Spotting Emotional Unavailability

A friend of mine texted me yesterday…”New blog topic: how to identify when someone is emotionally unavailable.” How the hell would I know? That’s the type I fall in love with over and over again. I texted back, “Haha…I would have to figure it out before I wrote it. Well, maybe I see if they are attracted to me. If they are, they are.” I’m not a psychologist, but I love talking about this stuff, and I write a blog, so I guess I’m the one who needs to do the research.

Like all good researchers, I first googled “What is emotionally unavailable?” I don’t know why. I know as much about it as anyone on the internet does. And, by the way, I think I’ve googled this topic about 1000 times, so I already know what’s out there. There’s a picture of my second husband…that’s emotionally unavailable. (I know…that was a cheap shot.)

In my mind, emotionally unavailable is someone who is unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy into building a relationship. Sometimes people are emotionally unavailable as a character trait. These are the ones that have no idea that they are emotionally unavailable or even that there’s a term for it. I went out with a guy from Match one evening. I asked him what his three…yes, three…ex-wives said about him. He said they told him he was emotionally unavailable. I said, “Well, are you?” He said, “Probably.” That was one of the easier ones to figure out. Duh. I wish they were all that easy to spot.

I know I’m attracted to emotionally unavailable men. I married two of them. At the time, I didn’t know that was the case. They were workaholics and chronically depressed. Now, I was depressed, too, and I would assume that meant I was emotionally unavailable as well. How can I invest time and energy in a relationship when I am struggling with depression that won’t go away? And, with depression, my filters wouldn’t allow me to have a good view of reality, so I couldn’t really be present and engaged. So, we were perfect matches. In reality, I think a lot of people, both men and women, are emotionally unavailable.

What are some signs? Like I said, I’m not a professional, but this is what I look for:

  • Addictions like chemical dependency,  workaholism, gambling addiction, sex addiction, pornography addictions, untreated codependency
  • Eating Disorders
  • Untreated depression or chronic illness that occupies a large chunk of time and energy
  • Married, in a relationship or just out of a significant committed relationship
  • Overwhelming life responsibilities

That being said, some people are emotionally unavailable right now. I knew that I was emotionally unavailable for two years after I divorced because I was consumed with grief and was dealing with some significant personal growth work. I needed to make myself emotionally unavailable in order to heal. I totally walled myself off from potential relationships except with women who were also in a healing process. It was an incubator of sorts, I guess. I slowly let myself become more emotionally available in the third year, and it probably took me another year to test relationships enough to feel safe in being vulnerable and to invest myself. This is another reason that 12 Step Programs tell people not to make major changes or get into a relationship during the first year of sobriety. A person just can’t emotionally invest in a relationship and do really tough things like kick an addiction. The energy and focus has to go somewhere, and usually its going to go to the “easier” thing.

The problem is that most people are not aware enough of their feelings and their limitations to realize that sometimes they just need to take a break. Or, they are so unaware of their feelings and limitations that they don’t realize they are not capable of a relationship. Others are chronically emotionally unavailable. They don’t know they have feelings because all they do is use relationships to distract them from looking inside themselves. A person is just a substance to use to make them feel better. Still others have numbed out so much that they are just drifting through life, and relationships make them feel alive. There are so many reasons, but they all lead to emotional unavailability.

For a long time, I said it was hard to spot. It’s actually not that hard to spot. It’s hard to say “off limits,” especially if you like the guy. They are going to say they are available, they want to stop working so much, they just need to find the right person, etc…. So, I will start making excuses for him, and listening to what he says instead of watching what he does. My second husband was still married when I met him. Yes, he had been separated for over a year, but he was not divorced. He told me that he was “spiritually and emotionally” divorced. He was just waiting on the legal piece. I already really liked him, so I let it slide. If I met him now, we wouldn’t make it past the first date. First of all, he had no long term friends. Anybody that is healthy emotionally has some friends. Relationships are important to them, and they know how to work to keep them. This is now a deal-breaker for me.

It’s not hard to spot a person whose work is out of control, who is using alcohol or drugs excessively, or is not consistent in their behaviors if I am looking. When I was younger, I wasn’t looking. I didn’t know I needed to look. Now that I’ve felt some pain because of this, I pay more attention. I ask more questions, and I don’t give my heart away so quickly. I know some people can schmooze you and lie and con you. That does happen. But, for most people, they are so unaware that there is anything wrong with their lifestyle, they will tell you. I’ve heard all of these in the last two years:

“I’m a workaholic.”

“My ex-wife told me I couldn’t have porn in the house, so I subscribed to Playboy to spite her.”

“I’m a prick.”

“I’m not looking for anything serious.”

“My wife died last month. My friends told me I need to get out here.”

All of these are code for, “I’m not available for a healthy, committed relationship.” Now, they may be available for sex or dating or friendship, and that may be just fine. I have to be honest with myself, though. That’s as far as it will go. When people show me or tell me who they are, I listen. I honor them and myself enough to accept reality as it is. If I don’t, both of us may get hurt or angry or both. So, the question I have to ask myself is whether or not I am emotionally available and want a relationship. Because, if I am and I do, I wouldn’t want this. If I’m not and I don’t, it might be a perfect fit.  I have to live in reality.

12 Comments on “Spotting Emotional Unavailability

  1. This is one of your best posts. It gave me reason to do some serious thinking about how emotionally available I am. Also, it was heartening to know that some people are short-term emotionally unavailable because of something that’s going on in their life. That seems to be the case with me. Thanks for the insights.

  2. I don’t see any comments so I choose to be the first. My first obvious perception is that this is great writing as usual. Good research and experience.Very thought provoking to me. I feel somewhat vulnerable putting myself out here with such smart people. It also seems to me that this blog is mostly read by women of which I am not ; )
    What jumped out at me was the question to yourself to whether or not you are emotionally available. I have been learning self honesty for the past five years, all by choice through circumstances. I hope to continue to practice this daily for the rest of my life because of it’s benefits. Especially in any relationship of which I have been learning first, (before the romantic kind), how to be good friends with the same sex. I have always had trust issues with other men. I also have been learning how to be responsible enough to keep plants alive. LOL But the main relationship I have worked on for these same years has been for me, in which I feel self honesty is crucial.
    Keep in mind as you read that my experience with romantic relationships has been mainly a marriage of twenty years that ended in divorce, then having a friend relationship with my ex because of our children, then having an even closer relationship after our oldest son was diagnosed with Leukemia, then an even closer relationship when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, then an even closer one while she spent her last days with us in the hospital before she passed away. Because of being honest with myself I have no regrets in our relationship, we experienced much love and reconciliation spending quality time together in her last days and moments here in this life. I have had very little other experience except for coffee shop meetings etc. This is one of the reasons your topic was so interesting to me because that’s where I’ve been for so long, in an on or off available state because of life.
    What I have learned thus far is to ask myself three questions: (yours included) 1. Am I emotionally available? 2. What do I have to give spiritually? 3. What do I have to give financially? If I don’t have it, how can I give it? In the same vein how can I ask of someone else if I’m not willing to give the same?
    I believe emotional availability is as important as being emotionally healthy. I have been learning that when I am emotionally healthy everybody else seems to be better also! Oh, maybe I was the problem! LOL So I have to be self honest for me to mature emotionally in a healthy way.
    If I am not spiritually fullfilled, I cannot be healthy in any other aspect of my life, especially emotionally. For me, without God in my life I am self centered, egotistical, have a tendency to feed fears instead of love, have a low self esteem, lacking faith and trust. What a disastrous relationship that creates!
    I don’t think being able to give financially needs to much explanation. I believe it is a matter of opinion and choice also. Everyone has a different opinion on what is financially secure.
    What I am learning now in my life helps me with my relationships by being honest with my feelings, not only to myself but also with others. That feelings are OK and they will not kill me, as a matter of fact they mean I’m alive and well. Also I am learning to accept myself for who I really am,not who I think I’m supposed to be, or who others want me to be. Thanks for sharing Sharon. ; ) Keith

    • What a thoughtful comment, Keith! So glad this blog gave you some food for thought. To be honest, when I was writing it, initially I wanted to focus on the emotional unavailability of the men I’ve been dating. But, I realized that I might be emotionally unavailable right now, too. My life is really busy, and I’m adapting to a new job. Maybe I really don’t have the time and energy to devote to getting to know someone right now, either.

      I love your comments on your marriage and the friendship that eventually took its place. It sounds like the work you’ve done has been incredible in teaching you how to love and accept yourself and others. Thanks for sharing that. I, too, have learned that as I got better, other people got better, too. I laugh about that because I know that it was about me and my acceptance of others.

      It’s interesting that you brought up the financial piece. I actually put that in there as an indicator, and then I wondered if that really was one. But, I know that if I’m in financial trouble, I can’t be present with others, and I can be very self-centered. Financial issues are big issues, and, in my experience, they show up as power struggles in so many ways. It’s hard to be in a partnership with somebody when there are financial issues. So, yes, I think it is a part of being emotionally available. So glad you confirmed that for me.

      Good luck in your journey. And, thank you so much for reading my blog.

  3. This is one of those posts that give you replies to questions you do not dare asking and make you actually think about situations which involve you directly through another person’s words and experiences.
    I wonder if people born emotionally unavailable and keep developing this side of their personality (which becomes overwhelming and affect not only their love life but the way they interact with people, make and KEEP friends, approach work etc…) or it is rather a matter of experiences you have in life ( I would say ‘which disappoint you in life’ – including meeting someone emotionally unavailable that makes YOU emotionally unavailable) and of context you grow up in.
    Expecially nowadays, large, multicultural cities where people come and leave in a few years are the perfect place for carrying on with no engagements (even buying good furniture!) justified by the fact that “I do not even know if I will be here in 1 year time”.
    I reckon instability in life brings instability in emotions, and many people find convenient to be emotionally unavailable since they are in highschool.
    While growing up they think that at one point which sounds good to them they will just STOP facing life in this way and find a place they like more than others (or where they can make good money), find a good girl/guy they will THINK they’r in love with, and settle down.
    The HUGE mistake for who sticks with these emotionally unavailable people is thinking that settling down and being ‘finally’ ENGAGED (as a matter of fact) to a person, to kids, to work duties, means that the person suddenly became emotionally available. Absolutely wrong. And if marriage, the birth of a kid, life moments spent together cannot make a person feel and share emotions, then what would make it possible?

    • Great thoughts! I was one of those people that moved around a lot. In recovery, we call it a geographical cure. After getting some help and realizing that I was emotionally unavailable because of my addictions, I made myself stay here in Memphis. I went through a period of longing to move after about 3 years of being here. That was my pattern. Every three years I got the itch. And, I made a conscious decision, to stay here and buy a house instead of moving. It has made all the diffence in my “availability” although it does bring up some fear at times. Can I commit to a place, a person or other path? Can I commit even when I get bored with it? Those are hard places to be, especially when there are so many choices. I do think there is value for me as a person to commit and go “deeper” into any path rather than just skimming the surface of a lot of paths. As far as how a person changes and becomes emotionally available or if they can, I don’t know? That’s the eternal question.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment on this blog.

  4. I agree that looking at one’s friends is a great indicator of whether someone is able to carry on a relationship. My husband and I had some mutual friends and when I got to know his other friends that clinched it for me. Good people are drawn to other good people. You are very wise! Love you!!!

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