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.