Being emotionally available is the cornerstone of healthy relationships. It allows for openness, communication, intimacy and depth. Then why is it to be emotionally not available such a common problem for people? Because it’s also self-protective and there are many reasons why people feel they need to keep the distance it helps to maintain. It can be scary to question general trust in relationships, often for very good reasons. But one has to wonder if this “protection” of the emotional connection of others is worth the end result.
Let’s explore 1) what it’s like to be emotionally available, 2) why so many struggle not to be emotionally available, and 3) how to improve.
What is emotional availability?
- Not only do you feel comfortable looking at your own feelings, but you also share them. Doing so is a vulnerable act and for people who feel inherently vulnerable in relationships or in general, possibly due to family problems of origin, this may feel insecure or too close. Authenticity is not a challenge for those who are fully available emotionally because they often have a generally positive sense of self.
- You are able to respond to the emotions of others. This means good listening skills, tuning and empathy in relationships. If you are not aware of your own emotional world, it is very difficult to be present and witness the emotional world of another. For this reason, the emotional efforts made by you may not be appropriate.
- You are reliable. You show up when you said you would, you’re consistent, and you’re trustworthy. People who are not emotionally available are more likely to be scaly, less transparent, or send mixed messages. They may or may not be aware of it.
- You feel comfortable expressing intimacy with physical affection and sweetness. This also requires a willingness to be vulnerable in relationships.
- You regulate your emotions well. You are kind, respectful and curious. Some who are not emotionally available use anger, criticism, or controlling behavior to keep their emotional distance.
Why are so many people not emotionally available?
This answer to this question is complex and there really is no answer. Simply put, you may have learned at some point that it is not emotionally safe to be completely open to others, let alone yourself. The quality of your childhood bond with parents or primary caregivers may play a role in not having adequate responses to your emotional needs. Not receiving affection, validation, or support, being criticized, abused, minimized by emotional expressions, or unanswered needs, can lead to clinging styles that are subsequently a challenge to emotional availability.
Feeling unappreciated or not knowing if you can trust others to appear are just a few of the stories that can keep you from being emotionally available. This protective response really makes sense. But your type of luggage comes with worries and fears that it will develop, which can be self-sabotaging.
Being emotionally available or unavailable is rooted in life experiences.
Here’s how it works: If deep down I feel inadequate and fear that I don’t deserve love, then my instincts tell me that you will finally find out about me, you will realize that I am not good enough and you will break my heart.
So I love you from a distance. I stay on the sidelines and detached. I refuse to give you much of my time because it won’t hurt so much when you tell me you’re leaving me.
I know you see. He always does. – Kyle Benson
Many are not emotionally available because they have never looked closely from such a perspective. They may not realize that the problems of their home family or other difficult life experiences are creating obstacles for them. And many have this awareness but do not know what to do about it. On the other side of this coin you may go through intimate relationships or emotionally unavailable friendships, burning yourself up repeatedly and wondering why. For this group, understanding that this is happening and being curious about your role in it is the first step in breaking unhealthy relationship patterns. It can go both ways and be quite complicated.
In addition, the pain of the breakup can lead to emotional distress. For men, in particular, there may also be culturally reinforced messages that emotions and vulnerability are “weak” that are clearly faced with feeling safe to open up.
The impact of emotional unavailability on others
- Its inconsistency and lack of openness can make you feel insecure about your connection. You have no idea where you are with them.
- Lack of emotional attunement and empathy can be painful and trigger frustration, sadness, and ultimately loneliness.
- The signs of approaching are fleeting, if any. It can be difficult to see how you are growing together as a couple, which leads to more doubts about the relationship.
- Lack of affection through touch, sweet gestures, or reflection can lead you to slowly walk away, possibly also diminishing your sexual attraction to them. This is the result of repeatedly hitting a wall and eventually giving up, if not rescued first.
- You may be wondering what you are doing wrong in your inability to connect with them, despite your best efforts. (If this persists, you may want to analyze the issues of codependency or your own family of origin).
- As you feel less secure in the relationship, unfortunately, you may lose your will to be emotionally available to them, now leaving two people locked out of each other.
How to be more emotionally available
There is no “magic wand” solution, but it is possible with some effort. If you are aware that you are not present for people in a problematic way, and you are eager to do something about it, you have already taken the first step in this initial awareness. Many don’t even get that far because they don’t see the problem in the first place, or the impact on others.
The next task is to take a deep dive into your personal history. Are there cultural messages that need to be challenged? Has your romantic story been painful and made you take evasive protective measures that aren’t really helpful? Working with the home family with a therapist can help you understand that emotional availability has been blocked. This person can help you explore your relationships, emotional wounds, painful experiences, or unhelpful messages you have received in the past. Then unravel this from who you are today; your beliefs about yourself, others, and the world around you. Part of the job is to challenge toxic preconceived notions about your worth and kindness, as well as questions about trust, all of which understandably block your ability to be vulnerable. These ideas can be deeply rooted and literally connected to your brain and therefore to your physiological responses (struggle, flight, or freezing). For this reason, it takes time, reshaping the narratives and trying new things with other healthy ones to completely remove unhealthy roots from your garden. Allow yourself to be patient if it is not a straight line. Changing long-standing patterns of how you have acted emotionally takes time and practice.
- Awareness that there is a problem with your emotional availability is crucial to being able to change it.
- Challenge any cultural message about how you are “supposed” to be.
- Make a relationship inventory to look for any pain points that may be behind your emotional protection. Work with that.
- Take a deep dive into yourself with a therapist who specializes in home-based family work.
- Address the issues that separate you emotionally from yourself so that you can appear in a more available way.
- Take responsibility for your emotions.
- Practice new behaviors with other emotionally available people, such as more transparent communication and authenticity.
- Be kind to yourself if it’s not a straight line.
Being more emotionally available can not only improve your emotional health, but also the quality of your relationships. If you are considering finding a local therapist, try the Psychology Today Therapist Directory where you enter your zip code to see a list of potential resources. If you’re not ready to go into therapy, but first want to try making some changes on your own, check out my mini-guide, Family of Origin: Untangle Your Unhealthy Roots. If that’s not enough on its own, it can at least give you a good starting point for your work with a therapist.
Sometimes we include links to online retail stores. If you click on one and make a purchase we may receive a small commission.