Learn from clinical psychologists why knowing your own level of emotional availability and how it affects your relationships is key.
What is emotional availability?
First of all, it is key to know that emotional availability itself refers to how much someone is capable of feeling and expressing their emotions and their ability to maintain emotional bonds. Like everything, emotional availability exists on a spectrum; Some people are incredibly guarded with their true emotions and struggle to share them with loved ones, while others are so emotionally available that they have no qualms divulging their deepest feelings with strangers.
We often hear about people who struggle with emotional availability, which can make it difficult for them to build and maintain relationships. “People who are emotionally unavailable struggle to feel the full extent of their own emotions without shutting them down or denying them, and they tend to have difficulty sharing their emotions and being receptive to the emotions of those around them,” says clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD.
How this looks, she says, can vary from person to person, but some traits include closing down when asked to talk about how they feel, acting aloof or aloof so as not to expose their true emotions, and completely avoiding topics that require them to be vulnerable.
When these types of conversations arise, Dr. Romanoff says that because emotionally unavailable people often “see conversations about hurt feelings, requests for behavior change, and view their connection or relationship dynamic as off limits, they will not only shut down, but may become angry or find ways to blame the other person and make them feel like they are the problem in order to shift the focus away from their own discomfort and limitations.”
They can also use this as a means to keep people away and put up walls when people try to get close to them. Because it is harder for them to emotionally connect with others, they may have a hard time empathizing with others and also having a hard time respecting their needs and boundaries.
These behaviors come from a combination of childhood and adult experiences and traumas that inform and reinforce one’s attachment style, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “In intimate relationships, we often see insecure attachment at the root of emotional unavailability,” she explains. If she learns growing up that her caregivers don’t have the time or space to adjust to her emotions, she may learn not to share her feelings. Similarly, if he was punished for showing emotion, he will learn not to do so as a coping mechanism. Dr. Romanoff also points out that emotional unavailability could also be the result of recent situational trauma.
How your level of emotional availability affects your relationships
Emotional unavailability often arises and presents bonding issues, says Dr. Manly. “Where we really want to see emotional availability is in intimate relationships because that’s where it’s often a deal breaker,” she says. The partners’ ability to trust each other is a great indicator of the success of the relationship, and openly sharing how you think and feel is part of building and maintaining trust.
Being emotionally unavailable prevents emotional intimacy, which is key to developing and forming romantic relationships, which requires showing parts of yourself and letting someone in. When someone cannot do this or has extreme difficulty doing so, deepening the relationship is complicated. For example, Dr. Romanoff says that emotionally unavailable people push their partners away by not being able to break down their walls, whether they want to or not. In turn, this can also be interpreted as dislike or disinterest.
People who struggle to be emotionally available also often struggle with commitment, because that requires vulnerability. They are more likely to have a series of relationships that end before things get too serious. “This might appear to avoid relationship labels or postpone the progression of a relationship, for example, moving out or getting married,” says Dr. Romanoff. Beyond romance, this can also limit someone’s ability to deepen their friendships: the distance they create pushes others away and can leave them isolated and alone.
These setbacks do not only affect the person who receives them: being emotionally unavailable is also very difficult for the person who experiences them. Struggling to communicate and feel your own emotions is nerve-wracking and frustrating, especially when it comes to bridging that gap with a partner. “It’s almost like there are land mines going off all the time, and without understanding the triggers, it could feel overwhelming and confusing for both you and your partner,” says Dr. Romanoff.
Why it is useful to know how emotionally available you are
Knowing your degree of emotional availability can give you an idea of how you behave in your relationships. For example, maybe you find yourself pulling away from your potential partner or SO when they ask you to share your feelings, or maybe you really have a hard time committing to someone because that would require letting them really get to know you. Learning your pattern of behavior by taking an Emotional Availability Questionnaire can be a helpful way to connect the dots.
If you’ve taken this quiz and don’t know what to do next (for example, I understand I’m being cautious), Dr. Manly says to think of this, and any online quiz that provides a basic introduction to more complicated psychological concepts, as a way to self-reflect and start thinking. Don’t take this as a definitive diagnosis of how well you trust and connect with others about your emotions. According to Dr. Manly, an assessment that will give you definitive answers must be valid and reliable, which means that it can measure the same thing repeatedly and return the same results; no online quiz can do that. However, that level of assessment and diagnosis is something you can find by working with a therapist if you want to go deeper.
This is all to say, don’t despair about your result; instead, use it as an entry into a discussion and an opportunity to connect with your partner or loved ones, or as a jumping off point for your next therapy appointment. “When we look at (online quizzes) this way, they can be fun,” says Dr. Manly.
As for how to actually deal with the issues that arise from being emotionally unavailable? Both Drs. Manly and Romanoff say that emotional availability is a skill that can be developed. Learning to “access, sit back, and share your emotions” is key, she says. Of course, a trained therapist, psychiatrist or psychologist can help you figure out the root cause and guide you to open up. “If the source is attachment trauma or childhood neglect, (begin) to process these experiences and how you may be replaying them by neglecting your own emotions the way your caregivers did in your current life,” says Dr. Manly.
There are also a few ways to work on this on your own. One place to start is to get in the habit of sharing your emotions with someone you feel safe to do so with: yourself. “You can do this by journaling or checking in with yourself how you feel,” says Dr. Romanoff. As you become more comfortable making space for your emotions, reach out to friends, family, or your trusted partner (if you have one) to start sharing them with others.