Should You Always Be Available to Your Partner?

There are five stages of availability, each with its own set of non-verbal cues.

Posted Dec 15, 2020

All relationship partners want their needs to be high priorities to their significant others. Yet, in many situations, even the most devoted of partners either can’t, is unable, or simply doesn’t want to, respond as desired.   

Most relationship partners have different levels of need and availability at different times, and they don’t always mesh. When couples can successfully communicate when, and how, they should be priorities for each other, they can usually negotiate those differences.

But many of the signals for both needs and availability are not obvious nor easily communicated. They are non-verbal expressions that, if intuited accurately, help each couple to avoid awkward interactions that can cause unnecessary distress.

Successful couples teach each other how to read one another’s non-verbal signs of the likelihood of availability. Accurately informed, they can predict when to expect fulfillment, when to ask for a favor, and when not to ask at all.

Couples who “get” each other this way are also able to sense whether their availability to each other is waning. They are aware that a growing number of non-synchronous interactions can be a predictor of emotional disconnection.   

In order for couples to become more successful in learning how to intuit the non-verbal cues of the other’s availability, each partner has to know his or her own non-verbal cues and communicate them to the other.  

There are five stages of availability, each with its own set of non-verbal cues.

Stage One — Full Availability — Your Partner’s Need Is More Important Than Yours

When you feel this way about your partner, you are freely available to fulfill what he or she is asking of you at the time. Giving is easy. You feel generous and fully into doing whatever you are asked to do. You are glad to be there and need nothing in return.

This synchronicity of desire and availability is always the best possible outcome. Your partner needs you, and you are fully there. You want your partner to have whatever he or she needs and feel joyful to make that happen.  

Faced with your partner’s request, you can easily put yourself aside. There is no need for score-keeping and the result makes you both happy.

Your non-verbal cues are welcoming and easy.  

Stage Two — Less Availability — Your Partner’s Request Still Significantly Matters but Not as Much

Your partner’s request is still important to you, but you are a little constrained by his or her expectation to fulfill it at this time. You truly care and don’t want him or her to go without, but can’t easily put yourself aside.

You may have the interest and ability to fulfill some of what is being asked of you and are willing to give some of it, but don’t want to feel guilty or inadequate if you can’t do it all. You also want to feel appreciated for what you can give.

You’re simultaneously assessing whether your partner’s need is urgent or an emergency. If it is, you will take from another internal resource and comply with his or her request. You also feel that you’d be able to count on the same sacrifice if the situation were reversed.

When you are in stage two and your partner approaches you with a need or desire, you’re likely to hesitate a little at first, aware that you need to realign your priorities, but can reprioritize if it feels fair to do that.

Your non-verbal cues are a somewhat hesitant response, a facial expression that conveys conflict, and a willingness to listen.

Stage Three — You’re Focused More on Your Own Needs

You’re perhaps heavily engaged in something important and have set aside time for yourself. You don’t want to be interrupted or burdened with your partner’s wants or desires. You’ve made it clear that you were going to be temporarily unavailable but now find that you’re being unfairly called into service.

You don’t want to disappoint your partner but you feel he or she is not keeping the agreement. You resent being put in the position of being the bad guy by having to reject the request.

You’re internally re-assessing whether or not you should let go of what you wanted to do to avoid a bigger problem if you don’t. You may express your feelings out loud or non-verbally, hoping your partner will understand and realize that he or she didn’t take your needs into account.  

When you are at this level of availability/non-availability and your partner approaches you with his or her need, you will likely feel irritated, conflicted, and interrupted.

Your non-verbal cues may be an irritation in your voice, pulling back physically, and visibly frowning.

Stage Four — Your Own Needs Are Begging for Priority

When your partner does not read the signals you had previously agreed upon, and still approaches you with a need or desire, you feel understandably resentful and exploited. You may see his or her requests as self-centered and unfair. You counted on not being called upon to change your priorities.  

You feel burdened being asked to sacrifice your own needs when you made it clear that you wanted to focus on them. You’re thinking inside, “Why can’t I ever have time to myself without it being a problem? Why isn’t it obvious to you that I don’t want to be available right now?”

You are feeling unfairly called into action when you have no desire to let go of what is more important to you, and it’s making you angry. You are feeling as if you're prey to a predator and must either give in, fight for your rights, or disconnect. You’re angry at your partner for being insensitive and putting you in this position.

Your non-verbal cues are unmistakably expressions of resentment and disappointment. You feel as if you now have to win back a priority that was previously granted, and you are visibly upset.  

Stage Five — You Are Beginning to Emotionally Disconnect

When you have tried to communicate in every way that you don’t want to be bothered but your partner can’t, or won’t, honor the signs, you are going to feel deeply resentful and, outwardly or inwardly, blame him or her for burdening you.  

Inside you are wondering: “Why did your partner force you to be in this unpleasant place if he or she cared about your needs in any way?” “Does he remember promising you to read your signals when you need to be alone?” “Is she knowingly taking advantage of me?” “I feel like it will never be my turn.”  

You find yourself needing to justify your right not to care, to disconnect, and to blame. You are caught in a non-resolvable conflict. If you let your partner’s feelings matter, you will deny your own. If you take care of yourself, you will be seen as selfish.

You don’t want your partner to feel that you don’t care, but you are too angry at the situation to forgive him or her for putting you in this position. You may feel hurt and have lost faith that your partner cares about you at all.

If your partner approaches you with a need when you are clearly in this place, you are highly likely to react with anger, defensiveness, and disdain. You withdraw and disconnect, making it clear that you no longer want contact and are beyond negotiating or compromising.

When Should You Be Concerned?

When either or both partners slip into stage five, the relationship may be in a downward spiral and in danger of permanent damage. They may both feel unimportant to the other and can feel their stages of availability rapidly descending.  

Many things can cause this downward spiral. The following are examples:

The relationship has been under too much stress from unexpected or overwhelming crises, and both partners simultaneously have greater needs and less to give.

  • One partner has been the greater giver for a long time and now wants more reciprocity.
  • A once-okay exchange of availability has now changed because of newer and more pressing needs.
  • One partner may have become more self-involved and not realized that he or she is asking more without reciprocity.
  • One of the partners has reason to feel insecure and needs more reassurance.
  • There has been a breach of trust causing a partner to feel entitled to more availability until the issue is resolved.

Rapid or slow-growing differences of needs-versus-availability for fulfillment can happen in every relationship. If a couple is paying attention to the frequency, duration, and intensity of non-synchronous interactions, they will be able to catch a downward spiral before it can cause permanent damage to the relationship.