How to Spot Emotional Unavailability
By Darlene Lancer, MFT
If you’ve ever been in a relationship with someone emotionally unavailable, you know the pain of not being able to get close to the one you love. They’re evasive, make excuses, or just inept when it comes to talking about feelings or the relationship. Some use anger, criticism, or activities to create distance. You end up feeling alone, depressed, unimportant, or rejected. Usually women complain about emotionally unavailable men. Yet many women aren’t aware they’re emotionally unavailable, too. When you get hooked on someone else who is (think Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big) your problem is disguised as his. This keeps you in denial of your own unavailability.
There are several types of unavailability – both temporary and chronic. Some people have always been unavailable due to mental illness and/or a troubled childhood. Others temporarily make something a higher priority than a relationship, such as a family obligation, education, project, or a health concern. People recently divorced or widowed may temporarily not be ready to get involved with someone new. In the middle, are those who are too afraid to risk falling in love because they’ve been hurt by one or more relationships, which may include being hurt by a parent when they were a child. Often these different reasons for unavailability overlap, and it’s difficult to ascertain whether the problem is chronic or will pass.
If you’re looking for a close, committed relationship, a person living in another state, or who is married or still in love with someone else is not going to be there for you. Similarly, addicts, including workaholics, are unavailable because their addiction is the priority and it controls them. Still, some people give the appearance of availability and speak openly about their feelings and their past. You don’t realize until you’re already in a relationship that they’re unable to really connect emotionally or make a commitment.
Here’s a list of more subtle red flags that may signal unavailability, especially when several add up. They apply to both genders. Following them are questions to ask yourself to find out whether you’re ready for a committed relationship.
1. Flirting with flattery. Men who are too flattering. Like snake charmers, these wooers may also be adept listeners and communicators. Often good at short-term intimacy, some allure with self-disclosure and vulnerability, but they prefer the chase to the catch.
2. Control. Someone who won’t be inconvenienced to modify his or her routine. Typically, commitment phobics are inflexible and loathe compromises. Relationships revolve around them.
3. Listen. Your date may hint or even admit that he or she isn’t good at relationship or doesn’t believe in or isn’t ready for marriage. Listen to these negative facts and believe them. Ignore vulnerability, bragging, and compliments.
4. The Past. Find out if the person has had a long-term relationship and why it ended. You may learn that prior relationships ended at the stage when intimacy normally develops.
5. Perfection Seekers. These people look for and find a fatal flaw in the opposite sex and then move on. The problem is that they’re scared of intimacy. When they can’t find imperfection, their anxiety rises. Given time, they will find an excuse to end the relationship. Don’t be tempted to believe you’re better than their past partners.
6. Anger. Notice rudeness to waiters and others, revealing pent-up rage. This type of person is demanding and probably emotionally abusive.
7. Arrogance. Avoid someone who brags and acts cocky, signaling low self-esteem. It takes confidence to be intimate and committed.
8. Lateness. Chronic lateness is inconsiderate, and can also indicate the person is avoiding relationship, but don’t assume that punctuality means he or she’s a catch.
9. Invasiveness or Evasiveness. Secrecy, evasiveness, or inappropriate questions too soon about money or sex, for example, indicate a hidden agenda and unwillingness to allow a relationship to unfold. Conversely, someone may conceal his or her past due to shame, which may create an obstacle to getting close.
10. Seduction. Beware of sexual cues given too early. Seducers avoid authenticity because they don’t believe they’re enough to keep a partner. Once the relationship gets real, they’ll sabotage it. Seduction is a power-play and about conquest.
Most people reveal their emotional availability early on. Pay attention to the facts, especially if there’s mutual attraction. Even if the person seems to be Mr. or Mrs. Right, yet is emotionally unavailable, you’re left with nothing but pain. If you overlook, deny, or rationalize to avoid short-term disappointment, you run the risk of enduring long-term misery.
Be honest with yourself about your own availability.
1. Are you angry at the opposite sex? Do you like jokes at their expense? If so, you may need to heal from past wounds before you’re comfortable getting close to someone.
2. Do you make excuses to avoid getting together?
3. Do you think you’re so independent you don’t need anyone?
4. Do you fear falling in love because you may get hurt?
5. Are you always waiting for the other shoe to drop? Although people complain about their problems, many have even more difficulty accepting the good.
6. Are you distrustful? Maybe you’ve been betrayed or lied to in the past and now look for it in everyone.
7. Do you avoid intimacy by filling quiet times with distractions?
8. Are you uncomfortable talking about yourself and your feelings? Do you have secrets you’re ashamed of that make you feel undesirable or unlovable?
9. Do you usually like to keep your options open in case someone better comes along?
10. Do you fear a relationship may place too many expectations on you, that you’d give up your independence or lose your autonomy?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, counseling can help you heal in order to risk getting close. If you’re involved with someone emotionally unavailable, pressuring him or her to be more intimate is counterproductive. However, marriage or couples counseling can change the relationship dynamics and help you to have a more fulfilling intimate relationship.
© Darlene Lancer, 2012