How to Help an Emotionally Unavailable Partner Show Up and Be Fully Present
“Feeling safe enough to share freely and openly requires work on both sides of a relationship.”
Following my recent article, What Being Emotionally Unavailable Really Means and Why Men Do It, I could see from the comments that there was a general consensus that a man’s partner, and how safe he felt in the relationship, has a big impact on how likely he is to show up and open up.
So what happens when he is working on being open and available but then he keeps getting responses from his partner that shows him it’s not safe to open up? He retreats and is even less likely to open up again.
For someone to open up in a relationship it requires a receptive, supportive and open space …
I see this happen a lot in relationships. And every time he tries to make himself emotionally available only to get shut down unconsciously by his partner, it reinforces the belief that sharing is not helpful or safe for him.
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For someone to open up in a relationship it requires a receptive, supportive and open space, that means both people need to be cultivating this growth, personally, individually, and within the relationship.
Lots of times I have heard people talk about how their partners shut down, but when I watch this at play, it’s not one-sided, often the person has an unconscious reaction to their partners' openness.
Sometimes their partner’s expression or sharing doesn’t fit their model of how a relationship “should” look or how a man “should’ feel. Often it challenges the very person who wants him to be open, consequently, they unconsciously shut him down. Even while shutting him down they’re still demanding that he is open with them. And they don’t even see the impact they have on the situation.
It can be frustrating for everyone involved and it’s really important to remember that both people in the situation are impacted by the other’s responses.
It’s very easy to blame someone else for an aspect of a relationship, however, it takes two to tango and two to create a dynamic.
So how can you support your partner in being fully present?
Know yourself and manage yourself.
First off, know yourself. Learn your triggers and vulnerabilities. Know that some topics and areas are going to create an automatic response and you need to develop emotional self-management around these.
Get clear and take ownership.
Get clear about what those topics are, list them out and own them. Owning them means stop blaming your partner for how you feel when they are triggered. These are your triggers. For your partner to be open and honest, they need to be their full selves, not just the part of themselves that doesn’t trigger you.
Communicate instead of acting out.
This means saying how you feel, rather than showing. It means using “I” statements rather than “you” statements. Here is an example:
Every time you act out or blame rather than share, you are creating an environment where your partner needs to shut down to stay safe.
You could pull the “Oh yes, that guy from work asked me out yesterday” as a way of getting back for some behaviour that triggered you. Or you could say, “I felt very uncomfortable when you mentioned that girl because of my insecurity about not being good enough came up.”
You could stonewall him or give him the silent treatment or you could say, “I am frustrated right now and need time to think.”
Every time you act out or blame rather than share, you are creating an environment where your partner needs to shut down to stay safe. Communicating your feelings creates a dialogue, punishing by behaviour is a threat.
Be patient with him and with yourself.
Give your partner time and space if he needs it to process his emotions or the events that took place, don’t let your anxiety and desire for certainty drive you to push him to open up or share. Respect that he has a way he processes and so do you. It is your responsibility to manage your emotions and his to process in whichever way works best for him.
Stop fighting and start teaming up
Stop thinking your way is the right way and the only way. Your way is right for you and he must figure out what’s right for him. Give him room to discover this and also compassion for how difficult this may be for him.
While you’re at it, give yourself piles of compassion because you will need it while you manage your discomfort and unhealthy coping strategies during a challenging time.
You are both looking for something from the relationship, discuss this and whenever possible remind yourself you are both a team, not against each other, even if you things differently.
Take the pressure off.
It’s not his job to make you happy. While he is learning to be open and available, ensure you are busy making yourself happy, giving yourself everything you need so he can stay on his journey without the need to withdraw because of added pressure.
Fight fairly and effectively.
Do not throw anything he has expressed back at him during an argument. Not anything! When you take his feelings and use them for ammunition or to prove a point you are showing him it is not safe to share with you.
Listen to what he is saying — listen with compassion and with a longing to truly understand him, leave judgement at the door and only bring compassion in.
Listen instead of sharing your point. Listen to what he is saying — listen with compassion and with a longing to truly understand him, leave judgement at the door and only bring compassion in.
When you fight, get clear about the outcome you want. Is it a healthy outcome for you both or are you simply acting out? And if you’re really acting out ask how you can communicate instead.
All of these steps require you to really up your investment in yourself and the relationship. They require you to acknowledge the impact you have on your partner’s sharing while still staying in your space.
This is not an easy path, however, it is a rewarding path for developing deeper connection and understanding between you and your partner. This requires practice and you will get it wrong. When you do, go back to him, tell him how you made a mistake and demonstrate to him what openness and vulnerability looks like.
Mostly, every step of the way, remind yourself and him of the love you feel and how this practice is ultimately about respecting that love.
Originally published at goodmenproject.com on October 18, 2015.