For the Recorder
Published: 10/7/2022 3:10:03 PM
“My partner is not emotionally available!” This is a complaint I often hear from clients about their ‘significant other.’ Perhaps you have experienced the frustration of being with such a partner. Or maybe your partner has told you they wish you were better at dealing with your own and others’ emotions, and you might agree that navigating emotions is not your strong point. Those of you who consider yourselves to be adept at emotional availability may find that you fall short at times. We all find being emotionally available challenging to some degree. However, I believe that regardless of who we are, we all can get better at it.
I feel compassion for each partner in such a dynamic. One may long for their partner to be more emotionally attuned and responsive. The other may not know how to offer this, or how to understand what exactly is being asked of them.
Let’s dig into what it actually means to be emotionally available in a relationship. Although I will focus here on intimate partner relationships, this topic applies to all close relationships, such as those involving parent and child, relatives and friends.
Based on my training, experience with clients, discussions with colleagues, and study of the scientific literature, I have synthesized the following list of common behaviors and attitudes displayed by an emotionally available partner:
Accepting and valuing our own feelings and those of our partner.
Listening deeply, with the intent to understand the other.
Responding in a non-reactive way instead of lashing out with judgment and criticism.
Staying curious about the other’s point of view, even when it is different from one’s own.
Not taking things personally (a hard concept to grasp! – will unpack in a future column).
Willingness to be vulnerable by expressing emotions such as hurt, sadness and fear.
Offering empathy during emotionally difficult times.
Celebrating the other’s joy, pride and accomplishments.
Being able to express appreciation and loving feelings.
Making time to hear our partner’s concerns.
Karen Fogliatti, PhD, a local teacher of Non-Violent Communication, echoes these points: “Being emotionally available is being open enough to really listen and hear what the other is upset about, focusing on the other’s experience - what their feelings and needs are - without getting reactive, defensive or counter-attacking.”
Similarly, Patrick Rathbun, a local psychotherapist and facilitator of “Men Helping Men” groups through Northampton Center for Couples Therapy, associates emotional availability with “spaciousness.” His definition includes “having the space and wherewithal to listen and hold what your partner is saying, emoting, needing, without your own issues interfering. This is the ideal, and none of us is perfect. It takes practice. We have to cultivate presence, attentiveness and validation.”
What makes it so difficult to be more emotionally available? I’d like to point out three factors that negatively impact what we learn about emotions and how to deal with them: gender conditioning, familial patterns and past relationships.
Gender norms in child-rearing and socialization have a major impact on how emotions are experienced and expressed. Men are not always encouraged to recognize their full range of emotions. Under the influence of cultural conditioning, men may turn to anger instead of to the feelings that may lie underneath, such as hurt, sadness and fear. Men also tend to rely more on rational thinking, such as “fixing” their partner’s problem, than on the partner’s need to be understood emotionally.
Men deserve to be seen and supported as their true and full selves, by having both their emotions and their rational thinking validated as strengths. Sharing more about their feelings should not mean that their masculinity comes into question. The good news is that there is now more support and understanding that it is healthy for men to experience and express a wide range of feelings.
Women, who often have easier access to feelings and the expression of them, have different challenges. They may be seen as “highly emotional,” “irrational,” or “too sensitive.” For women who are overly concerned about other people’s perceptions of them, receiving this kind of feedback can make it even harder for them to trust their own feelings, which can erode their confidence in sharing them.
Growing up in our families, we may have learned unspoken “rules” about which emotions are okay to feel and express, and which are not. In childhood, we may have been reprimanded or even rejected by our families for showing our true feelings. What we learn about handling emotions also correlates to ruptures in one’s upbringing, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, or mental illness in the family, all of which can thwart the healthy expression of feelings.
Finally, our past relationships inevitably impact how we navigate feelings in current relationships. If we have experienced betrayal, abuse, neglect, or loss, it’s only natural that the fear of being hurt again would surface in new relationships. Emotional distancing might become a self-protective strategy – if we don’t let someone get too close to us, we can protect ourselves from the vulnerability of getting hurt again.
Although these factors have a powerful influence on our emotional lives, I am a firm believer that people can become more emotionally available. Why? Because I have seen this happen time and time again in my work with couples.
What exactly do emotionally available partners do in their relationships?
1. Express their innermost feelings and thoughts.
2. Value authenticity, and reveal what they are experiencing without self-censorship or self-judgment. They want their partner to be authentic as well, knowing that mutual transparency contributes to a healthy emotional connection.
3. Engage in talking and listening while sustaining attention and openness in hard conversations.
4. Respond to their partner’s direct communication, as well as non-verbal cues related to their feelings and needs.
5. Offer empathy. When their partner is hurting, they show respect and care for their partner’s feelings.
6. Assert emotional or physical boundaries as needed, such as stating that they need some alone time or that they are not up for being sexual at that time.
7. Reach out for help and support when distressed.
Why put energy and effort into becoming more emotionally available? Psychologist and researcher Sue Johnson, founder of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, says it well:
“Fights are really protests over emotional disconnection. Underneath all of the distress, partners are asking each other: ‘Can I count on you? Are you there for me? Will you respond to me when I need you? Am I valued and accepted by you?’ The anger, the criticism, the demands, are really cries to their partners, calls to stir their hearts, to draw their mates back in emotionally and reestablish a sense of safe connection.”
No matter who we are – regardless of age, background or gender – we all need to be seen, heard and understood. Although we can’t be perfectly fine-tuned to our partner’s emotional world at all times, we can develop more and more capacity, and get better at it. As Sue Johnson states, “Loving responsiveness is the foundation of a truly compassionate, civilized society.” By making a conscious effort to develop our ability to be emotionally available, we contribute to better relationships, better communities – and a better world.
Next column: How do I become more emotionally available?
Amy Newshore is a couples therapist/coach who earned her Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Antioch New England University and went on to train in the Developmental Model for Couples Therapy along with Non-Violent Communication which serve as the foundation of her work as a Relationship Coach. For more information visit her website at www.coachingbyamy.com.