Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Closeness and Emotional Availability in Relationships

Within the past couple weeks, this is a topic to which I've been giving a lot of thought.  Both via a few discussions with people to whom I'm close, as well as just mulling over the topic in my own mind.  Emotional availability.  As in, within our connections to others/the close relationships we develop in our lives.

What does it mean to be emotionally available?  Why do some people struggle with this more so than others?  Why, with some people, do we feel braver than we do with others?  Is this something that can wax and wane depending on the person with whom we are relating to or growing closer?  Is emotional availability something that we can choose consciously to turn on or off?  Or is it an automatic reaction, instead determined by past experiences and inner temperament?

A couple of thought-provoking side notes that are semi relatable back to this main topic: firstly, the fact that different people bring out and activate different traits within each of us.  As in, with one partner, we might be one way.  While with another different (prior or subsequent) partner, we may find whole other parts of ourselves emerging into the spotlight, much to our surprise. 

This is similar to the not fully understood phenomenon of the complexity of connections between people, as well as the science of attraction.  Entailing the raising of such questions as, why are we wildly attracted to one person and not another (assuming both people are of equal societal standards of attractiveness).  Why is it that some people cause certain reactions in us and not others?  For example, with one love, sure we might feel close to them and love being with them but then with another love, we might actually physically shake in their presence, feeling such a moving attraction and draw to this person, despite having loved both of these people.  With some loves, we feel a deep, resonating movement inside us.  Whereas with others, while we loved them very much, we didn't feel something nearly as poignant.

Every love, connection, and reaction between two people is different.  Layered with varying nuances.

A couple other questions that are interesting side notes to ponder.  How is it that you might be in one relationship for a certain amount of time (friendship and/or romance, this can apply to either connection type) and feel one depth/type of feeling, yet in another relationship of differing length of time, feel something much stronger, more resonating, poignant.  And sometimes, we feel multitudes more for someone with whom we have been with for far less time, as opposed to someone with whom we had a longer relationship with.  Another surprise in terms of romantic (and platonic) connections, which is that length of time has little bearing on depth of feeling.  However, most of these are topics of exploration for another blog entry.

So, back to the question of emotional availability in our relations to others...

First and foremost, all human beings have moments of emotionally unavailability.  This is human.  We have periods of being distracted by other things in our lives, during which we might not be emotionally open or available to someone whom we might care for/be close to.  We may be wrestling with a situation within our own life, so that when someone we love comes to us in emotional need, we aren't able to see it fully/be completely receptive to such.  Much like the skill of being a good listener, no one can be emotionally available (nor a good listener) 100% of the time.  It just isn't possible, despite even our best intentions.

With that said though, people do tend towards falling into one of two camps, meaning that generally people are either emotionally available, or they aren't.  Small, distracted, temporary moments of emotional unavailability aside, people tends towards being either one temperament or the other in this regard.

So, what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?  Basically, being emotionally unavailable means that someone deeply struggles emotionally (almost always related to fear) with love, trusting in others, allowing themselves to be known on a deeper, soul level, exchanging complex emotions, etc.  Can this vary, depending on the person with whom we are connecting?  Absolutely.  It isn't an across-the-board given reaction (though of course, it can be).  Often times, we may find ourselves opening up more easily with some, feeling safer, braver with certain people, and then finding ourselves more fearful or hesitant with others.    

Conversely, being emotional available is about sharing yourself with someone over time to develop that connection in an authentic way.  Being emotionally available means being reachable.  Its both the ability to feel deeply, as well as to communicate those deep feelings.  Being emotionally available also means being able to sit with difficult/upsetting/challenging emotions, both in yourself and in others, and to not run away from them.  It means being able to be with someone who is in pain and not trying to fix it, but instead, just being a loving, brave, mindful presence with that person.  Being emotionally available means being open to, comfortable with and brave in the face of all human emotions and experiences (not just the easy, light or positive ones).  Being able to face both the beautiful, the light, and the good, as well as the painful, difficult and the dark.

When someone is emotional unavailable though, why does this happen?  The short answer is that typically people who struggle with being emotionally available are those who have traumatic, complicated histories.  Emotional/physical/sexual abuse, neglect or abandonment in their past.  People who have trouble being emotionally available are essentially afraid.  Its an attempt at self protection.  An attempt at self soothing and guarding oneself from harm, in a sense.

The problem with this: its a half way to love.  If you never allow yourself to open totally to another person, to trust, to let go and draw towards them, you miss out on awesome loves and powerful connections.

Ultimately, being emotionally available means allowing yourself to be fully known to another.  Being willing to show them the light, as well as the dark.  Sharing the inner parts of your heart with another, and trusting in their reaction.  Being emotionally available means being willing to "go there" from time to time, to develop true intimacy.  By "going there," this means talking about the ugly truths, the insecurities, the "this is not OK for me" boundaries. 

A person who is not emotionally available attempts bypassing these things because it feels too unsafe, too unsure, too ugly.

To grow into a more emotionally available person (which essentially means that, the more emotionally available you are, the deeper and more poignant your connections to others can be), you need to “go there” with yourself first, to get comfortable with seeing uncomfortable things about your behavior, history, and experiences.  As well as to get comfortable in sitting with the difficult emotions of others as well.  Then when your body is crawling inward, wanting to run or feeling uneasy, instead just breathing and staying.  Working through it.

The issue with anxiety and emotional guarding in relationships is that generally they create distance instead of bridging it.  They create walls and rifts, where instead there could be closeness and connection.  Relationships require trust, tenderness, patience, and vulnerability.  Anxious people often have these traits and offerings in abundance, but it takes a lot of bravery and internal work for them to move towards instead of away from these relational benchmarks.

And, i
s it possible for someone who is emotionally unavailable to change this behavior/pattern?
  Absolutely.  Humans are always capable of change.  We are infinitely complex beings.  Temperaments, moods, personalities, emotions, all ever in flux and thus continually shifting, growing, changing.

In fact, with regards to a person who struggles with emotional openness in general, this is rarely a stable, static thing in someone.  Instead, its a response that tends more towards flexing and flowing.  People who struggle with allowing themselves to be emotionally available have many moments in which they do allow their hearts to open.  Times during which they bravely take emotional steps towards someone (instead of away) to whom they wish to grow close.  They have periods of allowing their guards to go down more.  And then at other times, they may dance back into emotional retreat.  Drawing back, taking a few steps backwards, growing tentative and cautious.  Rarely is a person entirely closed off all the time (though of course, there are people like that too).  But instead, people who struggle with emotional bravery tend to have moments of strength, trust and openness, coupled with times of caution, fear and guardedness.  This is where patience comes in for the people who love them/truly want to grow closer to them.

Some ways to move away from emotional unavailability, as well as ways to help bridge the distances that can be created when struggling with this in a relationship (either, you yourself are struggling, or your partner is):

1.  Let your partner (and/or friends/family members, as emotional availability applies to all relationships, not just romantic) in on what you're thinking and feeling.  Be willing to go there, even if it isn't always ideal.  Risk telling them what is going on inside of you.  The beautiful/light, along with the challenging/darker stuff, both of which we all have inside of ourselves.  Keeping too much to yourself has a way of widening distance between people instead of closing it.

2.  Piggybacking on point #1, be willing to be vulnerable.  Vulnerability – being open to another – is beautiful and is the essence of successful, healthy, close relationships. The problem with protecting yourself too much is that it can result/invite in the very thing you are attempting protection against: loss and heartbreak.  This is part of the risk in any close relationship anyway, one that's impossible to escape: loss.  But better not to have caused it by being your own worst enemy.
Intimacy is letting someone in closer than you let the rest of the world.  It’s trusting that person with the fragile, messy, untamed parts of you – the parts that are often beautiful, sometimes baffling, and always okay with the person who loves you.

3.  Tough conversations can bring you closer.  People often avoid talking about the difficult stuff, afraid of being off-putting or feeling concerned about what it might do to the relationship.  Instead, trust that you and your partner can cope with the challenge of whatever this topic or discussion might entail.  Much of life is beautiful, magical and awesome, however life also contains sadness, challenge and heartbreak.  Trust that your partner can empathize with, be open to and inhabit both of these aspects of life along with you.

4.  Let your partner (or friend, or family member) in on what its like to be you.  Human beings are complex, complicated creatures.  Bringing someone in closer to you and your story is the lifeblood of intimacy.  Sharing your anxieties, triggers, dreams, fears and inner experiences with another, these are the bridges to growing close with someone.

5.  Have fun together.  Closeness is also bridged within laughter, shared adventures, fun experiences and the building of marvelous memories together.  The more moments you share with someone, this tends towards bringing two people closer.  Laughter tightens connections.  It soothes tension.  Sharing positive experiences with someone (as well as challenging ones) tightens your bond.

6.  Patience.  The surest way to push someone away further who is struggling with feeling afraid of opening up and being emotionally vulnerable is attempting to pull them closer to you too quickly or too forcefully.  Allow them their own process.  Being patient, open and loving is the way for them to slowly but surely grow towards feeling more comfortable, safer and for their trust/comfort in your to set forth blooming.

An ultimate takeaway about emotional unavailability....
People can be unavailable for both healthy and unhealthy reasons. They may have suffered through a troubled childhood experience that has wounded them or they currently have other priorities such as their career or taking care of a sick parent which don't exactly coincide with having a close romantic relationship or with being able to be fully present and be a great friend during that time.  Perhaps, they are recently divorced or widowed, and legitimately not ready to get involved in an intimate relationship.  Then, there are those who are too afraid of taking the risk of falling in love because they have been hurt too much in their previous relationships. 

However, those in the latter category are the ones with an important choice to make.  Continue forward dragging along such baggage, resulting in risking wonderful future relationships, or, work through and let go of part hurts and be willing to risk opening up, being brave, and move towards being willing to trust in something new.  If a persons primary reason for being emotionally closed off is because of past romantic hurts, well, no two loves are the same.  Each relationship is different.  When you equate one as being the same with previous others, you make a grave error.  Every relationship is a clean slate.  A new experience, bringing together two brand new elements which will result in a completely different and unique output from the last one(s).  

It’s also important to remember that just because someone isn’t fully available emotionally, it doesn't mean this cannot or will not change.  It often simply means they’ve had emotionally exhausting or traumatic experiences and might need to approach things more tentatively initially…at the very least, in the beginning of the relationship.

Falling in love is meant to be magical, and frankly, it is awe inspiring, wildly romantic and absolutely awesome.  But, getting close to another person isn’t without it’s highs and lows at the best of times.  From the ecstasy of realizing that someone pretty amazing is as moved by you as you are by them, to the tension and pain of self-doubt and possible loss, to the security, richness, comfort and sometimes stillness of a deeper love, intimacy is a vehicle for a plethora of varying emotions

Anxiety/emotional caution can and does effect many relationships, but by being open to and deliberate in responding to it, you can create a relationship that’s strong, close and resilient.

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