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Ask A Life Coach: Should I Stay With An Emotionally Unavailable Partner?

Q: I would like some insight on being emotionally invested in someone that is apparently not emotionally available. Due to certain circumstances of loss and trauma in their life, they are extremely guarded. I’m not certain how long to stand by them to support them, waiting for them to be more available.

A: Being in relationship with someone who struggles to meet our needs for emotional availability can be a very frustrating experience, even if we care about & love them very much. I obviously don’t know all the details of this relationship, but I’ll share a few thoughts that might help you be an advocate for yourself and your worthiness to be in an emotionally rich & supportive relationship.

You obviously care about this person quite a bit, which I can tell from you saying that you’re very “emotionally invested” in them and the fact that you can see that their guarded nature & emotionally unavailability is rooted in those “circumstances of loss and trauma in their life.” Compassion, that ability to understand someone else’s pain and how it effects their current behavior, is a beautiful quality in human beings… but it can also be a kind of double-edged sword in our intimate relationships.

We might, for instance, have enormous amounts of compassion & empathy for why a loved one has developed a major drinking problem… traumatic childhood experiences, unresolved grief, anxiety about their work, etc… but that compassion doesn’t do much to stop the harm caused by their alcoholism if they’re doing nothing to get help or work to get better. There’s always this fine line where compassion for someone can turn into enabling their hurtful behavior… or when empathy for their pain causes us to lower the bar of how we expect to be treated. And that kind of situation isn’t actually healthy for you, or the person we care about.

I think it’s important that we think of someone’s past traumas, losses, and struggles as CONTEXT for why they behave in certain ways or show up in relationships the way they do… but we need to be careful that our compassionate understanding doesn’t turn into an EXCUSE for them behaving in ways that make us feel deeply unhappy and unfulfilled in a relationship. Empathy can help us understand why they may struggle to grow in certain areas, but it shouldn’t be a free pass for them to refuse to grow or put no effort into meeting you half-way (which is what relationships are all about).

So, I really want to get across to you this message: You are WORTHY of being in a relationship where you are met with emotional availability. That is a legitimate human need in relationships. And you are worthy of that. If this person is as least willing to put forth effort towards growing emotionally, then it may be worth trying to meet them half-way. I sincerely hope that’s the case. But if there is no willingness or effort, your understanding of their losses and trauma are not (in my opinion) enough of a reason to stay in an unsatisfying relationship.

If this person IS willing to work towards growing in their emotional availability, there’s so many good resources & practices that could help with that. Obviously there’s working with some kind of professional (a therapist, a coach, a mentor of some sort) to work through some of those losses & traumas, to address those fears that may be holding them back from emotional intimacy.

There’s the framework of attachment styles, where they could explore how they may have an avoidant attachment style… in which intimacy may create a fear of getting hurt again and so they pull away (avoid) to protect themselves from a repetition of past hurt. (You could also take a look at your own attachment style. If you tend to have a more anxious attachment style, this means that when something comes up in the relationship, you have a deep desire to pull close and receive reassurance… which may trigger his habit of pulling away even harder. Ironically, anxious & avoidant people have a tendency of finding each other and unhappily playing off each other’s patterns.. until both people begin to identify those habits and work to change them. The book “Attached” by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller is a great resource on this topic)

I could also recommend that this person could take a look at how they express their need for space & boundaries. When we talk about having healthy boundaries, many people with a lot of emotional openness tend to need to learn how to set STRONGER boundaries to protect those big, open hearts of theirs. But there are plenty of people on the other end of the spectrum… who naturally put up giant WALLS to keep everyone away from their hearts. Therefore, their work in setting healthy boundaries is actually to learn how to SOFTEN those walls and TRUST people again. They may need to learn, for instance, how to ask for a little space that doesn’t feel like pushing the other person 100 miles away.

I could actually go on & on with strategies this person could explore to grow in their emotional availability… but it really comes down to this: do they WANT to grow? And the answer to that question is really the heart of the matter. If they WANT to grow, you have something to work with. If they are WILLING to evolve in their emotional availability, despite their traumas and losses, you at least have the capacity to meet each other half-way. And that willingness will be expressed primarily through ACTION, through backing up any words & promises with consistent behavior. But if there is an unwillingness or a stubbornness to stay stuck in their ways… you may have to decide that your compassion for their situation isn’t actually enough to keep you in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met. And you DO deserve to have your needs met.

So, that’s what you have to figure out here… is there at least a WILLINGNESS in them to grow emotionally? For both of your sake’s, I hope there is! But if there’s not a willingness, you don’t need to keep sacrificing your own happiness over and over again to stay in an unhappy relationship. You can still love this person, but also decide that you need to move on and find a relationship where you can be met equally by an emotionally mature partner.

I hope you found these words helpful.

- Matthew Robertson

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