“He’s just so emotionally unavailable.” This is one of the things I hear most often in my practice and one of the things I heard myself saying most often before I did my own work. I remember being utterly convinced of it. The evidence was in everything my husband did — the way he stonewalled me during arguments, the way he zoned out and disappeared into the television so much, the way he got sleepy and indeed did even nod off when I was talking to him sometimes. I was outraged by his “emotional unavailability” and I experienced it as deeply wounding.
Women, and sometimes men, often have a long list of behaviors they have identified in their partner which serves as evidence of their partner’s emotional unavailability. What they often miss is that the behaviors they are observing do not occur in a vacuum. They occur within the context of a relational field, one significant aspect of that field being the person doing all the observing, judging and amassing of evidence.
What I find so interesting is that, when we are constantly watching our partners for their level of availability, scanning their behavior, anxiously monitoring them and living in hyper-vigilant relationship to their level of availability, WE are in fact unavailable — to our partners and to ourselves. When we are so focused on the other, we leave ourselves, and the intensity of focus on the other and intensity of need for the other to be available is an open invitation for the other to distance, withdraw or shut down. Far from being just inherently emotionally unavailable, the partner observed as “emotionally unavailable” is actually expressing part of a relationship process, in which both partners play an equal role.
What so often gets missed is the reciprocal nature of the relationship between partners.
I have heard even respected therapists say things like “He will always be an avoidant,” and actually what I have come to believe is that that is rarely true. In different relationships we do different dances. It depends on the reciprocal process that develops between us. But one thing is for sure, being monitored and having our behavior scrutinized and our level of availability constantly assessed and criticized is hardly inviting of intimacy or closeness. It has an intrusive or “too close” flavor that invites distancing behavior in the other and makes it very likely that they will need to retreat.
If we look out at the distancing other and only see their distancing, rather than also seeing our role in the dance, we rob ourselves of the power we have to alter the dance. When one partner in a partnered dance alters their dance moves — their rhythm, timing, spacing, intensity etc, even very subtly, the other partner cannot help but alter theirs. This is the power of working with relationship phenomena systemically. We need not be concerned with attempting in any way to change the other, we need only change ourselves, and the other will change around us.
In my own relationship it has been so vital to dispense with unhelpful labels like “avoidant” or “emotionally unavailable,” to get my focus off what my husband is doing and to look at my own part of the dance. If my husband has become distant or withdrawn, what contribution have I made to that state of play? Have I assailed him the moment he has entered a house full of children in various states of dinner/bath chaos, not half an hour after he has finished a full day working in an intense job, coming at him with the full force of my excitement/intensity/anxiety/need to talk and connect. If I really thought it through would I choose to try and connect in that way? Am I really emotionally available when I move toward him in that way — or am I just discharging energy from my day? What happens if I manage my intensity and my need more thoughtfully, act with more self-responsibility, parent myself, practice a little containment, patience and maturity? If I am actually interested in getting my needs met, how, when and in what manner might I approach him?
When we are obsessed with our partner’s unavailability and endlessly taking note of the long list of behaviors they would need to change in order to be more available, we disempower ourselves and we damage our relationships. Many relationships don’t survive the damage done. When we begin to look at our own part in the dance however, all the answers for a more satisfying relationship lie there, and we empower ourselves to do what needs to be done and make the necessary changes because we have no power over others, we have loads over ourselves.
This conscious attending to our part in the dance can be done from either side of the closeness-distance, pursuit-withdrawal reciprocity. The partner who more often distances has just as much power to observe themselves in their part of the dance and to alter their contribution. There is of course, as above, an interplay between a distancing partner’s behavior and another partner who is in pursuit.
One of the many gifts of no longer kidding yourself that it is your partner that is emotionally unavailable, is the opportunity to begin to be emotionally available to ourselves, to identify and give ourselves what we need and hunger for, to define and live by our own values and principles, and to become our own loving parent. When we quit blaming the people we love for what we are experiencing and begin to acknowledge the back and forth, reciprocal interplay of our relationships, in a completely blameless way, adult relationships become possible. Our need for our partner to be emotionally available to us settles down markedly and we become capable of bringing a full self to our relationship encounters.
Wonderfully, when I become focused on the degree to which I am in relationship with myself, my needs are much more met in my own self-process, and when I do choose to move towards my husband I am significantly less needy and overwhelming, and he is naturally more receptive to connection, and has less need to chronically distance. I am always struck by the beautiful paradox that in becoming willing to risk not getting what we so desire from our partners, and learning to hold ourselves with love in the suspended tension of that place, we often end up getting our heart’s desire in spades.