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Emotional Unavailability: An Introduction

Posted Dec 28 2009 12:00am


Emotional unavailability can be devastating to everyone touched by it. People often mistakenly understand it as a ploy on the part of the emotionally unavailable person to use others, or to get without giving, and while it is true that some of that may happen at times, it is also true that it consistently undermines the existence of the one who suffers from it, and consequently wraps its painful tentacles around those who are in the life of that person.

In the series of articles since the inception of my newsletter (subscribe here at no cost), and the many posts on my blog, among a number of other topics, specifically with regards to our relationships, I’ve written about:
but the enormously problematic topic of emotional unavailability has only been touched upon slightly in some of these articles, and in one brief column written several years ago: Leaving your Comfort Zone: Fear of Emotional Expression.

Yet it’s a subject fraught with pain and difficulty, potentially more so for the person on the receiving end of an emotionally unavailable partner or parent or friend, but also on the side of the individual who “plays” out the role of the emotionally unavailable person, as they too, can suffer tremendously from it.

Defining the Emotionally Unavailable Person

How can we define the emotionally unavailable person? These are individuals who are:
  • cut off from their own emotions and emotional processes
  • cut off from others’ emotions and their emotional processes
  • very disconnected from the emotional content of their lives 
Let’s take a closer look at all of these points.

Cut Off From Their Own Emotional Process

Imagine that a friend or a partner abandons you, either out of the blue, or after an argument, and has now disappeared from your life. Imagine that you feel that you did not deserve such treatment. Clearly, you would experience feelings of hurt, disappointment, pain, sorrow, and so on. You might also feel angry and indignant.

The emotionally unavailable person, however, would not only not acknowledge most of these feelings, but would probably say that the whole thing is not really that important, or that it was just as well that it happened. In other words, they would have little recognition of these feelings swirling around inside of them. They might complain of gastric upset, or a headache, or back pain, or knee discomfort, or unexplained difficulties in walking, or any other manifestation that shows that the process went into their body due to it not being acknowledged on the emotional level.

On the other hand, if this person has begun a relationship with someone, and they notice that they are thinking about the other person a lot, and that they enjoy spending time with the other person, and that somehow the sun shines more brightly when they are around the other person, they would not interpret this as the beginning of love, the way many other individuals might, but would perhaps say, after a brief time of enjoying the “warm sunshine” of the other’s presence: you’re crowding me, or I need more space, or we need to cool it for a while, or I don’t know how you do it, but you’re really maneuvering yourself into my life, or this is going too quickly for me, or simply I really don’t want a relationship, or I always said I didn’t want a commitment (although they may often marry or cohabit, but although they may share bed and house, they rarely share themselves.

Clearly, the emotionally unavailable person is saying this because they are beginning to feel discomfort in the presence of the other person because they are unable to handle the surge of their own emotions in connection to the other person. This is not conscious, nor is this done or said from a position of nastiness or miserliness, much that it may often appear to be that. This is, in actual fact, a defense mechanism, learned, in all likelihood, in childhood, to safeguard the child against hurt from people he/she had loved and who somehow drastically let him down. Sometimes this letting down happens only in the perception of the child.

Early childhood attachment studies (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970) indicate that abandonment by the parents, and particularly by the mother, creates much greater problems with later emotional availability than even physical abuse. Abandonment, logically, does not only mean a totally absent parent, but also a parent who disappears for a period of time in the early life of the infant (especially during the first 12-18 months of life), such as those children whose parents must leave them in hospital, or some kind of institution and are not able to visit frequently. Nevertheless, the experience, whether it truly happened, or was only perceived, or happened for totally innocent reasons (the child’s life had to be saved by hospitalizing it) carries enormous weight in the adult and with his or her relationships with persons of the opposite sex (or the same gender in the case of gay relationships).

Cut Off From Others’ Emotional Processes

It follows that the emotionally unavailable person has not a clue about the state of another person’s emotions, even when faced with that person’s tears or recriminations, or pain, which may be totally evident to others, but not necessarily to the emotionally unavailable person. In the face of these emotions in the other person, the emotionally unavailable person often feels put upon, burdened with an onerous duty, that he or she mainly wants to escape from, because it feels far too heavy, and heavy often feels dangerous. That makes for a very difficult relationship, to say the least.

Disconnected From the Emotional Content of Their Lives

Despite the disconnection from the emotional content of their lives, emotionally unavailable persons might be connected to bits of it with those people they do not feel threatened by. For example: they may be very loving and tender to the children – especially the very young children - of other people, or very caring and tender to other people’s partners (in the right way, not in the wrong way, i.e. as good and supportive friends). Or they may have a deeply caring relationship with a pet, or be very much into caring for plants, gardening, and so on.

But the connection to their own emotional content is generally non-existent.

I repeat, emotional unavailability tends not to be conscious. The emotionally unavailable person spends an enormous amount of psychological energy maintaining the “wolves at bay”. In order not to have to deal with their own emotions, their defense mechanisms have become automatic, and spring up, the way a bridge over a castle moat springs up to prevent intruders from approaching too closely. It is only when this process becomes conscious, that the emotionally unavailable person is in a position to do something about it, and this person may fight hand and foot in order to not become aware. They may insist that they don’t want to leave their comfort zone, or that they never wanted a commitment, and shrug their shoulders and leave it at that, never having come any closer to a conscious realization of their inner scarring and crippled spirit (see also Scars).

Sexuality

Often – but not always - the emotionally unavailable person is also unavailable sexually, or, if they have made some outward commitment, such as sharing a home, or having a child with the partner, they may withdraw emotionally and sexually, finding it far too emotionally taxing to be engaged on more than one level…in this case, simply living together is enough. Becoming distant from one’s partner or not being sexually responsive are also ways of cutting off genuine relating. This is a long topic, and I will write a separate article about it at a future date.

What if you’re the Partner of the Emotionally Unavailable Person?

What does emotional unavailability tell you about you if you are with an emotionally unavailable partner? And how can you deal with it?

There have probably been issues with the parents and unmet or disappointed emotions on your part, leaving you feeling bereft and alone, like an abandoned child. You may have learned a dysfunctional model of love, where love was never freely given. This in turn may have created a deep well of neediness, neediness, neediness, and more neediness, which in turn caused you to have a lack of boundaries…please step all over me, just as long as you love me. This is implicit in a lack of self-respect, self-worth, self-love, etc., and there tends to be a desire to fuse or merge with a new partner almost immediately. Frequently there is a loss of identity, and of course one tends to be addicted to the partner which implies withdrawal symptoms of the worst kind if and when the partner leaves.

This process is also unconscious. What the person with this aspect of dysfunctionality is aware of, is the pain. But he or she interprets the pain as the fault of the partner, the emotionally unavailable partner, because he/she is not behaving the way this person would like him to behave. Consequently, blame is placed firmly on the shoulders of the emotionally unavailable person by the partner who is not getting what he wants, and hence this partner does not become aware of his own need to clear up the issue of neediness and lack of boundaries and lack of real meaning in the life.

Whether the emotionally unavailable person is behaving “properly” or not from an emotional point of view, is actually not the point, because it is not a question of “fixing” the emotionally unavailable partner. Yes, it is true that those issues need to be worked on, but it is also the partner who feels rejected or feels that the other is cold and unemotional, who needs to take a good look at the reasons he or she is attracted over and over again into situations of this nature (also see the Neediness article mentioned above). It may mean, that as you work on yourself in order to resolve these issues, you may need to get out of the relationship, and get out fast! Again, this is a long topic, and I will write a separate article about it at a future date.

What Can the Emotionally Unavailable Person Do?

This depends in great measure on the person’s desire to change. Sometimes clients come in saying that they want to be able to offer more to their partner; that they are aware of the fact that they give so little in the emotional arena, that they are somehow stunted, even crippled (see Scars above) and that they want to be done with that. This is really the first step: becoming aware. As you become aware, you begin to look at the fear and the pain – both your own and that of your partner. All of this requires a great deal of self-honesty and that is never easy, especially if you are used to hiding behind your defenses that you have perfected and honed over the years.

At this point it helps if you decide to make use of that ability that we all have but don’t always invoke: our right to choose at every moment of every day, and in every situation of any kind. So we can choose our reactions, our actions, our thoughts, and our words and gestures, but we must remember to remain aware for this to have a hope of happening. We can also choose to change what we feel. I know that sounds almost impossible, but it’s not. However, it is a topic (once again) for another article (see also Making Choices: Taking Responsibility For Our Lives). Choosing to choose to behave differently is one of the most powerful tools for change in the life of the emotionally unavailable person.

Then do what you would do for any new skill you wish to perfect: practice, practice, practice (it may not make perfect immediately, but it will make you change very quickly, at least some of the time). Observe your body at all times…use the mind-body communication service! (see also The Energy Barometer, Make Your Mind Body Connection Work For You). Finally, don’t expect to climb Mount Everest in a day: be good to yourself taking the first small steps, forgive yourself for mistakes you are bound to make, and remember, the child who is learning how to walk may appear to fall frequently, and just not put it all together into a cohesive whole – until one day, he not only no longer falls, but is walking perfectly, as though it had formed part of his repertoire all of his life. The same goes for you. Want it, believe it, and do it.

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