Learn from clinical psychologists about why it’s key to know about your own level of emotional availability and how it affects your relationships.
What is emotional availability?
First off, it’s key to know that emotional availability itself refers to how much someone is able to both feel and express their emotions and their capacity to sustain emotional bonds. Like anything, emotional availability exists on a spectrum; some people are incredibly guarded with their true emotions and struggle to share them with their loved ones, while others are so emotionally available that they have no qualms divulging their deepest feelings with strangers.
We typically hear about people who struggle with emotional availability, which can make it tougher for them to build and maintain relationships. “People who aren’t emotionally available struggle with feeling the extent of their own emotions without shutting 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 actually looks, she says, may vary from person to person, but some hallmarks include shutting down when asked to open up about how they feel, coming off as aloof or distant so as not to expose their true emotions, and avoiding topics altogether that require them to be vulnerable.
When these types of talks do come up, Dr. Romanoff says that because emotionally unavailable people typically “view conversations about hurt feelings, requests to change behavior, and looking at their connection or relationship dynamics as off limits, not only will they shut down, but they may move into anger or will find ways to blame the other person and make them feel like they are the problem to displace focus of their own discomfort and limitations.”
They also may use this as a means to keep people away, and put up walls when people try to get close to them. Because it’s harder for them to emotionally connect to others, they may have difficulty empathizing with others and respecting their needs and boundaries, too.
These behaviors come from a mix 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 that insecure attachment is at the root of the lack of emotional availability,” she explains. If you learn growing up that your caregivers don’t have time or space to accommodate your emotions, you may learn to not share your feelings. Similarly, if you were punished for displaying emotions, you’ll learn not to as a defense mechanism. Dr. Romanoff also notes that emotional unavailability could be as a result of a recent, situational trauma, too.
How your level of emotional availability affects your relationships
Emotional unavailability typically comes up and presents issues in forming intimate ties, says Dr. Manly. “Where we really want to look at emotional availability is in intimate relationships because that’s where it’s often a dealbreaker,” she says. How well partners are able to mutually trust each other is a big indicator of relationship success, and sharing openly how you think and feel is part of building and maintaining trust.
Being emotionally unavailable prevents emotional intimacy, which is key to develop and form romantic relationships, which requires baring parts of yourself and letting someone in. When someone isn’t able to do this or has extreme difficulty doing so, it complicates deepening the relationship. For example, Dr. Romanoff says emotionally unavailable people push their partners away by not being able to let down their walls, whether they mean to or not. In turn, this can also be interpreted as dislike or disinterest.
People who struggle with being emotionally available also generally have issues with commitment, because that requires vulnerability. They’re more likely to have a string of relationships they end before things get too serious. “This could look like avoiding labels in relationships or postponing the progression of a relationship, for example moving in or getting married,” says Dr. Romanoff. Beyond romances, this can also limit someone’s ability to deepen their friendships, too—the distance they create drives others way and can leave them isolated and alone.
These stumbles don’t just affect the person on the receiving end—being emotionally unavailable is really tough on the person experiencing it, too. Struggling with communicating and feeling your own emotions is distressing and frustrating, especially when trying to bridge that gap with a partner. “It’s almost like there are landmines that are constantly exploding, and without understanding of your triggers, it could feel overwhelming and confusing to both you and your partner,” says Dr. Romanoff.
Why it’s helpful to learn how emotionally available you are
Knowing your degree of emotional availability can give you insight into how you behave in your relationships. For example, perhaps you find yourself turning away from your partner or potential S.O. when asked to share your feelings, or maybe you really struggle to commit to someone because that would require letting them really get to know you. Learning your pattern of behavior, by taking an emotional availability quiz can be a helpful way to connect the dots.
If you’ve taken this quiz and are at a loss of what to do next (for example, I got that I’m guarded), Dr. Manly says to think of this, and any online quiz that provides some basic introduction to more complicated psychological concepts, as a way to self-reflect and start thinking. Don’t consider this 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 has to be both valid and reliable, meaning it can measure the same thing repeatedly and return the same results—no online quiz can do that. That level of assessment and diagnosis is however, something, you can find through working with a therapist if you’d like to go deeper.
This is all to say, don’t despair over your result—instead, use it as an in to a discussion and chance 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 just be fun,” says Dr. Manly.
As for how to actually deal with issues that stem from being emotionally unavailable? Both Drs. Manly and Romanoff say emotional availability is a skill that can be built. It’s key to learn how to “access, sit with, and share your emotions,” she says. Of course, a trained therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist can help you figure out the root cause and guide you to opening up. “If the source is attachment trauma or childhood neglect, [start] processing these experiences and how you may be replaying them by neglecting your own emotions the way your caregivers once did, in your current life,” says Dr. Manly.
There are also some ways to to work on this on your own, too. One place to start is by getting used to sharing your emotions with someone with whom it feels safe to do so—yourself. “You can do this by journaling or checking in with yourself to see how you are feeling,” says Dr. Romanoff. As you get more comfortable making space for your emotions, reach out to trusted friends, family, or your partner (if you have one) to start sharing them with others.