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Sometimes, it can be hard to get through.
You almost definitely know someone you can’t connect with, even when you get along with them well. While you might eventually think they’re out to hurt you or let you down, they may also be going through plenty of their own hurt.
You may even be that person, growing tired of fleeting connections and keeping parts of yourself hidden from view. It may be getting harder to work in teams at your job or stick to coffee dates with friends. You might not speak to your closest friends for months at a time.
It can be a little tricky to notice when people are dealing with emotional unavailability and struggling to commit to deep, long-term relationships.
They might seem like they’re having a great time, telling jokes and going out a lot. But that’s part of what might be getting between them and significant connections with others.
Dodging meaningful connections can have a ripple effect that extends far beyond your love life.
It can affect family ties, friendships, and professional development, as well as your overall experience of being a human. And although cats are far, far better, we’re stuck with being human for now. It makes sense to maximize your joy.
If you’ve ever had a parent who could talk about the inside of their car or house for hours but won’t ask how you are, you’ll know emotional unavailability like the back of your hand.
So, whether you’ve encountered someone with the issue or it’s become part of your own emotional arsenal, this article will help you find out the causes, effects, and steps for countering people who won’t let others in.
“Emotional unavailability” describes a person who’s evasive, avoids meeting up, or simply doesn’t like to talk about their feelings or relationships.
That person might also have difficulties with the following:
- trusting people
- bursts of anger
- forming and honoring commitments
- keeping a stable relationship going
These all suggest a person who is keeping intimacy at arm’s length.
Still, on the surface, emotionally unavailable people can appear to be very stable, says Elisabeth Mandel, LMFT, a relationship therapist based in Manhattan.
“But if you can tell they are resisting changing emotional states, or they don’t have a lot of range, then there’s something threatening to them about emotions,” Mandel says.
Although films and TV often rather insensitively portray emotional unavailability as a person trying to hold it together (hello, “Trainwreck”), it’s ultimately about control.
“It’s sort of protection or defense from feeling hurt,” says Megan Fleming, PhD, a sex and relationship therapist.
Emotionally unavailable folks are fiercely independent: They may not feel like they need anyone.
This may explain why your cat keeps sitting on a shelf, pushing off glass objects while staring at you the whole time. (And you still feed them. See, being a cat is better!) People can be the same.
To protect themselves from rejection, Fleming says these individuals retreat to their island of restricted emotions. But when someone cuts off half the spectrum of their emotional range, it comes at the cost of joy, excitement, and depth of connection in relationships.
If relationships are becoming a thorn in your side, read our guide on holding them together. It takes changing one letter to turn bad into bae.
You may feel comfortable enough with someone else to fart in the same room. But without being able to open up to each other, you might as well just be farting in a train full of strangers.
It can be hard to draw the line between “That’s just how they are!” and “They might actually need my support.” Is “emotionally unavailable” just a thing we call people? Or do psychologists support its use in therapy?
Slapping a label on a person can hold them back unless science has put up a convincing argument that it will help them build better relationships.
However, doctors use emotional availability in several walks of psychotherapy.
For the last 20 years, it’s even had its own assessment that psychologists created to measure two people’s ability to share an emotional connection: the emotional availability assessment.
And while your partner might be winding you up by refusing to commit and dodging any big questions with jokes, this assessment actually exists to measure parent-child relationships.
However, it can be applied to relationships of any age.
Relationships change over time. Learn how to surf whichever peaks and troughs head your way with these helpful tips.
Six questions make up the criteria, four of which measure the parent’s emotional responses and two of which measure the child’s. The doctor ranks the person on a scale from 1 to 7.
For the grown-ups, these are:
- Sensitivity. This is behavior the adult shows that demonstrates wanting to work on their emotional connection with the child. Watch any ’90s family movie and check the father and son baseball scenes for a “good catch” or supportive high-five. That’s the good sensitivity stuff.
- Structuring. The adult shows efforts to guide the child and shape their learning. In the same ’90s movie, this would be the father teaching the son how to improve their technique: “Plant your feet, boy.”
- Nonintrusiveness. This is the ability to let the child take the lead and follow their guidance as to what they need. In the movie scenario, the father would take note of when the son is getting tired or needs to “go potty,” and work with what’s comfortable for the child. Likewise, when the child wants to throw the baseball at a wall, alone, the parent gives them space.
- Nonhostility. Hostility involves not being able to control how your own negative emotions come out around someone else. In the ’90s movie (don’t stream it, it’s starting to sound terrible), this is the dad not yelling at the son just because he had a bad day at the auto dealership.
And for the kids:
- Responsiveness. The parent talks to or reaches out to the kid, and the kid reacts.
- Involvement. The child invites the parent to play and hang out.
While this assessment tracks one type of emotional connection, the article authors suggest it can apply to many relationship forms.
Applying it word for word to your current romantic or friendship conundrum might not be helpful, but it gives you an idea of the different aspects to look for if you’re trying to work out whether you or someone you care about might be emotionally unavailable.
To understand them better, psychologists group the eventual scores in four categories:
- emotionally available
- problematic or disturbed
It’s not just the very lowest scores that suggest emotional unavailability. It’s a spectrum that can present itself in different ways, even through relentless good humor and willfully blinkered positivity.
Whether a person simply changes the topic when it comes to an important question or gets openly aggressive, it might be time to think about their shield against connection in a different light.
Same sh*t, different day? Learn about bad habits that can make a relationship suck — and how to avoid them.
If you came to this article with your thumbs still warm from Tinder and your expression disgruntled because of the same thing, let’s give you some perspective on why the world of dating might seem like a black hole.
Why are some people so reluctant to connect? And why might you also be reluctant without realizing it?
For starters, a bad breakup can kick off a Rube Goldberg machine effect of emotional unavailability.
(If you’ve just had a breakup, look no further than this article for everything you need to know.)
“Most people don’t want to feel the pain, or the grief, of the loss of the relationship, and they want to jump into the next one,” Fleming says. “It’s like when people lose a dog, and they want to go ahead and buy a new one.”
After all, it’s tempting to jump back on the horse when you can increase your chances of getting laid just by swiping your fingers in a certain direction. Plus your friends are telling you to “get back out there.”
But while it sounds like a healthy idea, that strategy can seriously backfire. “A big mistake that people make after a breakup is to start to date as soon as they possibly can,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a relationship therapist.
The better plan: “Allow yourself to feel the pain so that you can actually grieve that loss, and then welcome something new,” Sussman says.
If you head into the dating world again with an open wound, it’ll probably bleed through. And remember, it takes time to let it heal.
Family dynamics can also be the source of your problems. If you grew up in a family that kept a wide emotional distance between people, where there was an emphasis on avoiding or openly bottling up feelings, hitting the emotional brakes may come naturally to you.
Fleming says emotional unavailability can develop from this because you won’t “have muscle memory for a deeper quality of attachment.”
Essentially: Monkey see, monkey don’t mention that around me.
The first step to recovery is seeing yourself in an honest light. Here are a few signs to look out for in yourself or a person with whom you’re trying to share a connection.
“She’s just too…”: You’re overly critical
If your dating life feels like one long episode of “Seinfeld” (this one eats peas one at a time, that one’s a low talker, oh, look at this guy, he’s way too close to his family), Mandel says it’s worth keeping an eye on yourself.
If you’re dismissing people for any and every tiny reason, you may just be finding excuses to not let anyone get to know you.
But if you’ve instigated the last few breakups, don’t freak out yet: It’s only a potential source of emotional unavailability if it becomes a pattern, Fleming says.
There’s a difference between knowing what you want and being afraid to need someone. If your breakups aren’t following the same exact pattern, you might just not be in love. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Unless you don’t love THESE GUYS. (Look at them, though.)
“Ha. Aha.” “No, but really…”: You keep things (super) light
Trying too hard to sway the emotional experience of the people you’re with, however well intended, can be a giveaway. It suggests an underlying element of needing to control the situation and prevent it from escalating into something meaningful.
If you’re very focused on making the other person laugh all the time instead of letting the conversation flow in different directions, it may signal you’re not comfortable with things getting a little more serious, Mandel says.
There’s nothing wrong with laughing about superficial topics (unless you only date philosophers or hang out with very serious folks).
But someone who never knows how to switch off their inner Adam Sandler may be unwilling or unable to commit.
If you’re that person, you might want a few handy tips on facing your feelings. Whoomp, there it is. Give this a read.
“Yeah, but what about…”: You blame others
Denying any blame is usually the clincher for recognizing emotional unavailability, Mandel says.
If someone can’t admit their own limitations and always points the finger at other people, they may not be able to handle their own shortcomings and imperfections, pushing blame onto other people instead and pushing those people out of the picture.
You can’t make positive changes if you won’t look at the whole picture.
Underlying all of this advice is one mantra: Remember that you don’t always need to hold people at arm’s length. Replace the Live, Laugh, Love plaque on your wall with these tips if they help.
(Actually, please just replace it anyway.)
The solution isn’t always a true love’s kiss, because fairy tales aren’t going to cut it here. Although finding someone you truly care about can help, Mandel says, this is going to take some good old-fashioned, sleeves-up, emotional heavy lifting.
Here’s our guide to emotional labor and why it’s important.
It may just take time, but if you want to start taking steps or talking to someone you feel should, here are a few adjustments you can begin to make today:
- Practice letting people in. Start putting more into your safest, most stable relationships, whether it’s an old friend, family, or others. There’s less fear of rejection here, so it can be a lot easier to do. Letting less familiar people in, such as new love interests or colleagues, will start to feel more natural as a result.
- Change your social scenery. If you’re constantly at a bar surrounded by friends who complain about their partners or refuse to settle, it might not be doing much for your emotional availability. On the flip side, Mandel says spending time with healthy couples can give you a more realistic idea of what relationships can look like and the benefits of letting someone in. Get that emotional muscle memory learning about the good stuff.
- Face it head-on. If you find yourself fixating on why no relationship ever works, try to put your finger on it. It can actually help, Sussman says. It’s usually a matter of time, but working on yourself, either with a therapist or another professional, can help you figure out why past relationships went wrong. “And once you do that work, you feel a lot better about yourself,” she says.
Brief periods of emotional unavailability are very common, Fleming says.
They can happen after a traumatic event disconnects your feelings from your actions, or after being around family members who bring up certain negative feelings from yesteryear.
If your parents never really showed affection or opened up to you, you might just push people away for a little while to create a safe distance.
If you’re having a hard time with your mental health, you might pick up a thing or two from this piece about balancing your own well-being with healthy parental connections.
However, if you feel like you’re turning over every rock and still not finding happiness, it’s not that your heart is malfunctioning.
It’s just that in trying to cut out sadness, you might be missing the dark that makes the light so much brighter.
Just one moment, and we’ll try to reconnect your call…