First things first — no, emotional unavailability is not the same thing as emotionally Avoidant. Those who are Avoidant have an Avoidant attachment style. Those who are emotionally unavailable can have any type of insecure attachment style, including: Anxious, Avoidant, or Disorganized. What separates attachment style patterns are how we disconnect when feeling emotionally vulnerable.
While we may have preconceived notions on what emotional unavailability is, or we may have made arbitrary assumptions based on our dating histories, the reality is that emotional unavailability tilts on one of two extremes: fear of rejection or a fear of commitment. These extremes don’t discriminate among insecure attachment styles. Both extremes will have a person acting out their specific type of attachment style patterns, or vacillating between the two extremes as seen in a Disorganized attachment.
Aside from the obvious red flags of emotional unavailability such as confessing to a history of overlapping relationships or a high number of exes, most signs aren’t always so obvious. Instead, we may hear that they’ve always been in a relationship (red flag that they can’t be alone and fear rejection), or that they are more into casual dating (red flag of a possible fear of commitment or intimacy).
With a fear of rejection, a person typically needs to be in some stage of a relationship, usually the “honeymoon” phase. Once the honeymoon is over and the relationship settles into the mundane, predictable often gets confused as boredom. They begin feeling anxious, nervous, or a little paranoid that their partner is “bored” of them. It’s common to see them acting out to test their partner’s fidelity. We can see this in couples who fight in public, or where there’s always dramatic and equally passionate displays of breakup to makeup.
In essence, this type of relationship feeds off the drama as a way of “challenging” their partner’s investment to the relationship. Unfortunately, this pattern backfires where the other partner may become frustrated or embittered, leading to the #1 thing they fear the most: rejection.
On the flip-side, are those with a fear of commitment. When a fear of commitment is the overarching theme, the relationship has to stay “fun”. There’s limited emotional investment, and doing “things” such as investing their time or energy into hobbies, parties, friends, or superficial commitment replaces emotional intimacy. In this situation, emotional unavailability is held in the sidelines until it’s time to level up in the relationship. As long as their partner allows them to remain emotionally uninvested, the relationship stays superficially intact. If the partner wants to grow, to heal their own wounds, or to invest in a deeper commitment, emotional unavailability is triggered.
A partner who is more Avoidant may become indifferent, distant, shut down, or simply discard the relationship as too much effort. Typically, the pattern seen here is that they will discard one partner for what was on the side, often a ‘downgrade’ to something that allows them to remain emotionally stunted and further avoiding their emotional growth.
There are other factors aside from attachment style, that tap into our earliest conditioning and the beliefs we hold about our sense of Self, which play out in our relationship patterns and habits.
We’re Emotionally Unavailable
The main reason we attract — or are attracted to — emotionally unavailable partners is because a part of us is emotionally unavailable as well. The fact is, an emotionally connected partner is not going to stick around an emotionally inept relationship.
Healthy relationships expect growth. They rise to the challenge of self-assertion and self-advocacy. They want a deeper emotional connection and to build a solid foundation that can last.
When we find ourselves with a partner that we’re noticing is emotionally unavailable, that’s the biggest red flag for us to look within ourselves at what may be driving this pattern.
Because the red flags aren’t always obvious, we have to look at patterns. For example, are we in the habit of dating partners who unconsciously remind us of a toxic or abandoning parent? Do they share similar traits, attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors as them? Is there a pattern of “virtual” relationships where there’s a long string of exes who are out of state, who only visit on weekends, or have other commitments that limit their time or investment?
These are all signs of emotional unavailability. By choosing partners who can’t give us full attention or commitment, we’re allowing our relationships to stay emotionally “safe” and disconnected.
Bottom line: emotional unavailability is attracted to emotional unavailability.
We Choose Partners That Are Equally Immature
Or, who are more emotionally immature than us. Emotional immaturity isn’t always obvious or based on someone acting younger than their age. Sure, this is one obvious red flag. Less subtle signs can include choosing a partner based on their emotional intensity — are they volatile, exciting, unpredictable, or reckless? Are they irresponsible or always have an excuse for their behavior? Do they minimize relationships problems, or live in toxic positivity? How are their family relationships?
The least obvious (yet, the biggest red flag) is that we may choose partners that allow us — or reinforce us — in remaining emotionally stunted.
If they’re emotionally immature, there’s no threat in being required to emotionally grow in the relationship. If they aren’t in tune with their own emotional needs, they aren’t going to give a damn about ours.
This reinforces us remaining emotionally unavailable by exchanging emotional connection for physical connection, superficial hobbies, and shallow investment.
Underneath this dynamic, there are core wounds that prevent us from taking responsibility for our choices, patterns, or emotions which keeps us “chasing” emotionally immature or unavailable partners as emotional bandaids.
You’re Wanting What’s Easy Instead of What’s Healthy
Easy relationships will feel “good” because there’s no challenge to our worldview. If our partner isn’t challenging our perceptions (or mis-perceptions) about ourselves, our feelings, our mindset, or our habits/patterns, then there’s no growth. If our partner doesn’t challenge us or trigger our fears, our unhealed wounds, or our abandonment issues, the relationship remains “easy”…but toxic to our growth and happiness.
In his book, The Search for the Real Self: Unmasking the Personality Disorders of our Age, Masterson argues that a partner is “inappropriate for someone if the partner provides a defense against their painful feelings.” In other words, if the partners we choose are “easy”, the relationship won’t provide growth, but will keep us numb, avoidant, and emotionally unavailable.
Healthy relationships provide a level of challenge — of triggering our vulnerable emotions and making us go, “WTF?” every now and then. Relationships based on growth will make us feel anxious, will trigger uncomfortable feelings and emotions that we have avoided or ignored. Thry will dig up old pain we haven’t healed, and will push us to rise above our fears, into self-advocacy.
“Easy” relationships…offer none of it.
Unconsciously Seeking Out Partners Who Validate Our Negative Self-Feelings
Because it happens unconsciously, we aren’t going to be consciously aware of this pattern until we take the time to dive into our own relationship history.
The fact is, healthy relationships require us to show up for ourselves. And, showing up for ourselves means to express our True Self in the relationship. If we’re unconsciously projecting our fears, attachment wounds or low self-worth onto our partner, they become a stand-in for an abandoning parent, or a defense mechanism against our own painful emotions.
These red flags usually show up in emotionally sadomasochistic relationships where both partners give and receive superficial “pleasure” (sex, kink, hobbies, or numbing activities), mixed with emotional pain that “validates” their sense of worthlessness or regrets. And keeps them stuck in this cycle.
For example, if we grew up feeling unheard or invisible, we may unconsciously seek out partners who treat us exactly how we were treated as kids because we don’t believe we are worthy of better.
This cycle replays with each new partner, reinforcing emotional unavailability in our relationships and “validating” our negative Self-perception. We’re unconsciously teaching ourselves to focus on what our partner says, while dismissing their actions. We learn hypocrisy as “truth”, and self-sabotage as acceptable.
I’m not here to tell you how to live your life, or whether the choices you’re making are resonating with your True Self, or a false image you’ve painted for yourself.
I’ve had to dive deep into my own pain. I’ve had to deal with questioning my choices in relationships and why it took me so damned long to pull myself out of that cycle. I’ve had to accept some hard truths that sometimes we will be unbelievably attracted to what is toxic as fuck to our emotional growth. And, we’re going to have to face this hard truth sooner or later.
If we face it sooner, we’re pulling the bandaid off quickly, and allowing the wound to heal. If we keep trading out one emotional bandaid for another, all we do is prolong the pain.
And the emotional blood loss.
Emotionally unavailable relationships hand us the Golden Ticket into our own self-awareness, if we allow it. Their purpose is to show us where we’re falling short in showing up for ourselves. Or why we’re stuck choosing what’s easy, over what’s right. We see these glimpses every time we find ourselves reaching for another bandaid; another distraction.
…or another emotionally unavailable relationship.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, vols. I and II. New York: Basic.
Kernberg, O. F. (1976). Object-relations theory and clinical psychoanalysis. New York: J. Aronson.
Masterson, J. F. (1988). The search for the real self: Unmasking the personality disorders of our age. New York: Free Press.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
You Might Also Like These From The Good Men Project
|How to Lose a Guy Forever …….||..A Man’s Kiss Tells You Everything||..3 Things You Didn’t Know He Wants in Bed||.12 Signs She’s Woman You Should Marry|
Photo credit: iStockPhoto.com