Emotional unavailability means that for whatever reason, you are choosing to honor protection of your heart instead of love. Protecting your heart is understandable, and sometimes even wise, if you need a period of strength building and rejuvenation between relationships or even while recovering from a life tragedy during a relationship. However, if you are in a relationship and still making yourself unavailable to love and be loved for an extended length if time, take a look at whether this defense mechanism—designed to protect you—is working against you by blocking the flow of love. Emotional unavailability is the layer (how you show up to other people) that is covering the pain or fear of pain, which is covering up who you really are.
Being emotionally available means that you are ready, willing, and able to love, regardless of the potential for loss. This may sound simple, but it requires a willingness to take a risk, to open your heart to another, even while knowing full well that in one way or another your heart will experience loss. There is no escaping it, love cannot escape pain. You will eventually lose or leave your beloved, whether by choice, circumstance, or death. There is no ultimate “happy ending” but still you know that it is indeed “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Being emotionally available means that you are going to experience intimacy by sharing yourself with another. You are going to take the risk that the other person may or may not like all that he or she sees, but you are going to let go of your need for approval and control and share yourself anyway. This takes courage.
Courage is not the absence of fear, to do something you are not afraid to do requires no courage at all. Courage is to move forward in the face of fear. Since being afraid isn’t “cool”, and it isn’t what we generally want to present to others, a lack of emotional availability shows up instead, as indifference or withholding. When you are only sharing parts of yourself, there is no way the other person can unconditionally love you, because he or she doesn’t know you. It is like taking someone on a tour of your home but keeping the door closed and locked on your favorite room. You’ll let them into the kitchen, living room, and even the bedroom, but not into your most treasured room; perhaps it is your shrine, perhaps it is your garden. In any case, it is you sacred place. The “heart of your home” is off-limits, leaving others to feel as if they don’t really know you completely, or feeling left out of an important part of your life. This leads to mistrust because they don’t know for sure what you are withholding, and they begin to feel like you are hiding something. Indeed, you are; your most authentic self.
In order to be fully emotionally available you have to be willing to invite the other in and allow him or her to explore the whole you: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful. You have to be willing to explore all of them, too. This is intimacy, and leads to unconditional love.
Steps for enhancing your emotional availability:
1. Decide. The first step is to set the intention of being available to love. If you don’t want to expand your capacity to love and be loved, the steps won’t work. Expansion of the heart begins with the decision to make it so.
2. Trust. Trust yourself enough to know that no matter what life dishes out to you, you can handle it! Promise yourself that, no matter what, you will not abandon yourself. This means, regardless of your relationship, you will take active steps towards strengthening yourself: doing the things you love to do, staying connected to family and friends, learning new things, expressing your creativity, honoring your spirit, and taking care of yourself physically. You need to agree (with yourself) that you will seek professional assistance if you are unable to do these things by yourself. When you master this step, you have greatly diminished the need to trust others, those over whom you have no control. It is great to feel that we can trust other people, but we shouldn’t need to trust them to be okay. We need to trust ourselves to handle whatever happens regardless of what other people do. Even partners who are typically trustworthy may go astray at the spur of the moment and since we can’t control anyone else, the need to trust others isn’t as important as the need to trust oneself. Perhaps most important of all is trusting the divine plan to provide the perfect learning experiences.
3. Take reasonable risks. Use both you head and your heart to assess when it would be wise to move deeper into love and truth and when it would be wise to pull back. Typically, we become emotionally unavailable when we believe that the risk of sharing is likely to yield painful results. What sometimes starts in childhood, perhaps even wisely, as a defense mechanism designed to protect us turns into a habitual way of showing up with others that eventually limits our ability to connect intimately, heart to heart. Indeed, there are times when it is wise to hold back emotionally. Revealing deeply emotional feelings to your partner when he or she is in the middle of a stressful project or engrossed with something on televisions would unlikely to yield the results you want. If his or her lack of ability to engage with you could inflict pain, you are best off looking for more appropriate time to open up. By the same token, if your partner is under a lot of stress, fatigue, or other pressures, it may be wise to hold back and not risk opening up. However, if you are simply stopping yourself because you are making up stories in your head about what your partner’s response will be, you are keeping yourself emotionally trapped and you aren’t giving your partner a fair chance at engaging with you. Being able to express yourself and share the truth of your feelings and experiences with your partner could set you free. Be self-observant and notice when you are withholding. By becoming aware of the habit to withhold, you can then decide whether you make a new choice. If you feel you are withdrawn because you are holding back a deluge of pain from previous experiences, you may want to seek professional assistance in dealing with your past. The value of processing your feelings is that doing so allows you to clear the pain out of your system where it is affecting you—and your relationships—in spite of all of your best efforts to hide it. If however, withholding is just a habit developed over the years out of fear of other people’s reactions to your feelings, begin “coming out” emotionally by sharing yourself a little at a time with your partner. Start by telling him or her how you are feeling, what you are thinking, what you are afraid of, what you want. Test the waters, so to speak. Surviving reasonable risks is what grows our confidence and capability. If you aren’t sure whether you should move forward, pay attention to how you feel. Notice what you are concerned about and evaluate the risks. Look at the situation like a “strategic planner” and see if there are steps you can take to lessen the risks or to think through them better. We often hold back because we want to avoid conflict or judgment. Remember that conflict is often a part of coming to agreement. If you avoid the conflict, you may also be avoiding the agreement.
4. Learn from your mistakes. The moral of the story is never “Don’t love or trust or open your heart again.” If that is what you “learned” then you missed the real lesson and may have to endure the experience again and again until you get the lesson right. A decision to give up, to never love or trust again, or to close your heart is a decision of the ego, based in fear. Ego shuts down love and trust. Spirit teaches you how to love more—more wisely, more responsibly, more healthfully. The lesson may be “pay more attention,” or “tell the truth sooner,” or “examine your expectations of others to see if they are unrealistic,” or “don’t take the happily ever after for granted” or “honor yourself enough not to allow mistreatment” or “choose more wisely whom to trust”, or even “be more trustworthy yourself.” You will know if it is the “real lesson” if it points you toward love and trust, not away from it.
Telling your partner the painful truth:
Sometimes our withdrawal of emotions is an attempt to avoid unpleasant moments or to avoid having to face the truth. Maybe you need to talk about issues related to money or the need for budgeting; about your partner’s personal hygiene or lack of self-care; or about something wrong or hurtful your partner has done to someone else. Maybe you need to admit to something you’ve done that your partner won’t like, such as spending a large amount of money without having discussed it with your spouse; having feelings for (or encounters with) another man or woman; losing a job (or quitting one) in a moment of rage. Maybe you need to share your concern over the way your partner is parenting or interacting with the children, or discuss questions you have regarding your sexuality or sexual preferences. When what you need to communicate is a truth that you know won’t feel good, and you are closed down because you don’t want to hurt your partner or cause an emotional reaction, there are things you can do to help your message be heard—if it needs to be.
Ask yourself these questions before speaking them aloud to your partner:
1. Is it honest? Is it true? Let’s clarify what we mean by “honest”. Sometimes we use honesty as a weapon of destruction rather than a tool for building. We need to be conscious of how we are using the truth, and we need to ask ourselves whether it is “the truth” we are sharing or simply our perception of the truth. You can always examine this issue by asking yourself, “is it true?” Think through whether “the truth” is simply true for you, or if anyone examining it would agree to its truth. If it is only “your truth” and not “the truth”, then be sure you own it as such, and communicate it as your opinion or your experience of the situation. Using “I” statements for expressing your feelings about the situation really helps, but the “I” statement still needs to be based in your truth, instead of in your perception of the other person’s truth. The statement “I think you drink too much” may be a true assessment to you, but not to your partner. Someone who comes from a family or community of heavy drinking may feel that his or her drinking is moderate compared to those he or she was raised around. If you examine what the really true aspect of this issue is, perhaps you’ll discover that you are concerned with your partner’s health, or about decisions being made, or about your welfare due to his or her behavior while under the influence. A more truthful statement would be, “I’m fearful about the effects of alcohol on your health and the impact of your decisions on our lives. I don’t like what happens to us when you are drinking.” The truth here is your fear and your experience. Ideally, you would be able to move through the total truth of your entire range of emotions, and come to an agreement that would help alleviate your fear.
Discussing your partner’s habits as they relate to his or her health and to your level of attraction to your partner may be a vey sensitive topic. Even if it is honest, it is likely going to be a painful conversation. Whenever possible, share your concern for your partner’s well being, health, and happiness, as well as your concerns about how the issue impacts you. Make sure the love shines through more than the judgment. An expression of concern, based in love, will be easier to hear than an expression that seems selfish in nature. You then need to remember that whether or not your partner chooses to do anything with the information is entirely up to him or her. Also, how you choose to respond to his or her decision is entirely up to you.
2. Does it matter? What is your desired outcome for sharing the information? Is there a valid purpose for sharing the information beyond simply feeling the need to be honest? While issues of substance abuse obviously matter and thus merit discussion and resolution, other bits of truth may not ultimately matter. For instance, you may notice someone of the opposite sex (or same sex) whom you think is really sexy, sharing that tidbit of truth with your partner probably serves no purpose as long as your appreciation of the other person remains visual and isn’t something you act on. This of course, depends on the levels of security and trust within your relationship. Some couples have no discomfort whatsoever in sharing with each other their positive opinions about attractive members, while others feel threatened and disrespected. Being sensitive to how your partner feels will help you make this determination. Bottom line: if it doesn’t really matter whether you tell your partner, there may be no valuable purpose in doing so.
3. Is it your ego speaking or your love? Sometimes we tell someone something simply to exercise our need for control, rather than sharing information that is truly purposely. We think we know what is best for them, how they should handle a situation, how they should use their free time, how they should manage their friendships; we want them to do it our way, on our timeline, regardless of whether it matters or not. Often we get caught up in trying to get our partners (or our children) to do things the way we think they should be done, but if we step back for a moment and take another look at the situation, we can see that as long as it is done, how it is done usually only matters to our egos. Self-observe to be sure your ego is not the one doing the talking, but rather your authentic self.
4. Is there anything your partner can do about the information, or will it just hurt them? Telling your partner that you don’t like what they are wearing after you have already left the house for your destination is not purposeful because there is nothing he or she can do about it. Before you say something that may be hurtful, determine whether the timing is right, so that the other person can actually benefit from the information.
5. Is it something your partner already knows? Telling your partner that he or she needs to get into shape is probably something your partner already knows. Will it motivate them to be told by you, or will it simply add to the hurt? Telling your partner that they made a mistake is unnecessary when they have already figured that out, are suffering the natural consequences, and are beating themselves up for it. It is, however, another issue to let them know how their choices are affecting you.
When we share a painful truth with someone, it is important to support them to the other side of their pain. While there are times when they will want to be alone to process the information, letting them know you are there if they need support is helpful. It is often our natural inclination to “drop the truth bomb” and then run, so we don’t get caught in the fallout or have to witness the pain our words may cause. By doing so we avoid the consequences of our words and actions. Always remain self-observant. Breathe and let go of your need for approval and control.
If the truth that you have shared is an admission of your own wrongdoing, try not to get defensive (which means you’re coming from ego). If you wronged your partner in some way, you will have to expect that he or she will be angry, hurt, and fearful. You can use your knowledge of the emotions hiding under anger to anticipate and address your partner’s feelings. Acknowledge pain you’ve caused, and aim to alleviate any fears that your words or actions may have raised. Without being defensive, give your partner any information you think he or she will need to better understand the situation and what to expect. Have compassion for what your partner is feeling on account of what you have shared.
Be especially careful not to make you partner the “bad guy” of you are the one who hurt him or her. It seems to be human nature to justify our poor decisions on our behavior that harmed someone else by making them at fault. To the best of your ability, own your behavior, take responsibility for what you did, reset your intentions, and work with your partner to come to agreement again. Then, aligning with your most authentic self, honor your agreements.
The Emotionally unavailable partner:
If you are in a relationship with someone whom you deem emotionally unavailable, begin with the process of self-inquiry and self-observation. Rather than starting with trying to get your partner to change, start with seeing what you can do differently that might cause your partner to respond to you differently. Consider not only your own emotional availability but also how emotionally inviting you are. We cannot expect someone to open up to us when we are unwilling to share with them. One way self disclosure doesn’t usually feel safe. Continue sharing your thoughts and feelings with your spouse and inviting him or her to do the same. Be careful that you don’t stop inviting intimate communication just because your partner hasn’t been open to it in the past. You also need to take an honest look at whether you make it safe for your partner (and your children) to talk to you. If they get shit down, criticized, embarrassed, or teased for sharing the truth, you can be sure they will be unlikely to do it again.
Guidelines for receiving your partner’s emotions:
1. Self observe and let go of your needs for approval and control so that you are listening from your authentic self, not your ego. In essence this means that you have to get all your judgments and opinions out of the way so that you can listen with your heart instead of your head. Even if your response would be exactly the same, when you say something from your ego it blocks the love and communication. When you say it from heart, from authentic truth, people are far better able to receive it.
2. Don’t try to fix it, just listen. Only offer advice if the other person asks for it. When people complain, share a story, or confide their feelings in you, they usually aren’t looking for you to fix the problem. Rather, they just want you to be a witness to what they are going through, empathize with their frustration, and provide a safe place to express their feelings. When you tell them what to do or not to feel the way they do, they usually become frustrated with you as well. Trust their self healing process. Don’t make their emotions wrong; just allow them. When people are told not to feel the way they feel, resistance flares up and their emotions usually dig in deeper. When they are allowed to simply feel what they feel, observe it, and do some self inquiry, they are usually able to move through their emotions and resolve the issue. Your job is simply to be a mirror so they can reflect on their own feelings, with you. If you want to do something to help, simply listen. Then ask, “How can I support you through this?” This does not mean you need to agree with their version of things if you think they are off base, making up false stories, or obsessing about something that doesn’t seem right to you. If this is the case, before sharing your thoughts you can ask if they want your input or just want to vent, or you can simply ask the questions to help them reflect on the situation, for example, “Are you saying that he didn’t have a right to be mad at you?” “What are you basing that thought on; what is your evidence?” When you feel it is important to point out an opposing perspective to theirs, it is often helpful to validate their feelings first, and than offer an alternative viewpoint.
3. Watch your but. Pay attention to your use of “but” in combination with your partner. “But” tends to cancel out whatever came before it. When you say, “I love you, but…”, know that whatever is said after that little three letter word will take away the power of the little three word phrase that came before it. Instead, see if you can word what you want to say in a way that adds to the first phrase instead of emotionally erasing it. For instance, “I love you and I need some time alone to get my thoughts together.” Watching your buts also helps when offering an alternative viewpoint after your partner has shared an emotional assessment of an event with you that you don’t necessarily agree with. When you say something like, “I understand how you are feeling but I think you are wrong,” the but eliminates much chance that your partner will feel understood. Instead, try saying something validating like, “I understand why you feel that way, and yet I wonder if you have considered the possibility that he didn’t mean to hurt you.”
4. Trust in the other person’s ability to resolve issues. If necessary, communicate your faith in them with comments like, “I know you will figure out just the right way of handling this”, or “I know it seems overwhelming, but I am certain you will do the tight thing.” Empathize while still offering confidence. It is our ego at play when we think the other person needs us to solve their problems. We serve others highest good when we support them in handling what is theirs to handle.
5. If a response is necessary, use “I” statement. If you do use “you” statements, do so to reflect back what you think you heard, check for understanding and gain clarity, for example, “You sound really frustrated with your work.” This opens the door for the other person to say, “I’m not frustrated, I’m hurt that my boss would treat me that way,” or maybe, “Yes I really am frustrated.”
6. Don’t take it personally. Just because the person sharing feelings is your partner doesn’t mean you have to take on what he or she is going through. Practice letting your partner feel what he or she feels without letting it impact your emotions, too. Your partner’s problem doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you.
7. Look for the truth. The hardest time to receive your partner’s emotions is when it is personal and your partner has something to tell you that is about you or that will affect you. Try not to get hooked by your ego. Keep breathing. Self observe and let go of any ego needs that may surface. Self inquire and determine if what your partner is saying about you is true. If it is true, take the feedback as valuable information and see what you can do to amend the situation. If it is not true, listen with your heart instead of just your ears. What is the truth under the false accusation? Sometimes the complaint is about one thing when it is voiced as something entirely different. Sometimes the complaint is about a dirty house when the issue is really about respect. Aim to communicate the complete truth of what you are feeling and to listen for the real truth of what your partner is feeling so that you can get to the bottom line of love and come to an agreement. If your partner is making up stories about you, or is expressing fear over what he or she thinks is going to happen next rather than staying focused on the present, aim to bring the focus back to truth using the truth. You can say, “I understand why you would be afraid of that and I don’t see it that way.” Remember, your response is what is going to make or break the outcome and lead to (or not) the potential solution.