Emotionally Unavailable Spouse
Human beings are social creatures by nature. We desire loving companionship of all kinds, and romantic relationships and marriage are often at the top of the list of most humans. So to have a spouse who’s emotionally unavailable, even in the midst of a long-time relationship, is an extraordinarily painful experience.
What Does “Emotionally Unavailable” Mean?
The definitions vary somewhat, but the behavior that results is often similar. And the reasons for either spouse being emotionally unavailable are numerous, ranging from childhood patterns to defensive reactions based on past romantic relationships, or from problems within the current relationship.
So, what are some common behaviors of emotionally unavailable people?
- Picking fights over tiny things just to keep their distance.
- Claims of being too busy to spend time with their partner.
- Addictions (drugs, porn, even hobbies—yes, hobbies!)
- Lying (including lies of omission)
- Refusing to argue
- Affairs (this is a big one, obviously)
- Chronic tardiness
These are just some of the behaviors, though.
The issue with emotionally unavailable spouses or partners is that they’re often unaware that their behavior is problematic. Many times, sitting down with an objective professional is helpful, in that it helps the emotionally unavailable person see how their behavior is hurtful. That is if they’re just open enough to agree to therapy. Some might not be, though, and no amount of cajoling or pleading will get them to agree just because you want them to.
More On Emotionally Unavailable Behaviors
So, let’s expand on some of the above behaviors, shall we?
1) Passive-aggressiveness. This is really big one, up there with having affairs, but perhaps a bit more “fixable.” So what does being passive-aggressive really mean? A lot of times it means that when a person says they’ll do something, they do the exact opposite. It’s not only dishonest; it’s disrespectful and dismissive of the other person’s feelings. It can lead to the person who wants an open, honest channel of communication to feel like they can no longer rely on their spouse or partner to be there for them even in the most practical ways.
Often times, the person who is emotionally unavailable like this had at least one parent or relative who was controlling. Being passive-aggressive is a form of depressed, suppressed anger, and often times comes from the little kid inside them that sits and sulks, subtly vibrating “you can’t make me!” any time someone makes a request.
2) Chronic Tardiness. This has a tendency to be paired up with passive-aggressive behavior in general, especially if the person already has potential to be a high-functioning Asperger’s—meaning that time is very fluid—almost nonexistent–for them, and they can easily get lost in what they’re doing. Pair this with emotional neediness and desire for attention (also the potential result of childhood abuse), and you could have a person who perpetually engages with people other than their family and they get lost in conversations, making them late for important family events, let alone dates with their significant other.
If this is one of the behaviors your partner is exhibiting, you might want to do some further research on Asperger’s syndrome to see if your partner falls in line with this, or if they are truly emotionally checking out because they were traumatized before they met you. On top of this, definitely seek professional help for both you and your partner, especially if you really, really want to make your relationship work.
3) Claims of “I’m too busy.”
Workaholism is rampant in many uber-industrialized parts of the world, especially with the still-perpetuated ideal that men are “supposed to be” the breadwinners, and so often times, this claim often comes from the men. It doesn’t help that many companies do not have a family-friendly policy when it comes to men actually wanting to spend time with their spouse and children, if there are children in the picture.
Also, part of the problem lies in the social construct of telling men, from the time they are very little boys, that they should stuff their emotions—that because they are men they are “supposed to be” super-logical and rational, on top of being breadwinners. They can’t help but connect the two because society says that in order to be “real men,” they must connect the two. So what do they do? They come into adulthood believing that the logical, rational thing to do, once they find someone to be with, is bury their noses in their work because they’re being productive breadwinners.
But their relationships suffer for it.
Yet it isn’t always the men. Women who enjoy being breadwinners themselves can end up “being too busy” for their partners—because it gives them a sense of control over their own life. They enjoy the power it gives them, because perhaps before they became adults, they didn’t feel very empowered. So the idea of being in relationships leaves them feeling cold. They didn’t have control over the choices in their lives when living with their parents, and they need time to “grow up” and feel emotionally secure in learning to make their own decisions. Being in a relationship can make this kind of woman feel like she’s still “answering to Daddy,” because she has to take her mate’s needs into consideration.
It’s even worse when she’s with a particularly needy, controlling person. So it’s only natural that she’s going to want to holler “stop the bus! I wanna leave right now!” And she’ll be very skittish about getting back on the relationship bus again.
4) Refusing to Argue.
Conflict is almost always inevitable in any relationship, but when one or both partners are afraid of conflict, they’ll do or say things to avoid working things out. They’ll likely accuse each other of being too dramatic, too emotional, etc, or they’ll say “I really don’t wanna talk about it anymore,” or other things like that.
Another sign of being conflict-phobic is the fear that if there’s conflict at all, it means the relationship might be doomed. This could stem from them either having divorced parents, or knowing other people who are divorced. Or it could simply mean that they’re super-sensitive and conflict is truly emotionally and physically stressful—even when learning how to handle their own emotions would be truly beneficial. So they build up their defenses with being super-logical as a way to escape, to avoid and run away, emotionally, even if they’re physically present in the house.
All this can be truly emotionally devastating for the person who really wants to get things out in the open and discuss heavy topics in as civil and loving a manner as possible.
How to cope with this? Again, therapy is very helpful in this case, as it can help the emotionally unavailable person cope with the root of their fears of conflict as well as learn new strategies for communication and being honest with themselves and others.
This is one of those wall-building habits that can really cause problems for the one wanting to be emotionally honest. Defensiveness can have its roots in a lot of other emotional problems, likely childhood traumas, abuses, etc, and can take various forms.
Lashing out when someone’s touched a raw nerve is one of the main ways this type of emotional unavailability can manifest. For instance, people who hold themselves to an irrationally high standard not only do this to themselves as part of their personality, but have often been criticized in their early years for not being the way other people “expect” them to be. They know there’s an issue. They want to be loved for themselves. Who doesn’t, right?
So they seek out relationships hoping to find someone to help them heal.
The unfortunate thing about this is, the people they hope for and desire end up on the receiving end of a barbed tongue if they say anything that could be perceived as overly critical, even when there is every loving intent behind the very gently phrased feedback.
This should tell the overly defensive person that they really need to work on not being so self-critical. Yet they are so accustomed to thinking so harshly about themselves that even mentioning this to them could be perceived as a criticism. What a minefield for their partners, right?
So the partner ends up not knowing what to say to “make things right,” even when they want so very much to help the other person get past their issues. It ends up in that person walking on eggshells around their overly defensive partner, or leaving entirely. And the latter can send the defensive one into a downward spiral of “I must be a truly horrible person if they left. I’m not worthy of anyone,” and on and on.
It can take quite a bit of cognitive behavioral therapy to get the overly defensive and self-critical person to challenge their self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.
What to Do if You are In This Type of Relationship
Many people end up falling for emotionally unavailable partners, and not realize they’ve been blindsided by outward signs of “availability” masking the unavailability until they’re knee-deep in the relationship.
So what to do if you’re the one who wants to be emotionally available, but your partner is not? First off, know that whatever things they have done that mark them as emotionally unavailable are more about them than they are about you. This may or may not mean they are completely selfish or narcissistic, but it does mean they more than likely have a few emotional wounds that need healing, and they’re not self-aware enough to realize those wounds are affecting the way they relate to people.
If they’ve been rejected before by anyone, even if it is a family member, they are either going to exhibit either needy behaviors or similar rejecting behaviors that keep them from getting hurt again. This can set off a chain reaction in the person they’re rejecting, especially if that other person has also been hurt before.
What if You Are the Emotionally Unavailable One?
It’s likely that people who are drawn to emotionally unavailable types are emotionally unavailable themselves, to one degree or another, and they don’t realize it until they see some article that hits them upside the head.
They are then confronted with their own complex, complicated emotions and they either have the presence of mind to say, “Okay, let’s do something about this,” or they escape into their imaginary world where they feel they can ignore what they just read, and not do anything about it because, well, they don’t have to change. It’s others who have to change.
If this is you, if these are your thoughts, you need to know that this is not taking full responsibility for your emotions and responses to others’ behavior. Don Miguel Ruiz, author of “The Four Agreements,” would say that this is you taking what others say and do too personally.
This is behavior that goes above and beyond being genuinely hurt by rude, unfeeling comments. This is behavior that goes into pure “victim” mode, perceiving everything as a slight, even when no slight is intended.
The good news is, you’re not alone. You wouldn’t be the first person to have these wounds. So many people are walking around out there with various levels of wounding, and how they work with it and heal it depends on their level of personal growth. This is not to say that everyone is like this. Just be aware that you are likely drawn to other emotionally unavailable people because there are issues that need to be addressed, and like energy tends to attract like energy.
Additional Tips for Couples With Emotional Wounding And Unavailability
1) Therapy. If you really truly love your partner or spouse, and truly want to be with them, yet you are having trouble coping with your own emotions, let alone theirs, talk therapy would be one of the most beneficial things you can do for you and your beloved. Another thing would be to learn how the other person communicates. At first the new communication style may feel like ‘lying’ to yourself, but that’s simply because your habits of emotional unavailability are what you’re used to—you think it’s really you, but it’s not. It’s simply conditioned patterns.
“But I’m an introvert,” you say. “I like relationships, but I’m very picky about who I hang out with.”
This leads to the next tip, actually:
2) Introversion vs Emotional Unavailability. There is a big difference between being emotionally unavailable and being an introvert with healthy boundaries you set for yourself. Many introverts out there are truly kind and caring people who do let others into their lives, albeit very carefully. They’re careful like this because they just need private time to unwind, private places to work, etc, and find extroverted “party time” people too much to handle—especially if the extroverts they meet are, in actuality, emotionally needy.
On that note: when introverts get down to business with their work, if they have emotionally needy people in their lives, interruptions that have nothing to do with big important, life-death-or-money issues are seen as inane and inconsequential, at least in that moment. This isn’t a rejection of the person doing the interrupting—this is a rejection of what is seen as inappropriate boundary-pushing and disrespect for the introvert’s time, however unconscious or conscious it might be.
Emotionally unavailable people, however, go beyond being introverted, or even beyond ‘being logical.’ They have truly shut down their emotions in order to cope with, or escape the very real need to deal with emotions in general, let alone personal grief, trauma, etc. They’ve truly closed down their heart and solar plexus centers and do not let anyone in for fear of being hurt. Yet the paradoxical thing is they really truly want a relationship. They’re just so ruled by fear—fear of being rejected, or fear of being controlled, or even both.
These are the ones who are both sad and angry. They’re sad because they have raw wounds based in rejection; they’re lonely because they believe they’re not worth anything; and because they are human like everyone else, they want to be accepted as they are. But they’re angry because of various forms of emotional rejection and betrayal; they’ve been controlled before (and controlling others is a form of rejecting others as they are) and they’re not going to let anyone else control them. They therefore have a very skewed perception of what’s helpful, loving advice and an agenda of control and emotional domination.
So, What Does Emotional Availability Look Like?
For those who have seriously raw wounds that need healing, yet want to know what it’s like to be with someone who is available for them on a healthy basis, it can be a bit difficult to define for themselves what true emotional availability looks like(Is He Emotionally Unavailable Or Is He Just Not That Into You?), because they’ve been burnt so badly before.
If this describes you, this mini-list is for you. Emotional availability often takes the form of:
1) Truly being present in the here and now for you and others, without feeling the need to be needed. These people want to help you be independent, emotionally fulfilled and self-sufficient. By self-sufficient, this does not mean you are not supposed to have people in your life at all. That’s the twisted, wounded perspective taken by those who feel shame at wanting close connections because they have a false belief that you’re weak if you get close to people and take your proverbial mask off to show your vulnerabilities.
2) Being helpful with advice without having an agenda about how you implement that advice. There are people out there like this, and being in the presence of such people is truly a breath of fresh air. You can ask them to help you solve things without them insinuating that there is only a certain way to solve those things. They delight in helping in emotionally healthy ways, and share in your triumphs—without being condescending or patronizing–when you’ve successfully implemented something.
Ultimately, they want for you what you want for you. This is definitely a safe relationship to be in, because this kind of freedom and nonjudgmentalness will allow you to regain your trust in other people and better define what’s healthy for you and what’s not.
3) Healthy boundary-setting without being completely closed off. Even though emotionally available people do want to get close and they don’t mind sharing vulnerabilities and having true emotional intimacy, they know how to take care of their personal energy and don’t let the emotionally needy, “hungry ghosts” latch onto them. Emotionally needy people may get upset and perceive this as the other being ’emotionally unavailable,’ or ‘closed off,’ but this is a false perception.
Healthy boundary-setting also includes having one’s own personal interests and not getting swallowed up in their deeply intimate relationships. They stay individuals while still being part of a twosome. They trust their partner and don’t constantly call or text them, checking up on them.
Emotional unavailability is one of the most challenging aspects of having feelings for someone—especially if you’re already married to them. You might love them to bits, but for some reason, they’ve engaged in one or more of the common habits of emotionally unavailable people listed in the first part of this article, and therefore your heart is broken in pieces.
Conversely, you might be the emotionally unavailable one, expressing this in overt neediness or unconsciously rejecting or pulling away from your beloved because you find it difficult to put into words what you’re feeling due to conditioning of some kind.
Either way, whatever wounds you have, you need to learn how to look at them honestly and say, ‘yes, this wound is here, and I’m not sure how to heal it—I need help.’ Because if you don’t, you end up hurting others in the process, creating more wounded people. The more honest you are to and about yourself concerning how your loved ones behave towards you and how you behave towards your loved ones, then the process of healing can begin.
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