Emotional unavailability gets a bad rap in relationships.
That’s understandable. At its full blown best, it can be toxic. It blocks intimacy. It creates distance between partners and leads to breakups and loneliness.
One of the common struggles in relationships is a mismatch in emotional expression. One partner wants (and is able to) express their feelings freely and becomes frustrated with the other (who can’t or doesn’t want to).
This inevitably leads to conflict and, often, the demise of the relationship because one — or both — partners find trying to close the gap too stressful.
Emotional Unavailable People are Not Always Toxic
“Not all who are silent do not want to talk.” ― Debasish Mridha
An emotionally unavailable is someone who finds it difficult to share feelings and to get genuinely close to another. It doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings — they do — but they can’t access or express them, often both. This often leads to them being seen as cold, evasive and inscrutable. And these traits are often clubbed together with “toxicity” which is not always correct or fair.
While a person’s base temperament plays a role, emotional unavailability frequently has its roots in the past: Experiences of loss, abandonment and rejection can cause a person to shut down emotionally, to become fearful of love because of the pain it has caused them in the past.
But, sometimes, the start of emotional unavailability is simpler than that. It’s because their family “didn’t do feelings” (a line often heard from people in therapy) they lack the skills to express emotions well — or even at all. So they can end up being shy, even painfully anxious, with any form of intimacy. As one young woman put it: “more than quiet”.
Here are the seven key struggles for emotionally unavailable (but not toxic) people.
Obviously. Intimacy is highly stressful because healthy relationships require mutual vulnerability and the expression of feelings — or at least the ability to describe what’s going on for you. Emotionally unavailable people often find it easier to listen to what’s going on for the other person, but it leads to a one-sided arrangement that both parties end up uneasy with.
Even close friendship can be difficult because, at a certain level, friendship requires vulnerability. Emotionally unavailable people find banter, or their shared history with someone, easier to cope with so they’ll often keep a friendship at a slight distance. Sadly, it means their friends will never fully know them.
3. Social discomfort.
I hesitate to say social anxiety because it may not be that extreme. But every social occasion causes a degree of angst. The first thought is often: how can I get out of this? Which frequently manifests as declining invitations or backing out at the last minute, and this can mean they hurt people without any malicious intent.
4. Simmering anger.
Because people who struggle to access/express emotions still have them. And if they don’t find a healthy way of releasing them, they build up. It’s hard to feel peaceful or content with negative emotion bubbling.
5. Extreme self-containment.
They’ll often spend extraordinary amounts of time in their own company simply because it’s the least stressful for them. They may use art — writing, painting, music or even sports — to express feelings; it’s easier for them than talking.
6. Taking the exit door.
Leaving — the conversation, the room, the friendship, the relationship — is often the go-to reaction for someone who finds emotions uncomfortable. All this does is maintain the lack of emotional intimacy. But it also deprives them of the warmth of an ongoing relationship.
7. Shutting down options.
For career advancement, for fun, for intimacy, for fully enjoying life. Which can lead to sadness and regret.
Can Emotional Unavailability Be Improved?
Definitely. Emotional unavailability is not a toxic quality. Okay that’s not quite right: It can be toxic but those people won’t be reading this — trust me. They are not focused on self-improvement.
But if you genuinely struggle with emotions, or your partner does, take heart. Emotional skill can be learned if you are up for it. Here are some starter tips.
- Use art. If you don’t already, find a regular way of expressing your feelings through art. Art forms that use words — e.g. poetry or song-writing — can be particularly helpful. The saying “better out, than in” is true of feelings. So find a way that works for you.
- Label your feelings. Google a list of basic emotions. Start with a list of 10 and use these to label, and understand, what’s going on for you. It helps you to learn to unpack feelings, particularly distressing ones. Later, you can add to your list.
- Stay present. Recognise your go-to behaviour for avoiding talking about feelings. (e.g. is it to go silent, leave the room, change the subject) Make a conscious effort to stay with the difficult feeling. And ask yourself how you could react differently next time you experience it.
- Take a tiny risk. Use one of the emotions you’ve identified to tell someone how you’re feeling. You’ll find that taking the risk isn’t fatal. It may work out great. And that even if you don’t get what you wanted from the conversation, taking the risk is a triumph.
Above all, remember, emotionally unavailable people can have relationships. They can even have great relationships — IF they are willing to step towards love instead of continuing to back away from it.
Thanks for reading! Join my email list here if you’re interested in practical psychology for everyday life.