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June 7, 2019

Emotional (Un)availability: How to Get Your Partner to Open Up

Episode 110

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Jess and Brandon discuss what emotional unavailability might look like and they challenge the “fix-it” mentality. They share specific strategies for overcoming emotional unavailability including language and approaches to support your partner. They discuss the five languages of love, simple questions to make daily interactions more emotionally open, and emotional compatibility.

**Please find a rough transcript of this podcast below**

Welcome to the Sex With Dr. Jess Podcast brought to you by Desire Resorts and Cruises. I’m Brandon Ware.

And I’m Jess O’Reilly, your friendly neighborhood sexologist. Today we’re going to talk about emotional unavailability, because a number of folks have been referencing this topic on Instagram and I posted about it last week.

Emotional Unavailability isn’t a formal diagnosis, so it’s one of those terms that tends to be tossed around rather flippantly without a universal definition. Some of us are emotionally unavailable by choice and others don’t even realize that we’re putting up a wall. Emotional availability often refers to the ability to talk openly about your feelings and this is a skill as opposed to a state of being. This means that emotional availability can be cultivated with effort and need not be a universal relationship deal breaker.

Some signs of being currently emotional unavailable include:

They avoid intimate conversations or withdraw when you bring up difficult topics. This is a good example of the fact that emotional unavailability is not a matter of character, but of skill, experience and comfort level. We’ve all avoided intimate and difficult conversations at some point in time, so you can understand why your partner might utilize avoidance behaviours. They may be trying to avoid conflict or tension. They might be distracted or stressed out by other issues in their life and simply don’t have the emotional bandwidth to open up at this time. Or they might simply not have the communication tools/skills to speak openly about intense topics. The good news, of course, is that circumstances change (you can help to put them at ease) and with practice, they can develop the skills to communicate more effectively. It’s important to note that just because you believe you’re more emotionally available, does not in fact make it so. Your perception of your own skills in biased and you can’t expect them to communicate in the same way you do; they may have a different communication style and you’ll be better off finding middle ground as opposed to expecting them to get on board with your expectations.

They refuse to express vulnerability. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable requires trust, so emotional availability can increase over time as you get to know and trust one another. If you feel your partner is not opening up, I’d avoid labels like emotionally unavailable and the associated accusations altogether. You’ll find that you’re more likely to get a positive response and a willingness to consider behavioural change if you talk about how you feel as opposed to what your partner is doing wrong.

For example, you might be frustrated by the fact that your partner won’t talk about sensitive and personal topics. Related to this frustration, however, may be a sense of insecurity, as you might expect someone who loves you to trust you with their most vulnerable feelings. Talk about this insecurity and what behaviours (e.g. opening up more about the past) might hep to assuage your fears as opposed to accusing your partner of being emotionally unavailable. Opening up about your own emotions including your vulnerabilities (e.g. insecurity) may foster a safe environment that encourages your partner to do the same.

They cut people off without working on relationships. Not all relationships (including friendships) are intended to last forever, but if they cut people off often (e.g. parents, siblings, friends, exes, co-workers), it’s easy to identify the common denominator. They may make excuses and believe that they have all the answers which leads them to an expectation that they can unilaterally dictate the terms of all relationships. If they point you out as the exception (the only one they need/want), you may want to be wary of whether or not you’ll be next on the chopping block.

If you think your partner is emotionally unavailable and you want them to open up to you…

First consider whether your expectations are realistic.

Your idea of emotional unavailability may not be your partner’s. It’s possible you just want more emotional expression and emotional support than your partner is willing to give. And you can request that they open up in a specific way. You can tell them that you’d like them to share or support you in a way that works for you. And hopefully they’re open to considering your needs, but they’re also not required to meet every last one of your needs.

I’m always concerned when one partner “diagnoses” the other with a problem. This deficit approach usually places all or most of the responsibility for change on one partner instead of considering the ways in which both partners can make behavioural changes to meet in the middle.

Perhaps you should reframe your approach to acknowledge that you’re not emotionally compatible right now and you both need to work to become compatible. It’s not their job alone. You’ll want to look for middle ground.

If you accuse your partner of a deficit, chances are that you will get nowhere. If you tell them what you want, they might be more open to meeting your needs.

And that brings us to our second strategy…

Identify what you want first. When you say they’re emotionally unavailable, you’re criticizing them. So rather than focusing on what they’re not doing, identify what you want them to do. Do you want them to be more honest when they’re feeling down? Do you want them to open up and talk about their insecurities? Do you want them to attend therapy with you? Do you want them to listen more attentively when you’re feeling emotional?  Do you want them to acknowledge your struggles rather than dismissing them? Do you want them to check in on how your feeling more often? Do you want them to be more physically affectionate? Do you want them to discuss future plans that they’ve been avoiding? Do you want them to talk to you about sex and what turns them on? Do you want them to engage in conversations that are scary – perhaps you want to create a budget or do estate or will planning? What is it that you want?

If you can identify what it is you want – specifically – choose 1, 2 or three items to begin with, also consider why you want your partner to express emotions in this specific way. Do you think opening up about their insecurities might help you to better understand them so that you can be more supportive? Or do you simply want them to reveal them because you’ve revealed yours and it’s a tit for tat situation. You’ll not only want to share your request with them, but you’ll want to share the reason behind your request.

Once you’ve identified what you want and why you want it, you can approach your partner — not when you’re fighting – not when you’re frustrated because you’re stuck in traffic, but when tensions are nice and low — and make your request. Don’t make an accusation. Don’t assume that you’re right or entitled. Just tell them what you want and why you want it.

I want to talk about how often we have sex because I really love you and I know it’s an important part of our relationship. I’m uncomfortable talking about it too, but I think it’s worth pushing through the discomfort so that we can better understand one another.

Once you’ve stated that you want to engage in a potentially emotional conversation, they might be open to it or they might not. If they don’t want to talk about it right away, ask them if there is a better time.

When do you think we could talk about it?

Give them options. Could you talk about it while you go for a walk so that you’re shoulder to shoulder and not face to face? Could you talk about it just for ten minutes on the weekend so that they don’t feel pressure to have a long drawn-out conversation? Do they want to write down their feelings ahead of time before you chat? Would they rather talk about it with a therapist on their own or with you to help facilitate the conversation? You can now see therapists online from the comfort of your home.

If you’re coming from a place of love, you’ll make an effort to make them comfortable too – especially if these types of conversations and interactions are new.

Look for ways to make them feel emotionally safe. Consider whether you could be less judgmental and more flexible. How have you responded in the past to emotional expressions and how could you respond in a more supportive way in the future?

You might want to talk about the 5 love languages if you haven’t yet. If you’re not familiar with the five languages of love, they’re Gary Chapman’s framework for how we give and receive love. He suggests that there are five primary languages and we each have a primary and secondary language. You have to learn to speak your partner’s.

  • Words of affirmation
  • Acts of service
  • Quality time
  • Physical affection
  • Receiving gifts

In addition to exploring your love languages, you might also want to talk about other relationships. Open up a dialogue to discuss how they experienced love growing up. What made them feel safe? What made them feel threatened? When they consider their parents or guardians, what did they do well with regard to emotional expression? What did they not do well? Sometimes we can identify a deficit or area for improving in the people we love, but not directly in ourselves. If they can acknowledge that their father withdrew whenever there was conflict and it made their home life more tense, they might be able to identify that this is something they don’t want to do. They may not admit that they do it, but simply naming the behavior can help them to address it moving forward.

They may also need help with an emotional vocabulary. They may have zero practice saying, I feel sad, I feel angry, I feel nervous, I feel anxious, I feel happy or I feel conflicted. There are apps like VENT that allow you to pick from a list of feelings and share your thoughts online, but if they’d rather not interact with an online community, you might just use a list of emotions and start there. You can take the lead and admit that sometimes you also have trouble expressing yourself so you’re using emotional language on a daily basis. Emotional expressions don’t need to be relegated to intimate topics. We are emotional about everything.

Most importantly — and I really want to drive this point home — don’t act like you’re trying to FIX them. I see this often. One partner believes that they’re more emotionally mature or more advanced than the other and they believe that they’re entitled and qualified to fix their partner. When you feel like you have it together and you feel like your partner isn’t living up to your expectations, you might believe that if they just become more like you, they’ll be happier — and you’ll be happier. But this is a matter of your own bias. It’s a form of normative idealization: we not only idealize and rationalize our own choices, but we derive comfort and confidence in our choices from the belief that everyone else would benefit from following in our footsteps. We rationalize our choices so that we feel better about them and we sometimes project them onto our partners.

Instead of trying to fix them, focus on asking for what you want.

Remember that not all people, not all families, not all cultures express emotion similarly. And so you are going to have to accept some degree of difference or you’ll never be happy. Think about how much you’re willing to work with.

If they say that they never want to talk about it and this is a repeated pattern of behavior and these issues are important to you, it’s possible you’re at an impasse. If they’re not willing to talk about any of the issues that are important to you and you want a certain type of communication and they want another, you have to decide whether you’re willing to deal with this differential. You can become compatible, but only if you find a way to meet somewhere near the middle.

And of course look for other sources of support. Your partner can’t fulfill your every need. Do you talk about your feelings with other people? Do you open up and express vulnerability to others or are you burdening your partner with all of your emotional needs. If you have no other real sources of emotional support, you may be unknowingly putting too much pressure on your partner. This might be why they seem emotionally unavailable – they may be withdrawing because it feels like too much for them.

If you’re looking to make emotional expression a part of your daily interactions so that you can be more emotionally connected, try changing the way you approach the mundane on a daily basis.

Instead of asking how was your day, ask what was the best part of your day? The specificity can help them to access some of their emotional vocabulary and even if they don’t use feeling words, they’ll be using corollary ones and providing insight into sources of joy or pleasure.

Instead of asking how they’re feeling more generally, ask what made you feel great today?  Ask them what they’re looking forward to. Ask them if there is anything you can do to help them relax.

When they’re feeling down, ask them what you can do to cheer them up. Don’t ask them to explain themselves or provide a full explanation for how they’re feeling so that you can help find solutions. You’re not entitled to an explanation, but you’re more likely to get one if you wait and show support when they’re experiencing not-so-positive emotions.

I’m glad we got a chance to talk about this. Each topic we cover is one that I’m also personally working on, so I derive benefits from fleshing it out.

Thanks for being here, Brandon.

Thanks to Desire Resorts and Cruises for your support. Brandon and I will be joining Desire on the Red Carpet Cruise leaving from Cannes next May, so check it out.

Thanks for listening. Have a great week and we’ll be back next Friday and every Friday with a new episode.

This podcast is brought to you by Desire Resorts.

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