Akshita Handa, 26, a newly married woman from Mumbai, admits that her husband's seeming disengagement made her overwhelmed and frustrated. “He didn’t particularly initiate conversations and often didn't seem to be listening to me. I didn’t know what he was thinking about and felt he was disinterested in me.” Handa often thought of looking to other men for emotional comfort and companionship but felt conflicted all the time. “I love my husband, and I really want this to work, but then I don’t know how I can fulfil my emotional needs,” she says.
Handa’s story may sound familiar to some who have experienced emotional unavailability with their partners. The ability to "show up" for the other person emotionally is one of the key elements in a stable and healthy relationship. To put it another way, the level of healthy emotional connection between spouses is referred to as emotional availability. A person is said to be emotionally unavailable when s/he finds her/himself unable to sustain emotional ties in a relationship. This might appear as a lack of commitment, apathy, and detachment.
The new gay rom-com Bros showcases Bobby Leiber and Aaron Shepard, a pair of “emotionally unavailable” men who gracelessly find themselves in a whirlwind romance after a chance meeting at a nightclub. While the movie lightly touches upon the subject, the issue is much deeper than it is shown to be on-screen.
What does emotional unavailability mean?
Dr Minnu Bhonsle, a consulting psychotherapist & relationship counsellor at Heart To Heart Counselling Centre Mumbai, defines emotional unavailability as this. “The inability to share a healthy emotional connection and is manifested as an unwillingness to accurately express a range of emotions and respond to the partner’s emotions, and a fear of vulnerability, commitment or intimacy.” She says that emotionally unavailable people are excessively ‘private’ about their emotions, hopes and wishes and struggle to communicate their wants and needs. They also have difficulty holding space for others when they are vulnerable.
Swati Ghoshal, a counselling psychologist & founder of Psychlth, Kolkata, cites an example. “Imagine you've been dating someone for roughly a year or even a few months. Even though you two get along well and have incredible sexual chemistry, something doesn't feel quite right. Perhaps they avoid talking about painful events or spend a lot of time talking about their lives and interests without ever asking you about your interests. You can worry if they even like you because of their seeming lack of interest. You assume they must have feelings for you since your involvement, whether romantic or more casual, continues. They most likely do, which is wonderful news. The bad news is that they might not be available emotionally.”
Sanjana Prasad, a psychotherapist based in Bengaluru, provides more insight by saying, “Emotional unavailability is when a partner or both/all partners in the relationship feel a sense of distance from the other partner(s). When a partner feels unheard/ unseen and unsupported in a relationship and feels embarrassed/ exposed to show their authentic emotions in the fear that it might not be received well, they are essentially feeling the emotional unavailability of a partner.”
Causes of emotional unavailability
Prasad states that there are many reasons why someone may become emotionally unavailable, as everyone’s experiences are different. But commonly, emotional unavailability is seen in people who come from families with a history of trauma. Commonly, adverse childhood experiences could lead to people feeling stuck in their pasts, which may lead to triggers in the present.
She shares an example by saying, “ Imagine that you were afraid of catching a cold in the rain, and you had to protect yourself with an umbrella. This solution would make sense if it’s raining outside. But let's assume that for some reason, you’re always afraid that it may rain any minute, so you have your umbrella open at all times, even when you’re on your bed. Certain coping strategies are like the umbrella in a room with a ceiling. It exists to protect you from danger, but you’re probably no longer in a state of threat.”
Some partners may be emotionally unavailable as a way to mitigate their anxiety about getting close to someone and feeling hurt by the vulnerability that comes with getting close. This may happen due to several reasons, each one of them being unique to the person engaging in this behaviour.
Dr Bhonsle shares some common causes of emotional unavailability
Unmet emotional needs in childhood: This includes not receiving validation and no emotional modelling or security from their caregivers, which makes it challenging to form an attachment which is secure. They have not learned how to experience emotions safely, and so they shut them down in order to protect themselves.
Trauma (neglect or abuse) at a young age: This makes it difficult to trust that others will acknowledge and respect emotions and boundaries, thus leading to the development of emotional unavailability as an adult as a form of protection from further trauma or hurt.
Experience in past relationships: If they have experienced infidelity or gaslighting, they may be fearful or hypervigilant in future relationships, causing them to protect their emotions so they don’t get hurt again. Also, grief after a painful breakup may contribute to your not being ready to be vulnerable or intimate with someone else.
Life circumstances: A stressful job, a death in the family or a medical or mental health issue may make it challenging to be emotionally available. In these cases, emotional unavailability isn’t necessarily due to a lack of trust or fear of intimacy but the need to prioritise other pressing issues that require more emotional attention and effort.
Bridging the rift
If you’re in a relationship with a partner who is emotionally unavailable, it is important to start prioritising yourself no matter how difficult/ out of habit that feels like. Prasad believes, “If your first instinct is to brush things under the carpet because you’re afraid of sparking a fight, then it’s probably worth bringing up the conversation, even if that means it might potentially lead to an argument, or with them ghosting you. Constantly remind yourself that it takes two to tango and that it’s not because you’re unworthy or unlovable, and they may not be different if they were dating anyone else. It may not necessarily be personal.”
A few other ways that one can work on making the relationship work are:
Be patient: Don't let your fear and need for assurance cause you to press your partner to open up or communicate; instead, give your partner the time and space he or she needs to process their feelings or the events that occurred. Recognize that you have a method of thinking just like everyone else. It is up to you to control your feelings and help your partner absorb them in the way that is most comfortable for them.
Talk it out: Use techniques of effective communication and be careful that you do not play the blame game, instead, say what you feel. Don’t give the silent treatment. Cast your judgement aside and understand that not everyone has the same emotional need as you. Making you happy is not your partner's responsibility.
Regain your composure: Stop attempting to talk to your spouse if you find yourself feeling stressed out, pressured, nervous, frantic, furious, or any other intense emotion.
Seek couples’ therapy: Help with personal and close relationships is one of the major reasons individuals go to therapy. Couples therapy is often sometimes thought of as something that is just for relationships that are in trouble, although there are a variety of reasons why individuals in relationships could seek it out.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist