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Understanding the Emotionally Unavailable
Those in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner often find themselves in conflict with the partner, or at the very least frustrated or confused. However, few understand what causes such emotional unavailability, much less how to reach out to connect.
The person who is emotionally unavailable rarely realises the pain and confusion caused to the very person they want to hurt the least. But they see their emotions as negative or unnecessary and internalise them to the extent that they become unaware of their own feelings or needs beyond the physical.
When this occurs it becomes impossible for them to understand or empathise with what another person is feeling, hence they are emotionally unavailable to those around them. Not surprisingly, emotionally unavailable people can be more interested in the act of sex than sexual intimacy, which in turn can make their partner feel like an object.
An emotionally unavailable person is incapable of tuning in the subtext and subtleties which surround us all. They cannot identify with, much less validate, the feelings of others. And even in the early stages of rediscovering their feelings and emotions they can be unwilling to share or disclose them for fear this might make them vulnerable, exposed or judged.
This is especially true of people (often women) who are perfectionists and people pleasers. They are easily embarrassed and highly invested in what others think about them. Others can be very insecure within themselves and unable to trust in their relationships.
It is also true of those who are high achievers and fiercely competitive, where winning is all important and losing/failure is not an option (usually men). These individuals, tend to keep conversation superficial, only showing passion or conviction when it is derived from an intellectual or academic basis. They may use flattery, anger, avoidance, arrogance and control to emotionally distance themselves from others. Outwardly such a person may appear to be self-sufficient, strong, stable, steadfast and seen to be confident but they tend to lack empathy.
Emotionally unavailable people have emotional obstacles in their lives that can often make them overly critical of themselves and others. They are frequently cynical and very negative about life in general. If a person close to you is always critical of you, there is a good chance this person is also overly self-critical and unable to connect emotionally. These people need to first get in touch with their own feelings before they are able to share feelings with their partner.
All emotionally unavailable people have bouts of anxiety and/or depression but usually unknown to them because they are so unaware of their feelings. Anxiety is about fear, and fear is one of the root causes of an emotionally unavailability: fear of intimacy, fear of being overwhelmed, fear of being hurt, fear of being judged, irrational fear of death and/or fear of being exposed as less than who they portray themselves to be. When we look deeper into the emotionally unavailable person they have almost always experienced feelings of toxic shame, feelings of not being good enough, feelings of inadequacy or simply or feelings of being bad.
Babies, regardless of gender, are born with a full range of emotions. At birth none of us are emotionally unavailable, unless we are born with severe disabilities (and even then babies may possess emotions). Parents who are themselves emotionally available are able to guide their progeny, regulating their emotions by tuning into those of their offspring. Unfortunately, there are increasing incidences of parents being unable to perform something we may consider primal or natural. The reasons for this can vary from post natal depression to how the parent was parented in their own family.
Children who grow up in chaotic homes, where emotions are acted out as conflict, can repress their emotions or emotionally shut down completely. On the other hand, children who grow up in homes where expressing emotions is unacceptable or viewed as a sign of weakness can equally disconnect from or repress their natural emotions. Other causes of emotional unavailability in adulthood include childhood neglect and childhood abuse or trauma.
Being in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable can be both frustrating and painful. And lonely. A healthy intimate relationship, by its very nature, requires emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy is emotional connection. Emotional connection requires a partner to attune to the emotions of the other. Partners of emotionally unavailable people can feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated, unwanted and unloved.
It is not at all uncommon for an emotionally unavailable person to send mixed signals. While they may express a desire or need to be close their actions are contradictory. Even when closeness is experienced they may pull away or shut down, creating distance once more. Shutting down emotionally is usually a defence or protective mechanism. But this frequently leaves their partner experiencing self-doubt, anxiety or worse, feeling they have been rejected or abandoned.
But emotionally unavailable people can change. In my practice we see many such clients and they claim that seeing us for counselling and psychotherapy has for the first time enabled them to get in touch with their emotions, truly trust in someone (their therapist) and finally become able to fully engage in their relationships with loved ones. In short the process of being in a therapeutic relationship with their therapist allows an emotionally unavailable person to experience, perhaps for the first time, how safe, rewarding, fulfilling and comforting it is to be emotionally available and present.