Photo by Chetan Menaria on Unsplash
We see a lot of information about emotional unavailability. Don’t fall for someone who is emotionally unavailable! Here are the signs that you’re emotionally unavailable! It's a warning, it's a sign that someone is damaged, it's a curse, and it's...useful, actually.
As an emotionally unavailable person who finds it hard to open up, I just have to ask—what’s the point of overcoming a defense mechanism that has saved me time, effort, and grief? We have all labeled emotionally unavailable as something undesirable, when the fact of the matter is—It protects me from pain. So why would I discard it?
To me, here are some of the more obvious problems with relationships, and why I’m not so sure being emotionally unavailable is such a terrible thing:
1. Women carry more emotional burdens and do more emotional labor in heterosexual relationships.
In the past, it's always been my "job" to educate my boyfriends on issues like consent, pleasure, racism, and sexism. Married women with children still carry on the majority of the housework. Whenever there is an emotional issue, it's usually the women in heterosexual relationships who have to suggest therapy or working through problems. The job is often thankless, and that extra work is unpaid and goes largely without recognition.
So...why do it? Better yet, why do I have to convince myself that this is something I want to do? Why do I have to continuously be trying to validate my life experiences through a relationship? Why is this even seen as desirable?
We see over and over again that, in a traditional setup, women get a raw deal. And so I resent being told that my emotional unavailability is a hurtle. It's a shield. I don't want to be guilt-tripped into spending years trying to make a man a better person, at my own detriment.
2. Emotional risk is high.
I have an anxious-avoidant or fearful-avoidant attachment style. Anxious-avoidant people fluctuate between wanting an extreme amount of attention and withdrawing completely. I am afraid of developing new bonds because I inherently believe that they will end poorly. Once I'm in a relationship, I'm waiting for the inevitable end.
This means I feel resentful, insecure, needy, and withdrawn, sometimes all at once. I'm the kind of person who will block someone and then say to myself "if they really cared, they would find a way to communicate with me." It doesn't make sense and it's not healthy, and I know it's not healthy for the other person, either, and so for me, it's literally easier to avoid intimate relationships altogether. The emotional roller coaster is damaging.
3. Risk of going back to an abuser/walking on eggshells
If you were raised with unhealthy examples of relationships, as I was, and tend to inherently believe that relationships are codependent, or worse, abusive, then intimacy takes on a whole new problem. I regularly gravitate toward familiar situations, and this means that I will tend to go for people who remind me of, well, a relationship that was not good for me.
Being emotionally unavailable means I don't, at least, pick the wrong ones. When I'm in a relationship, I'm constantly second-guessing myself, because I don't have and never learned to set healthy boundaries. Abusers use this to gaslight their victims.
However, this means I feel this way all the time, even about "good people." I'm walking on eggshells even when I'm dating someone who is not abusive. This means I'm just generally more stressed, more of a people pleaser, and less myself when I'm in a relationship.
This gives me a feeling of relief when the relationship is finally over. At least I won't be abused or hurt, and I can feel safe when I am alone.
What’s it for?
Many people think it's a given that you should want to be emotionally available. Honestly, I don't think that's true, and I think a lot of people are missing the point. I am the way I am because it helped me survive. My instincts are telling me something.
So, for me, what would be the point of trying? Why can't I just stay emotionally unavailable, and let people who are mentally healthier than I am fall in love and have nice relationships? Why should I get in their way? I have used this logic to let go of an otherwise nice man many times in my life. I simply believe I am too damaged and they deserve something better.
So while people might think it’s sort of a given that you should want to be emotionally available...to fall in love, to be close to people, the reality is, it’s a scary endeavor that most of the time, seems like it really has no point.
1. Good examples of relationships.
The first time I considered that maybe not all relationships were terrible, life-sucking endeavors was when I saw a happily married couple as an adult.
This might sound crazy, but I never really saw a relationship where both people were happy and felt listened to. I had relatives who believed one just had to suffer through marriage to have children, and the kids made it worth it, even though their husband cheated and lied. I had relatives who were in codependent relationshops and were drug addicts, and the addiction and love seemed to go hand-in-hand. I had relatives who had gotten married "for the kids" and soon got divorced. Women had to work more...a lot more...and put up with infidelity and ignore their own needs.
In short, I didn't have good examples of functional relationships where both people felt supported. I didn't know that was even possible. My resistance against relationships was based on how I was defining them.
Seeing good examples of relationships gives me some kind of model to follow, and framework to shoot for. I learned that I should not be concealing my feelings. I should not be trying to people please. I should be expressing myself instead of building resentment. The relationship can be calm instead of a roller coaster of extreme codependency.
I had thought that being in a relationship meant you couldn't do anything else in life. I thought they sucked out all of your time and potential. But because of what I had been exposed to, this was a rational thought. I became detached because I was protecting myself.
Once I understood this, and began to seek good examples of relationships, the idea frightened me a little less.
2. Sense of hope over doom.
Somewhere in my life, I learned that once something bad happens, they can never become good again. I felt as though I was cursed, and so I could do nothing good. This is why I genuinely believed it was better to let people be in relationships that did not involve me. Somehow, I saw myself as a bit of a net negative on the world.
This sense of impending doom was a PTSD symptom. Once I realized what I was experiencing was normal considering my experiences, it was easier to see it as a side effect and not as a part of my personality. It was okay for me to feel my sense of doom and understand where it came from. It was also okay for me to feel hope, and to dare to feel other emotions.
3. Thinking of non-traditional arrangements.
I began to realize that the examples of relationships I related to were not traditional relationships. As I spoke to more people who had freedom to travel, meet new people, and have alone time, I realized that maybe my definition of relationships was just very narrow.
Maybe I could define what I wanted for myself, instead of forcing myself into a traditional situation. I began to research what that could be and what that could look like.
4. Focus on healing and accomplishment over societal expectations.
I always thought of healing as something I had to do outside of the relationship. Once I was in one, I thought, my personal development would stop.
It took me a while to understand that I could find someone to grow with. It took me a while to begin to consider that maybe I could focus on what I wanted out of the relationship, instead of thinking about societal expectations and norms. Did I really have to be married by a certain age? Have kids at a certain age? Or were these expectations making my mental health worse?
If, instead of focusing on societal expectations, I focused on how I wanted to grow and who I wanted to grow with, I could create a relationship that was good for me, instead of copying the toxic patterns I built defense mechanisms against.
5. Dissatisfaction with other methods.
A lot of my turning down relationships was out of some kind of belief that people were "better off" not dealing with me. But this left me inherently unsatisfied. I was not unhappy, but I felt like there was a problem that was not quite solved. I was afraid of relationships, and so I was blocking them all out. That is not the same as making an empowered choice.
I do not want to feel like I am sacrificing or avoiding something out of fear. I do not want to do something just because of pressure, either. I want to feel like I am making a decision that makes me feel powerful.
I was not by any means unhappy by avoiding relationships, and it felt safer than repeating unhealthy patterns, but it still felt like a problem unsolved.
6. Focus on a safer environment.
I have a defense mechanism that pushes others away. But why? Because when I was young, I was exposed to unsafe environments.
This means I am now great at picking up red flags. Why not use that superpower to find people who are safe, and to create a safe environment?
Instead of seeing my emotional unavailability as a negative, I can choose to use what I have learned to help myself and others. I am a wealth of knowledge and my intuition is spot on. I have helped my friends spot emotionally abusive people before they even realized what was going on. I can shut out this skill, or I can choose to see it as a gift to help people and to create a safer environment for myself and for them.
So, is emotional unavailability bad? I think that's oversimplifying the issue. I cannot help someone else who is emotionally unavailable, and no one else can do that work for me, but to ignore how I became this way is to do my survival mechanism a disservice. I am the way I am because it helped me, and I can develop new skills to help me as well...without labeling myself as "bad" or permanently damaged.
I will continue to try to find a situation that is right for me...and I won't settle for anything less.