Can We Co-Create Emotional Unavailability?
A long-range version of a jointly created psychological defense system
Posted Feb 15, 2016
I want you; I do, Almost as much as I don't—All Nite Rave, "Not Wanting You"
"I know, I know," says Leila, "I've heard it a thousand times and seen it a million: if I keep choosing an unavailable person it means I’m unavailable. And even though I know it, I still keep doing it!”
Leila had diligently examined herself enough to know that she unconsciously sets up situations that she ends up complaining about.
When asked what was so terrifying about getting close to someone else, she was stumped. She believed and felt that she wanted to get married and have a life and a home with someone special. But if her experience proved anything, it was that she had a knack for finding men who (like her) liked talking the talk but had a much harder time walking the walk.
This arrangement worked for a while—for years, in fact, because it allowed Leila to blame her romantic disappointments on her would-be partners: “He never had time for me.” “He worked such long hours.” “Our schedules just didn’t match up.” “His kids took up all his free time,” or the old workhorse, “He just couldn’t commit.”
To ask what’s frightening about being in a relationship may seem a rhetorical question. We know that we repress painful or frightening feelings, locking them away in the “I- don’t-know-and-I-don’t-want-to-know” file. Problem is that whether we like it or not, those feelings get expressed in our behaviors, especially our interactions with others. Leila acted out her fear of being in a relationship by unconsciously scoping out potential boyfriends for subtle indicators of unavailability, and took those indicators as a green light into yet another cul-de-sac of disappointed love. For her and those to whom she was drawn, being emotionally unavailable was a longer-range version of irrelationship.
Meanwhile, Leila had convinced herself that her choosing unavailable men was accidental or just plain bad luck. However, after a lot of soul searching and hard work, she began to see that unavailability was as much a part of her routine as it was that of her potential love interests. The tricky part was for her to become able to see that not only was this not happening accidentally, even more challenging to understand how it was playing out with the people she was with.
“No,” said Leila. “It never occurred to me that the men I was choosing reflected my issues and theirs! But by putting it all off on them I was totally letting myself off the hook—not just for what was going ‘wrong,’ but for taking a look at the feelings I’d stored away and didn’t want to deal with.”
Once Leila started looking at her own behaviors and the history that created and drove them, she was able to grow into a more mindful process of inviting and creating a true partnership that included intimacy, empathy, vulnerability and emotional investment. But this new approach to romance didn’t simply eliminate her anxiety about intimacy; instead Leila learned specific skills for navigating through her fear to the possibility of forming true emotional partnership.
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