People are often able to identify unhealthy patterns in their lives. However, doing anything about them is a different story. Until you really start to see the serious (and often negative) impact on yourself and your life, you’re rarely motivated to actually make a change.
Let’s Talk Impact
Emotional unavailability sets you up to feel alone.
Emotional unavailability creates the illusion of being in relationships with people however at the end of the day you are emotionally separate.
If you’ve ever wondered how it is you could have a million Facebook friends, work in a crowded office, know everyone at the gym, and have a ‘thriving’ social life, yet still feel alone in a crowd, you can bestow the honor of that gift upon emotional unavailability.
Emotional unavailability is a cancer, and it will often spread to multiple relationships rather than only showing up in one. The only hope you have in eradicating from your life is to start with patient zero – yourself – and do the tough work.
That means you break down the barriers and obstacles you set up to keep people out, and then learn how to let people in. Kind of a tall order…so where do you start?
STEP 1: What’s the Impact?
For example, looking at the list from the last post, one of the symptoms of emotional unavailability is: ‘Avoiding Commitment – To Both Plans & People’.
Ask yourself when have you experienced this in a relationship? Then as what is the impact of that on you and on the relationship?
For me, when I have experienced this behavior from others, it has led me to question the other person’s involvement and level of interest.
Someone being unwilling to commit to plans, leaves me feeling like I’m not good enough or not important. I start thinking irrational thoughts like:
- Don’t commit to anything because they don’t know if they’ll still want to talk to me?
- Won’t want to be with me by the time the plans are supposed to happen?
- Are waiting (or worse, hoping) for something better to come along?
With thoughts like that going on, I’ll likely start acting ‘weird’, making assumptions, withdrawing, trying too hard, proving why they should want to spend time with me, etc.
In all honesty, I’ve also been known to launch a ‘preemptive emotional attack’ by judging them for something (usually quite insignificant) and writing them off as a potential emotional connection.
Put in simpler terms, I would decide that (based on their behavior) they’re inevitably going to hurt me, so I’ll come up with a justifiable reason to keep myself emotionally unengaged and distant.
That way, when they do finally do something that hurts me, I can tell myself (and other people) I didn’t care that much anyway because of the ‘justifiable reason’ I had previously come up with.
Sounds a little bonkers when you see it written out like that – and – I know I’m not the only one who has done this.
When I’ve been the one doing this (refusing to commit to plans) it always leaves me feeling out of integrity with myself. That uneasy, heavy, guilty feeling, and eventually I act out against the other person in some passive-aggressive way.
Not Healthy, Functional, or Nice.
Basically what I’m trying to illustrate for you is how emotional unavailability shows up in relationships and the impact it has on both people.
We all have protective mechanisms and coping behaviors to keep us from getting hurt. You need to figure out what your tendencies are – what you do and what you tolerate from others – so you can stop them.
Examples of Emotional Impact:
Behaviour: They’re certainly generous but they have trouble receiving anything. This can mean they’re generous with their time, money, compliments, praise, attention, concern, etc. for you, but they have an extremely hard time receiving any of that in return.
Impact: This is one that I know used to run rampant in my life. Sometimes it looked like me not really allowing others to contribute to me and alternately I would get involved with people that wouldn’t let me contribute to them. In all honesty, this is still something I have to be mindful of today.
In some situations, the impact was I never believed that they were ‘giving’ to me (time, help, attention, love, etc.) because they actually wanted to. I believed they felt obligated to give, for varying reasons. Experiences like that (with a belief system like that) totally eroded my self-esteem.
In other situations, I felt like there was no real space for me to connect with them. Even though they said they wanted a relationship, there was no room for me. That left me feeling inadequate and not enough, again eroding my self-esteem.
Emotionally Unavailable Relationships WILL Erode Self-Esteem
Behaviour: Regular deflection, avoidance, and blame.
Impact: This coping mechanism is really brutal in relationships.
When one person constantly deflects or points blame back instead of taking responsibility for their role in the problem and working for a solution, the relationship will continue to be a breeding ground for resentment, contempt, anger, disconnection, questioning, and mistrust.
Step 2: What Would You Rather?
You can see what emotional unavailability looks like in the ‘other people’. You’ve identified some of your own behaviors in this arena, and you’ve seen the impact…Now what?
My suggestion is to look at the impact you’ve experienced in emotionally unavailable relationships and then identify what you would rather experience.
Once you know what you’d rather experience, it’s easier to see what’s missing in your current relationships and deal with that accordingly.
Furthermore, it makes it way easier to identify boundaries or emotional limits, and behavioral expectations in any new relationships that come along.
New Boundary Examples
Behaviour: They have an inability to commit to plans.
New Boundary: Planning ahead with flexibility
In life, there is a need for flexibility. However consistent avoidance or refusal to make plans in advance won’t work when it comes to building trust and connection in a relationship.
Of course, it’s necessary to have room for spontaneity – “Hey! What are you up to? Wanna grab a coffee?” and there also needs to be a willingness to make plans in advance; next weekend, the weekend after, or planning a vacation three months out.
Behaviour: They have trouble receiving.
New Boundary: Consciously practice being open to receiving.
In order to get emotionally involved at a deep level, people need to be able to receive just as much as they give. That includes everything from compliments, to help, to love and affection. Basically they need to be able to accept ‘being loved’.
If they have no room to be loved for who they are, as they are, a truly connected relationship isn’t possible.
That doesn’t mean ‘don’t be friends with them’ however it does mean you might want to move them from the ‘important people category’ back to the ‘acquaintance category’. Or at least be very clear with yourself about what you can expect and not expect from them because they struggle to receive.
Behaviour: They default to regular deflection, avoidance, and blame.
New Boundary: Personal responsibility.
I know that in order for the opportunity to feel safe and connected in a relationship to arise, the other person has to be willing to be 100% responsible for their 50% of the relationship.
Let me say that again:
YOU ARE 100% RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR 50% OF THE RELATIONSHIP.
No more. No less.
That means if there is a topic that needs to get discussed both parties have to ‘own’ their contribution to the situation and look for a solution, all for the greater good of the relationship.
You want to feel like you’re playing on the same team with the important people in your life, not as an opponent. In order for that to be possible, there has to be a high level of personal responsibility present.
Deflecting, avoiding, and blaming automatically sets people up to be defensive and that won’t work to build connection and relatedness.
It’s a Radical Act to Declare Such New Boundaries for Yourself!
Taking this kind of action in your life always feels like a big bold step.
It can feel like you’re drawing a bunch of serious and heavy lines or rules. It can feel like doing that will make everyone leave; and they likely will if they’re emotionally unavailable.
However, at the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather have fewer relationships but the ones you have are definitely functional? Wouldn’t you rather that, than dysfunctional, drama-filled, and emotionally unsafe relationships?
Those relationships only create pain; your self-worth is continually eroded and even when that person is next to you, you still feel alone.
I have experienced the impact of emotional unavailability in friendships and romantic relationships alike. As the giver, receiver, and observer and it’s so painful to watch the people you love do this to themselves. It sucks no matter where it happens.
All you can do is work on yourself and make better choices about the people you have in your life.
That brings me to my final point: YOU have to do the work.
Step 3: It’s Up to You
Now all that’s left is for you to do, is the work on you so you no longer bring any of those dysfunctional behaviors into your relationships.
That means you get to heal what you need to heal and deal with what you need to deal with; so you’re no longer acting emotionally unavailable in your relationships. It also means you won’t put up with people being emotionally unavailable with you.
Doing the work creates a new foundation to build from in all your future relationships!
I’m not gonna lie, it’s easier said than done. It’s not easy and there’s no silver bullet, especially if you’re trying to do the work on your own. I will say however that it is 100% worth it in the end.
The freedom you will feel for yourself once you have done the work is incomparable. You probably haven’t experienced that kind of freedom since you were a little kid and hadn’t discovered what it felt like to get your heart broken yet.
1) There are some relationships where there will always be a level of emotional unavailability and even though there’s nothing you can do about it, you still want to keep the relationship. That’s ok as long as you’re clear on what the limits are in that relationship and keep your expectations in alignment with that.
This often happens with family members. You can’t ‘fix’ them and you still want them in your life. You’ll have to learn how to adapt and accept the relationship for what it is.
2) As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, there are some relationships that have complimentary ‘unavailability coping styles’.
This might look like someone who always has the right answer paired with someone who avoids responsibility and never knows what to do. That pairing can work, as long as both parties silently agree to stick with their styles.
In these types of relationships, there’s little room for growth and development. The styles need to stay the same in order for them to work together. If one person changes their behaviour (i.e. become curious and collaborative instead of knowing everything) the other person likely won’t react well to having to be responsible all of a sudden.
The same goes if the responsiblity-avoider decides they want to start being powerful in their life. The person who is used to always being right and making the decisions may not respond well to giving up control and allowing the other person to have a say in things.
When both parties enter into a relationship as emotionally available people then there’s always room for continued change and growth. This is because continued growth and change no longer seem like a threat to the status quo. There is more room for flexibility, collaboration, and co-creation.
Healthy Relationships are Collaborative and Co-created
3) There are degrees of emotional unavailability that can shift slightly over time depending on how things are in the relationship.
Unless serious and focused effort is put into changing the stuff that causes the unavailability in the first place; any shift that does happen won’t be that significant.
4) Out of all the things people try to work on by themselves, I think this is one of the hardest.
I think it’s infinitely harder to do work on yourself, by yourself. In general, the ‘stuff’ that makes up these emotionally unavailable tendencies exist in the shadows of your blind spot, making them virtually impossible for you to see on your own.
There are tons of resources out there that can help you sort this out. If any of this topic resonates with you, I HIGHLY recommend getting some outside intervention.
Join a group, hire a coach, find a counselor or psychologist. Find an expert that can support you in making the change – this change especially!
Just like if you had a chronic or serious issue with your health, you wouldn’t rely on Google for answers… so don’t do that with this situation either.
If you’ve read this far in this series, this issue of emotional unavailability is having BIG impact on your life. It’s time to DO something about it. Let’s talk. THIS IS YOUR TIME!