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Emotionally Unavailable

What does the term “emotionally unavailable” mean to you? It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone.

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who you felt was emotionally unavailable? Has any friend or romantic partner ever described you this way?

The term, in my opinion, carries some irony in it. Because if you are truly emotionally unavailable, it will be very difficult to understand the meaning of the term. In other words, it really helps to be emotionally available if you want to understand what it means to be unavailable.

Much of this has to do with how a person deals with his or her own emotions. This typically goes back to how your emotions were treated as a child. Did your parents notice what you were feeling enough of the time? Did they ask? Did they care what you felt and what you needed and do their best to meet your true needs? Did they succeed?

Surprisingly, it matters less whether your parents tried. What really matters is whether or not they succeeded. If your parents weren’t able, for any reason, to notice and respond to your feelings and meet your emotional needs, then you are at risk of being an emotionally unavailable adult.

Here’s why. When a child’s feelings and emotional needs are treated as if they matter, that child receives a loud and clear message: “Your feelings are real, and they matter.” This encourages the child to pay attention to his emotions, and teaches him how to manage, express and use them throughout his adult life. The converse is also true. When a child’s emotional needs are treated as if they don’t matter, the message to the child is, “Your feelings don’t matter.” This message, even when delivered unintentionally from the parents, constitutes Childhood Emotional Neglect.

A child who receives this message will not be consciously aware of it and will not remember it. This is because typically it was never stated outright; it was a subliminal message delivered by the absence of response and validation from the parents. But that child will accommodate, as children do. She will suppress her emotions by pushing them far and away, so that they will not bother her parents or herself.

Years later, in relationships, that child will continue to lack access to her emotions. To her friends or romantic partner she may seem to be difficult to connect with. Others can see her depth and quality, but have trouble reaching it. Here are some of the complaints that I have heard from various patients about their emotionally unavailable boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife:

“He just shuts down and refuses to talk to me when there’s a problem.”

“She’s a wonderful person. She’s always there for me, but she doesn’t tell me what she needs or feels.”

“I know that he loves me, but I can’t feel love from him.”


If you identify with this description of “emotionally unavailable,” do not despair. There are solutions to this problem. And the solution lies with you. The solution is to get in touch with your feelings, accept them and use them. It sounds simple, but it is not. It’s a process that requires purpose and effort and work. But it can be done.

If, on the other hand, you are in a relationship with someone who seems to you to be emotionally unavailable, you are in an even more difficult spot because it is easier to change yourself than it is to convince someone else to change.

However, there is something that you can do. You can express to him/her what troubles you. You can explain what you feel is missing in the relationship. You can tell him about the probable cause of the problem (Childhood Emotional Neglect), and that there is a way to heal from it. Offer your support, and the rest is up to him.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN), how it happens, it’s effects, how to prevent it and how to heal from it, see my book on the topic: Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect available on Amazon, my website, and bookstores everywhere.

Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect

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Content copyright © 2013 by Dr. Jonice Webb. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Dr. Jonice Webb. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Dr. Jonice Webb for details.



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