We all hate it when we invest in a friendship or romantic relationship, only to realize later that our friend or lover was “emotionally unavailable.” “Emotionally unavailable” isn’t about the ability to make commitments.
Actually, it is worse than that.
You can easily end up in a committed relationship for various reasons with someone who is emotionally unavailable. So what does emotional unavailability look like?
- The Relationship is One-sided. You do the great majority of the planning, sacrificing, and communicating without a proportional response.
- The Relationship is Fair-weather. It’s great when things are going well, but when you have setbacks and bad days, the other person is AWOL.
- The Relationship is Sporadic. The relationship is “on-again, off-again” for no apparent reason.
- The Other Person is Deeply Addicted. It could be a range of “addictions” from video games, gambling, porn or substances. But the addiction is the person’s way of being emotionally unavailable to you.
- The Other Person has Many Exits. This is similar to #4 but the exit from intimacy relies on more acceptable means. The other person may be a workaholic, sports-a-holic, shop-a-holic, hobby-holic, or often physically ill. If you find yourself feeling abandoned by the other person who is too often “doing their own thing,” they may be emotionally unavailable.
- The Other Person has Severe Emotional Disorders. I’m not just talking mild depression here. If a person is in active psychosis, actively suicidal, incapacitated by anxiety, or personality disordered (borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, etc), these are indications that the person has significant struggles. While we can have tons of compassion on struggling people, we should not expect people who are in this position to be able to support us in our times of need. And if we are repeatedly drawn to partner with people struggling at this level, we should get some counseling to figure out why.
- The Other Person Is Smothering/Controlling. As seductive as it is to be wined-and-dined and overwhelmed with gifts and attention, this pressure is actually a red flag. These are possible indications that the other person views you as someone to manipulate. First, it may start with the “good stuff”, but the desire to control will eventually deteriorate into the “bad stuff.” When you are viewed as a target to manipulate, this indicates the other person will not be genuinely emotionally available to you.
- The Other Person Can’t Empathize. When you are distressed, they appear unmoved or personally wounded. They focus on themselves instead of you. Instead of reaching out to comfort you, their actions say, in essence, “I’m hurting more! What about me?”
- The Other Person is Physically/Emotionally Abusive. This one should be obvious, but it is amazing how many of us get snared in these unhealthy relationships. Get support to leave as soon as possible.
- The Other Person is Repeatedly Dishonest. Lying is a way to hide their authentic self from true intimacy. It won’t get better without counseling or a major spiritual awakening.
- The Other Person is Jealous of or Competitive With You. Again, you are seen as a symbolic object to master rather than a unique person with needs, dreams and desires.
So, is there a way to sharpen our “Emotionally Unavailable Detector”? For sure, take this list and watch for indicators that could be a concern.
Along with that, you can run a little test for Emotional Availability. It consists of gently reaching out for support and seeing what the response is. (This will often backfire if you have a pattern of neediness in your relationship, so be aware of that fact). When you are getting to know someone, it might look like this:
You. “Yeah, I had another argument with my roommate today. I’m not sure what to do.”
Them. “That’s a drag . . . but hey did you see the Yankees kill the Reds last night?”
This response would earn 1 point out of 10 on the emotional availability scale. They couldn’t even venture into distressing subjects. Or. . .
Them. “Oh man, I had the worst roommate in the world! He would vomit in our room after partying. Your roommate couldn’t be THAT bad!”
3 points. This is one-upping, which tends to discount your pain, but it is a clumsy attempt to try to ease your distress, nevertheless. Or . . .
Them. “That sucks for sure. . . what’s been going on?”
8 points on the emotional availability scale. At least they wanted to know more about your challenges. Or. . .
Them. “Geez, are you okay? That’s gotta be so upsetting . . . what’s the toughest part for you?”
10 points on the emotional availability scale. The person tuned into your frustration, actually empathized with you and wanted to know more about your feelings.
Now, you need to be cautious about somebody who may be a 10 because it could be a technique to overwhelm or smother you with attention and affection (See #7). Let time and experience with this person show their true colors. But anything that looks like an 8 or better may be worth engaging with for at least awhile.
So if your friend is a 1-7 on the emotionally available scale, should you ditch them? Probably not. But just understand that as you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, so you shouldn’t expect much empathy and support from that person. Can they learn to be emotionally available and empathetic? Probably, but it will likely take a very long time feeling very safe. Meanwhile, your needs might not be met. Likewise, you may need to expand your ability to empathize and be emotionally available, too. Nobody is perfect.
Being emotionally unavailable may be a deal-breaker if you want true intimacy. But if you just want a few laughs and a good time, then most other people will fit the bill.