What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?

Several specialists in anthropology, psychology and couples therapy help us unravel the term that defines people incapable of deep romantic bonds

Rosalía, Rauw Alejandro
Rosalía and Rauw Alejandro, in a collage made by Ana Regina García.

Rosalía and Rauw Alejando’s joint interview with Ibai Llanos lasted only 40 seconds, but it was enough time for the singer to bring up two intergenerational and transoceanic themes: hegemonic masculinity and emotional availability. “I had lost faith in masculinity, but I met you and that changed. The men around me were emotionally unavailable. The first time I didn’t feel that was with you. I felt that you were not afraid to love and be loved,” Rosalía said in reference to the Puerton Rican singer.

A quick search for the term emotionally unavailable yields hundreds of pages of psychology on the topic. But what does it really mean? Several specialists in anthropology, psychology and couple therapy help us to unravel the term.

Isa Duque, a psychotherapist and educator who specializes in romantic bonds based on good treatment, said that an emotionally unavailable person is one “who does not have the ability, desire or necessary tools to bond emotionally with another person in a meaningful way, that is, [to form] a more sincere, deeper bond.”

However, that inability or lack of desire to go deeper does not prevent such people from trying to find a partner or start a relationship. “We may think that emotional unavailability always implies a lack of commitment, but that’s not the case: it is possible for us to plan to be a couple, or even be in a couple, and have the person we are getting to know or with whom we have a relationship not go deeper. They remain in the realm of actions but don’t allow us to access their inner world,” explained public health psychologist Montse Cazcarra. “That’s why relationships with emotionally unavailable people cause confusion: they want to connect, but they don’t allow it, which translates into a painful and confusing inconsistency,” she added.

Manu Palomo, a queer transfeminist sexologist, noteed that the fact that a person is emotionally unavailable at a given moment does not necessarily mean that he or she will be emotionally unavailable for his or her entire life. “The problems are usually related to a person’s biography; the difficulties may arise at a certain moment that, perhaps, repeats itself in a pattern of behavior, leading [the person] to always relate [to others] in that way. One must discover oneself [and gain] knowledge of oneself, of how one loves, how one has learned to love and how one makes this love available to others.”

According to Montse Cazcarra, whether this emotional unavailability is temporary or lifelong depends on the origins of the pattern, “on what we have had to protect ourselves from, because that’s what unavailability is really all about: it’s a strategy for protecting oneself against pain and suffering.”

Common traits of emotionally unavailable people

It is hard to list the traits that define an emotionally unavailable person because each human being is complex and full of nuances. However, as Cazcarra pointed out, there are common patterns that can help us identify this state in others or in ourselves in order to avoid, or reduce, the confusion and suffering it causes us.

“First of all, [this] would be a person who avoids emotional intimacy, finds it difficult to show their emotional world, connect with their vulnerability, express their emotions and recognize their emotional needs,” said the psychologist. Everything could be simpler: we meet each other, but I explain to you from the get-go that I tend to reach this degree of availability in my relationships. But the truth is that knowing where we are, and where the other person is, is one of the most complex aspects of some relationships.

Penélope Guisasola, a body therapist, explained: “On the one hand, there is a lack of connection to oneself and with what happens to one, and from there, of course, there is a gap between that and being able to communicate it. On the other hand, there is a horrible fear of being rejected, which is when ghosting, the often-dangerous game of avoidance, sudden disappearance or pointing the finger at the other person, comes into play”.

American feminist author Vivian Gornick explained it perfectly in a paragraph of her latest book, The End of the Novel of Love: “What it comes down to is this. If you don’t understand your feelings, you’re pulled around by them all your life. If you understand but are unable to integrate them, then you’re destined for years of pain. If you deny and despise their power, you are lost.”

Manu Palomo said that in order to be emotionally responsible people with others, it is essential to do an exercise of absolute honesty with oneself and others: “The exercise of [looking at] and understanding how we are: what I like, what I want, what I don’t like, what hurts me... To be honest with oneself and then to take that honesty outside. This is the only way to be able to have affective responsibility in the bond with others.”

Another trait of the emotionally unavailable person, according to Cazcarra, would be that “they are more comfortable in superficial relationships because these keep them away from their fears and insecurities; but, at the same time, their need to connect may appear in the form of small gestures that sow confusion,” she explained. In addition, she pointed out, “they have trouble trusting, maintain a certain emotional distance and keep their fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities to themselves.”

For Cazcarra, another important trait is that the person “will avoid anything that could lead to conflict and denies the problems and difficulties that may arise in the relationship to get away from the idea that, perhaps, there are issues to work on: “We are fine, all couples have ups and downs”.

A gendered pattern that intersects with everything else

Another point on which all the experts consulted agree is that this lack of emotional availability intersects with gendered notions that make it more common to find unavailable men in relationships than women. “Differential gender socialization is very much [a factor] in the way we have learned to bond,” Isa Duque pointed out. “This has been studied a lot in all gender studies with all the feminist genealogy and it has been seen how women have been educated so that love is at the center of our lives, in fact, a very specific type of love… (in a couple, heterosexual, etc.), while for men this has not been seen as a priority.”

Duque is referring to the research by professor of Social Anthropology at the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) Mari Luz Esteban, a leader in the study of emotions. In Critique of Loving Thought, Esteban discusses women’s role as the “guardians of affection”; they are responsible for taking care of emotions and love. “In this imposed role, we have to give all that love, but we cannot ask for anything in return, that is to say, reciprocity is broken to the detriment of women,” she said.

For Duque, “as a woman, building a commitment as a couple is one of the most important things that can happen in one’s life because it confers the value and legitimacy associated with the female gender; it is often the opposite for men [because] commitment is seen as a loss of freedom.” This imbalance, Duque pointed out, causes many women (“although, of course, many men as well”) to become what she calls “love junkies,” that is, “what motivates them to find a bond or a relationship is not desire but the need to avoid failing in a forced commitment.”

If the ideal woman grows up dedicated to supporting care, emotions and love, the man, in contrast, is cut off from the possibility of connecting with the emotional world. “As French anthropologist Elisabeth Badinter points out in her book On Masculine Identity, the construction of the ideal male is always based on what not to be, on prohibitions: if you are a man you cannot be a child, you cannot be gay, you cannot be a woman,” added Duque. “That’s why hegemonic model of masculinity penalizes expressions and behaviors that are more typical of femininity, such as crying or talking about emotions or liking activities associated with that gender.”

For her part, anthropologist and therapist Alessia Cartoni explained that “in the case of boys, this emotional unavailability begins in their childhoods because they are asked to project an image of self-sustainability, of success, of being strong, they are pushed to relate to power and not to show difficulty even in the most difficult situations.”

As Connor Beaton, founder of Men Talks, pointed out in one of his TED talks, “what makes men vulnerable is precisely this demand that they be invulnerable.” Isa Duque said that all of this is still very much the case for the adolescents with whom she works in high schools. “Many boys share that they have been emasculated by the possibility of crying, of being afraid and all this emasculation makes them generally unable to even connect with what they are feeling… That also leads them to expose themselves to very risky situations [in] a constant attempt to keep [others] from thinking that [they are] afraid, vulnerable, that [they] have no balls... so that, above all, [they] aren’t laughed at.”

When there are glaring red flags

However, these prescribed gender roles should never excuse a person’s lack of emotional responsibility to another person. According to psychologist Fran Jódar, one must be careful when dealing with an “apparently sensitive man [who is] always the victim because he has suffered and been wounded in the context of the family and other relationships, which prevents him from emotional availability and responsibility.”

In this vein, Montse Cazcarra pointed out “that it is important to find the balance between not demonizing the unavailable person because, while his inconsistency may hurt us, that does not mean that we are dealing with someone who is deliberately hurting us; at the same time, we must make sure that he does not use [it] as an excuse.”

In her interview, Rosalia insinuated that, before Rauw Alejandro, all the men with whom she had been romantically involved with were emotionally unavailable. That begs the question: why, despite the many red flags that we often see, do we continue to get involved in this type of relationship?

There is no single, universal answer because, as the experts in this article have pointed out, it all depends on the person and his or her reality. However, Alessia Cartoni makes a controversial but absolutely vital point: “It can’t be denied that this type of emotionally unavailable person is often quite fascinating. That is because of the narcissism that [is typical of many of them]. They are people who know how to occupy their space… tell wonderful stories, know how to flirt very well, seem to give off a sense of presence, but the presence is theirs alone.”

And she concluded: “It isn’t easy to see clearly that they are not [emotionally] available because everything they do causes confusion, and then you [start to make excuses for them]; you’re filling the void, because obviously this type of relationship activates something; that’s is the archetype of the caring woman, of the woman who loves too much (referring to Robin Norwood’s bestseller, Women Who Love Too Much). It prompts us to take charge of what the other person lacks, ‘they need to be taken care of…I am going to be the person who really listens to him, because nobody has listened to him before.”

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