Showing up in relationships means being present, with your emotions engaged. That requires responsiveness and vulnerability. That can be scary because relationships can hurt. Conflict can stress you out. No matter how much you trust the other person, there’s always a chance they could let you down.That might happen when you make yourself vulnerable, and the other person doesn’t reciprocate. This can happen in friendships and family relationships, but it might be the most painful when it happens in marriage.
Marriage is a lifetime commitment, but sometimes a variety of uncontrollable factors result in a lack of emotional connection. That doesn’t mean one or both spouses are emotionally unavailable, they might be stressed, overwhelmed, or have gradually drifted apart due to the pressures of jobs, parenting, etc.
However, if you think that the root reason is just that your spouse isn’t willing to let his or her guard down with you, or if you are the one who struggles to be emotionally engaged in your relationship, keep reading to find out more about emotional unavailability, including:
- Examples of being emotionally available/unavailable.
- How to distinguish it from the normal ups and downs in a relationship.
- How you can cope if this situation is happening in your marriage.
What Does Being Emotionally Unavailable Look Like?
Stereotypically, it is the man in a relationship who tends to be less emotionally available. Often, a marriage will end up in hot water because a wife wants emotional intimacy and a husband doesn’t seem to care, instead choosing to withdraw.
This dynamic can become increasingly unhealthy as one spouse, feeling concerned or desperate, pushes for closeness and the other spouse, feeling pressured, withdraws even more.
Examples of emotional unavailability in marriage A wife wants to connect with her husband, having date nights and intimate conversations, but her husband isn’t that interested. He’s never mean and tries to go along with what she wants, but she has a sense that he doesn’t enjoy it and doesn’t let his emotional guard down. She tries to chalk it up to the differences between men and women, but she still feels hurt and that her marriage lacks the emotional intimacy she desires.
Another married couple has a relationship with give-and-take. Both spouses share their perspectives and experiences, based on their individual personalities and frames of reference. They check in with each other, they spend time together, and each knows what the other person is going through on a daily basis. Their relationship is characterized by openness and consistency over the long term.
Examples of emotional bonding in relationships
Mother-infant bonding forms the basis of the very first human relationship. Sometimes it takes a little while to develop, but eventually, there is a loving connection between infant and mother formed by feeding, touch, caregiving, eye contact, and time. If an infant or young child does not have a healthy bonding relationship with a caregiver, this can lead to attachment disorder and various mental health and behavioral issues.
Parental bonding may be absent or inadequate throughout childhood, even if the parents are well-meaning and not neglectful. One or both of them may be emotionally unavailable for a number of reasons, and this can have a detrimental impact on a child’s growth and development.
What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Available?
Healthline offers this definition of emotional availability:
“Emotional availability describes the ability to sustain emotional bonds in relationships.”
In the examples offered above, you can see emotional availability/unavailability played out. A sustained emotional bond is the key here. Every relationship goes through phases of increased or temporary distance, and that’s normal and healthy.
Each individual in any adult relationship should have a level of interdependence, meaning they are not codependent or overly distant. Relationships have their ups and downs but can still sustain an emotional bond if each individual is emotionally available.
How Does an Emotionally Unavailable Person Operate?According to Psychology Today, there are numerous moves that an emotionally unavailable person might consciously or subconsciously make to keep others at arm’s length.
Some of these tactics might happen in a short-term dating relationship to prevent intimacy or commitment from developing. Some of them might be used with a spouse or child to avoid having to open up, spend time, or be vulnerable.
Here are some of the ways emotionally unavailability shows itself:
- Using flattery rather than sincere openness to connect.
- Being very rigid, inflexible, and controlling their routine.
- Openly acknowledging they aren’t good at relationships.
- Constantly looking for flaws in others so they can find reasons to avoid closeness.
- Anger when unable to deflect the other person’s desire for closeness.
- Evasiveness rather than openness.
How to Deal with an Emotionally Unavailable Spouse
Living with a spouse who is emotionally unavailable can be extremely painful. It can feel like you’re constantly reaching out for connection, only to be rejected, even if your spouse doesn’t have unkind intentions. Some distancing tactics can be extremely hurtful as well. If you are dealing with this, take a minute to acknowledge the pain and rejection you feel.
Then ask yourself if you can identify when this started. Has your spouse always been unavailable? Did the distance gradually increase over time? Have you drifted apart after living in neutral territory for awhile? Is there a marked increase in unkindness, or simply a lack of closeness? Was this triggered by a specific situation?
Sometimes, a closed-off, one-sided relationship can be the result of something temporary, such as grief, depression, job loss, health problems, etc. Other times, it can stem from childhood experiences or past relationship experiences.
If you think back over the course of your relationship, you can probably determine whether your prior closeness was temporary, or whether closeness was the norm for a long time until distance and unavailability gradually prevailed.
Here are some suggestions from Psych Central about how you can cope with an emotionally unavailable spouse:
- Become more emotionally available for yourself. You can’t change your spouse, but you can show up for yourself and provide the care you need.
- Make sure that you don’t act needy or overwhelming. It can be frightening to give up your normal reactions because it feels like you’re saying you just don’t care, but they are likely only compounding the problem instead of helping.
- Acknowledge the pain that it causes, but again, recognize that you can’t change them, only yourself. Try not to be hyper-vigilant and analyze their reactions.
Marriage Missions suggests the following, especially for wives struggling with their husbands’ emotional distance:
- Recognize that it’s not your responsibility to make this marriage work on your own.
- Figure out how to respond in ways that don’t increase your stress and frustration. Focus on improving your personal stability and happiness, no matter what he does.
- Acknowledge that his imperfections and shortcomings aren’t your fault.
- Don’t keep trying to convince him to do what you want him to do. This doesn’t mean that you can never talk about it, but take a step back for a while.
Whether you are a wife or husband struggling with your spouse’s closed response to you, a young adult working through the pain of having an emotionally unavailable parent, or anyone healing from relationship rejection, it can help to recognize that an emotionally unavailable person has their own reasons for acting the way they do, and most of them probably have nothing to do with you. Unfortunately, they have not learned how to be open in a healthy relationship; instead, they close themself off as a defense mechanism.
Christian Counseling for Strengthening Relationships
Christian counseling can help you navigate emotional unavailability in marriage or other relationships. Whether you choose to seek Christian counseling for individuals or couples counseling, a trained and compassionate professional can help you improve your personal peace of mind and avoid perpetuating a dysfunctional pattern in your relationship. Contact us today to schedule your risk-free initial appointment.
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