Have you ever been involved with someone who didn’t seem to be there? A client of mine became involved with a man she could not seem to pin down. He was like a mirage – she could see him, even hear him, but when she would reach out to touch him and grab hold of him… her hand went right through. He just did not seem to be “really there.” His proclamations of love and understanding never translated into action and he was never available to her when she really needed him.
One day when we were talking about his emotional unavailability, my client had a major epiphany. She remembered a time a few months prior when her boyfriend had gone through a rough patch at work. He was depressed and anxious. Looking back, she realized it was a bad time for him and he needed support. “I went out of town,” she recalled, horrified. “My sister asked me if I wanted to spend a long weekend with her helping her get her country cabin ready for the season. I obviously did not have to go, but I did. I left him during that hard time. Do you think I’m emotionally unavailable too?”
It’s not uncommon for people who have a hard time connecting emotionally to be drawn to one another. As much as they want contact, attachment, and love, they seem to always be throwing spanners into the works.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable? It sounds like modern psychobabble, but take my word for it – it is very real and can be hard on people who deep down really want to love and be loved. When people create barriers that help them avoid emotional intimacy, deep connection, or a serious relationship of any kind, it’s called being “emotionally unavailable.” The irony is that emotionally unavailable people really do want intimacy with someone, but are simply afraid to establish it.
Why a person might be unreachable in that way could – and has – filled up many a book written by experts in the fields of psychology, relationships, attachment and intimacy. But in a nutshell, if you are unable to trust due to past relationship experiences, childhood trauma, fear of rejection or hurt, you may be emotionally unavailable. Emotionally unavailable people are as likely to be women as men, despite stereotypes that unfairly characterize them as typically men.
If you are attracted to emotionally unavailable people, it may be because you are too, as intimate relationships are often our mirrors. Or it may have to do with your sense of value or self-worth, or self-fulfilling fears.
Maybe having a checklist of “warning signs” will help you as you navigate the world of dating and the obstacle course of the emotionally unavailable.
Here are some things that are often true of emotionally unavailable people.
- They are “too busy” – with work, hobbies, friends, family to make time for a relationship. (How many no-I-can’t-I’m-busys do you hear before you get a “can’t wait to see you.?”)
- They have an addiction or crutch e.g. working out, sports, gambling, drinking, etc. (Is getting that next drink or spending 2 hours a day at the gym more important than your needs or the needs of your relationship?)
- They are separated… but not divorced. (Is the divorce always on the horizon but it never actually happens? There’s nothing like being “technically” married to keep someone just out of reach.)
- Their actions are incongruent with their words. (We all know actions speak more loudly than words. If the words say “I love you” but the actions scream “I don’t have time for you” – what do you listen to?)
- They are inflexible and unable to compromise. (If it’s my-way-or-the-highway most of the time, where do you actually fit in to this picture? Your needs are not being met.)
- Theirs is a “center of the universe” point of view. (Are all the stories about his or her day? Are all the pet peeves his or her pet peeves? Do you lose sight of you in this relationship? You are not being seen or heard because you are involved with someone emotionally unavailable.)
- They have no past long term relationships. (If you are 20, this is not a red flag. If you are 35, 40, 45 or older and one of you has zero experience with a long term relationship, it’s a red flag. The emotionally unavailable often steer clear of commitment.)
- They are demanding or controlling. (Similar to #5, this rigid kind of person has a strong desire to control others – including you. Why? Control is an easy substitute for intimacy, until you realize what’s happening. It’s the way an emotionally unavailable person can seem to be focused on you… by trying to control you.)
- They can be arrogant. (You may be noticing that several characteristics of the emotionally unavailable are also those of the classic narcissist. An arrogant person – typically much more insecure than his or her attitude would indicate – has every reason to stay detached. It’s called superiority, or at least a false sense of superiority.)
- They are overly critical of others/past partners. (Is every failed relationship the exclusive fault of the other person? This springs from a profound inability to see or acknowledge any responsibility in a relationship… including the break-up.)
You want to be in a healthy, warm, attached relationship with an emotionally available person. True availability and intimacy are based on trust and being present for someone else. The best way to avoid getting involved with an emotionally unavailable person is to know your values, who you are, and what you want in your life and relationships. Settle for nothing less. And let yourself be emotionally available too!