"Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride."
- Betty Davis
When we commit to a relationship, we usually expect that
our partner will reciprocate with roughly the same level
of emotional involvement that we put into it. Many of us hope
to find a soulmate, a partner who can share and understand
our feelings and ways of thinking on an intensely personal
level. Others don't expect such an intense level of involvement and feel more comfortable maintaining personal privacy
within a more boundaried relationship. Conflicts may arise
when the two partners differ in their expectations of how close
they should become. One partner may feel emotionally stranded, feeling abandoned and craving more closeness, while the
other partner may feel smothered or pressured into providing
more of his or her emotional self than can possibly be given.
The course of a relationship follows a predictable path.
The early weeks, months, or even years of a relationship,
in fact, are a time of togetherness - when partners search for
and experience the similarities that bring them together. It is
common for a couple during this first phase to experience a
level of emotional sharing so intense that they want to carry
their relationship to a more committed level. The next stage,
however, is when boundaries are established, when we focus
on our differences and in maintaining our own individuality.
Couples who can negotiate their way through both of these
stages are moving toward a successful long-term commitment.
Both of the initial stages typify a good relationship - the coming together phase, followed by the firming up of our own
identities within the relationship. A solid relationship is one in
which feelings can be readily expressed and shared while each of the partners is able to experience a sense of their own
All too often, however, there is a discrepancy between
the two partners in terms of how much of their emotional life they make available to the other. When one partner is able to share emotionally and the other is not, it is
usually the emotionally available one who feels more pain.
Take the classic example of a couple who have an intense
courtship. One partner lavishes the other with flowers,
expensive dinners out, and intimate phone calls. Sweetness
fills the air and it feels like a dream come true. You have
finally met "the one" you had always hoped to meet. But
as quickly as
it began, your
when it comes
emotional feelings. Dating
comes to a stop,
voicemail messages are not
it's over. There is no fight. There is no discussion about
why things are coming to an end.
After you accept that it's over, you struggle to make
sense of the relationship and notice that the focus was
always on you, and that's why it felt so good. In fact, your
partner knew a great deal about you, but you knew virtually
nothing about him or her. You confused flattery and attention with emotional involvement. You may finally realize
that your partner was unable to connect with you or anyone
on an emotional level. He or she was an expert at luring
people in, but had no ability to sustain an emotionally available relationship over time. It is a painful ride, but you can
learn a valuable lesson from it - that relationships entail
reciprocal self-disclosure and sharing. The next time, you'll
have the wisdom to know this before being drawn in.
There are many other examples of partners who are emotionally unavailable. Consider a few of them -
Some people seem to live to do things, the more
exciting the better. They are adventure seekers.
There's always one more trip to take, one more
skydive, one more mountain to climb. These people
get their attention from their conquests, and not by
making themselves vulnerable within an emotional
Beautiful people, unfortunately, sometimes grew
up with the message that their looks are everything.
They may have difficulty engaging in the mutuality
of a sharing relationship because they have learned to
search for gratification elsewhere. Time may change
Addicts are attracted to a number of different objects
(alcohol, drugs, work, food, television, shopping,
gambling, sex...), and may not be able to sustain an
emotional relationship - not with you, anyway.
Some partners are more influenced by their overinvolved parent than they are with you. You may be
seen as an appendage to the primary relationship
- which is with the parent.
To the intellectualizer, emotions are turbulent and
unpredictable. Everything has to analyzed, quantified
and categorized. Control is everything. Sharing feelings within a relationship is seen as dangerous folly.
A relationship with a person suffering from narcissistic personality disorder is one-sided, in favor of the
narcissist. They have a sense of grandiosity, a sense
of entitlement, and a lack of empathy - so that they
are more interested in self-love than love based on
The keeper of secrets probably has some strong
boundaries - or walls - in place, and is unable to
engage in an emotionally available relationship. If
your partner has a private life from which you are
excluded, there are probably serious trust issues
which undermine the success of a sharing commitment.
Working on Emotional Availability
Emotional availability refers to the ability of a person to share feelings with another person. In order for
this to happen, a person needs to be in touch with his or her
own emotions and able to define them. This person would
have a good working knowledge of his or her own feelings
and be able to identify when he or she feels angry, afraid,
hurt, sad, happy, or content. Furthermore, the person needs
to be able to read these feelings in other people. When these
factors are missing, it is impossible for two people to experience an emotionally available relationship. Since people
connect through their feelings, one who is out of touch with
the emotional realm leads a lonely and isolated life, unable
to engage in the processes of nurturance and trust that can be
found within a healthier relationship. Fortunately, this condition is correctable.
We learn about emotions starting in childhood, and we continually refine our relationship with our emotions throughout
our lives. We learn subtler versions of our basic childhood
emotions during adulthood. We learn how to define them,
how to categorize them, and how to express them appropriately throughout our development.
If you (or your partner) feel that you need
some work in developing your familiarity with your emotions, you might try the following -
Throughout the day, keep a record of anytime you feel a certain emotion. Keep your list of emotions simple (e.g., "glad,"
"sad," "mad" or "bad - afraid or guilty"). Anytime you
feel one of these emotions, identify the time of day, the emotion you're feeling, and the circumstances surrounding the
emotion (i.e., what was going on when you felt the emotion).
Later, with your partner, a trusted friend, or your therapist,
go through your list and share what you've written down.
First identify what was going on when you felt a certain
emotion. Try to understand why the event led to this emotion. Next, describe how the emotion feels within your body.
Finally, after you have completed your list, talk about how it
feels to share your emotional feelings with another person.
In addition to becoming familiar with your emotions, there
are three other elements that are related to developing the
capacity to be emotionally available -
The messages we have heard
from other people throughout our lives - but especially
during childhood when we are most vulnerable to the impact
of these messages - have a profound influence on how we
see ourselves. If people tell us that we have negative qualities, we eventually internalize this message and begin to see
ourselves in a negative light. On the other hand, if we are
treated with high regard from others as we grow up, we can
develop positive self-esteem. People with good self-esteem
value themselves, are confident in expressing themselves,
and can engage in healthy reciprocal relationships with other
people. Positive self-esteem allows a person to treat other
people with high regard and to value the accomplishments
and achievements of other people without feeling threatened.
People with positive self-esteem like themselves, and, in
turn, can like other people as well. They can make themselves emotionally available to another person.
Good boundaries show
that you respect the individuality, personal space and
privacy of other people - as well as your own. This ability, again, is developed most strongly in childhood, but is
refined throughout our lives. People with poor boundaries
intrude into the lives of others so that other people don't
feel safe around them. They gossip, reveal secrets, meddle
into the private affairs of others, and, in general, fail to
show respect for the dignity of other people - as well as
themselves. People who grew up in households with poor
boundaries have never been able to develop a sense of their
own individuality or a sense of separation from their family members, so in adulthood they have difficulty honoring
another person's space. A person with porous boundaries
may be emotionally unavailable because, in a sense, they
are too available - so available, in fact, that they lack a
clear sense of who they are. In order to be emotionally
available to another person, you need a good sense of your
own self that you protect. When you have good boundaries,
you are able to protect the healthiest parts of both yourself
and your partner.
The Ability to Trust
One of the core attributes
we develop from the families we grow up in is a
sense of safety. When we feel safe, we are able to trust in
the world. But when we feel abandoned, rejected, or controlled, trust can become an issue for us in later relationships. And when our ability to trust is damaged, we may
feel safer by walling ourselves off from our partner - and
thus become emotionally unavailable. Trust is a deep issue
that requires exploration and understanding, as well as
some courage when we are finally ready to attempt to trust
other people. The development of trust can be facilitated by
working with a professional therapist in a setting that feels
safe, and it may be
a necessary step in
making yourself emotionally available to
your partner. When a
person makes a commitment to us in a
relationship, we owe
that person respect
- and that means
to those who love us.
How Emotionally Available Are You?
Circle "T" or "F" to describe how you respond to the following situations. The more "True"
answers you circle, the likelier you may have difficulty with emotional availability.
|T ||F ||1. I seldom cry.|
|T ||F ||2. If I feel like crying, I try everything I can to stop myself.
|T ||F ||3. I seldom saw my family express emotions when I was growing up.|
|T ||F ||4. Emotions are embarrassing.|
|T ||F ||5. There are many things from my childhood I don't like talking about.|
|T ||F ||6. I think people who express their emotions are weak or silly.|
|T ||F ||7. People who get emotional at work risk ruining things for all of us.|
|T ||F ||8. People do much better when they use logic, not emotions. Emotions are a waste of time.|
|T ||F ||9. If my friends want to talk about their relationships, I change the subject.|
|T ||F ||10. When I hear people talk about how they feel, I'm not sure what they mean.|
(This quiz is adapted from Emotional Unavailability by Bryn C. Collins.)