and women, that we call it “Friends with Benefits.” For some people, depending on the place they are in their lives, this is an ideal arrangement. They are not seeking an emotional connection, and may even be actively avoiding one. For the partner who is emotionally available, hooking up can feel superficial, empty, or even demeaning. They may find feelings developing for someone who is not currently emotionally available, and may never be. If they ask for more, they may be told they are asking for too much, to stop pushing for more, or that their feelings may be returned someday. The person who is emotionally unavailable is doing what is preferable for them. So is the person who is emotionally open and vulnerable.
Sexual intimacy is not the same as emotional intimacy. They usually go hand-in-hand, but not always. This can be a painful lesson, and often this can lead to what we call the Distancer-Pursuer relationship.
So what do you do if the person you care about seems to be emotionally unavailable? First and foremost, not all relationships are meant to be. It may have more to do with incompatibility than emotional availability.
That said, the prospect of setting out to change someone who is, for whatever reason, unable to engage in an emotionally close, committed relationship, is a difficult one at best. It is easy for me to say, hey, if you are ready for a relationship, and the one you love is not, accept it and move on. Save yourself, get out the lifeboats, and row safely to shore. But when you are the one invested and hoping things can work out, it’s never that easy. What might make more sense at first is to put yourself first right now. You can’t love someone into being emotionally available if they are not ready. But you can love yourself, make sure your needs are met as much as possible, and surround yourself with people who are willingly there for you. This will start to repair your sense of self worth that may have taken a beating.
I am going to guess that the person you care for, who is emotionally unavailable, is not missing out on their own needs – they are probably doing their own thing the way they always have. Don’t put your life on hold for anyone. Stay active and involved in life.
Next, their lack of attachment to you is not your fault. And they may tell you it is! Unless you behave like something out of the movie Fatal Attraction, in most relationships people connect and even reciprocate. Wanting to feel connected to someone you care about is not clingy, or needy, or pathological. Again, neither is their way of being in the world. It just is what it is.
Acceptance is your best bet in coping, and focusing on understanding and meeting your own needs. If you need to reach out for professional support, I can tell you that this is not an uncommon reason people seek therapy – to heal when people are on such different pages that their relationships don’t work out.
Thank you for reading, and I welcome your comments. I have included a short quiz about emotional unavailability for anyone interested.
Are You Emotionally Unavailable? 10 Questions to Ask Yourself
Be honest with yourself about your own emotional availability.
- Are you angry at the opposite sex? Do you like jokes at their expense? If so, you may need to heal from past wounds before you’re comfortable getting close to someone.
- Do you make excuses to avoid getting together?
- Do you think you’re so independent you don’t need anyone?
- Do you fear falling in love because you may get hurt?
- Are you always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Although people complain about their problems, many have even more difficulty accepting the good.
- Are you distrustful? Maybe you’ve been betrayed or lied to in the past and now look for it in everyone.
- Do you avoid intimacy by filling quiet times with distractions?
- Are you uncomfortable talking about yourself and your feelings? Do you have secrets you’re ashamed of that make you feel undesirable or unlovable?
- Do you usually like to keep your options open in case someone better comes along?
- Do you fear a relationship may place too many expectations on you, that you’d give up your independence or lose your autonomy?