Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Communication Options with an "Emotionally Unavailable" Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/unavailable.htm

Updated  02-01-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behaviors. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This article offers (a) perspective on emotional "unavailability," and (b) proposes effective ways to relate to an "unavailable'' person. It assumes you're familiar with...

      This brief YouTube video clip introduces what you'll read in this article.


      Pop-psychology materials refer to "emotional unavailability" as a significant relationship problem. In my experience, authors and gurus avoid trying to define that, and/or assume audiences know what it is. Can you define it? Have you ever met an adult or child who was "unavailable" - e.g. a relative or romantic partner?

      Let's say that an "unavailable" person is mostly "in their head" - i.e. s/he is usually analytic and intellectual. If you ask "What are you feeling?" they often say "I don't know" or "Nothing." The opposite trait is emotional availability - meaning the person can appropriately feel and express their current emotions, thoughts, and needs.

      "Unavailability" ranges from

  • unawareness of one's own emotions, thoughts, needs, and some physical feelings ("numbness" and/or "repression"); to...

  • being aware of some or all current or recent emotions, thoughts, needs, and/or physical feelings, but being unable to describe them - perhaps because of fear, shame, and/or emotional-mental overwhelm; to...

  • unwillingness to disclose or discuss some, most, or all emotions and/or uncomfortable thoughts, memories, needs, and/or perceptions. This may include not wanting to discuss your current relationship other than in superficial generalities (intolerance of intimacy).

  • these can promote an inability to sense, identify, and validate other people's feelings and needs (i.e. an inability to empathize).

      In important relationships like mate-mate and parent-child, if one person is often unavailable, the other person may feel frustrated, disconnected, "distant," and anxious. Effective communication requires a mutual, spontaneous verbal and nonverbal exchange of thoughts and feelings - do you agree?

      Premise - survivors of childhood trauma often sustain up to six psychological wounds. The most tragic wound is an inability to feel, empathize, and bond with some or most people. Clinically, this is called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Most professional attention is given to RAD kids, vs. adults - partly because such wounded adults don't realize (or admit) they have a problem..

      Common behavioral symptoms of RAD include emotional "flatness," little "affect," a "frozen face and body," "woodenness," impassiveness, an "expressionless" face, little verbal inflection, difficulty feeling and expressing the normal range of human emotions, and superficial, broken, or no significant relationships. The most tragic cases involve parents who can't bond with, or feel or express genuine love for, their children.

      Some cultures and families prize stoicism and "self control" (minimizing emotions, as in the British advice to "keep a stiff upper lip," and stereotypic Oriental "inscrutability") - specially in males. That can be amplified by a genetic tendency is some males to mute their emotions and be less "sensitive" than typical females. There are many exceptions.

      By late adolescence or early adulthood, most RAD sufferers have learned through observing others to unconsciously pretend degrees of emotion to gain social acceptance. Often, other people grow doubts or distrust because the (wounded) person may not seem genuine or "real."

     Deaf children don't know what it's like to hear .In the same way, emotionally unavailable (wounded) people can't know what it's like to be "available." So hinting, asking, demanding, or pleading with them to be "available," can never heal their wounds. If this is true, then what can you do with such a person?

Communication Options

      "Communication"  happens when one or both people have unfilled needs. An implicit challenge here is to accept that the unavailable person cannot (vs. will not) fill your need for "connection" unless they hit true bottom. This limits your behavioral options.

     When you're with an unavailable (wounded) person, mentally review these basics as needed. Your options depend on  what you need.

  • If you need to improve your general communication with this person, (a) put your true Self in charge, and (b) select from options here and here.

  • If you need to vent (be heard and accepted), (a) ask if the person has time to listen to you, and (b) periodically ask for hearing checks.

  • If you need to learn what the other person feels, needs, and thinks, ask - and be aware that s/he may not be able to identify or describe these things because of inherited psychological wounds;

  • If you need to offer feedback on how the person's "unavailability" affects you:

    • notice specifically how you feel when you're with her/him;

    • ask if s/he is open to constructive feedback; If yes...

    • compose and deliver a respectful ''I-message'' like...

"When you don't look at / respond to me, I feel __________."

"(Name), at times it's hard for me to be with you because I can't tell what you're thinking or how you're feeling (about me / us)."

  • Model "availability" without moralizing or preaching - i.e. naturally describe your feelings, thoughts, and needs as they occur.

      Does anything prevent you from using options like these with "unavailable" kids or adults? If you're hesitant, reluctant, or skeptical about trying them, suspect that your true Self is disabled.

  Responses to Avoid

      Communications like these are apt to amplify the "unavailable"  person's wounds and degrade your relationship:

  • Expecting the person to change by willpower alone. They can't, unless they commit to personal recovery from psychological wounds;

  • Complaining and criticizing - e.g. "After all I've done for you, you forgot my birthday again!"

  • Blaming / Guilt-tripping - "You say I'm important to you, but you never call."

  • Questioning - "How come you never ask about your grandkids or visit them?" (Implication: "You're a bad grandparent.")

  • Gossiping - "Can you believe it? Paco didn't want to go to the doctor with his wife. Louisa is so upset!"

  • Lecturing - "You never disclose your feelings. You need to see a shrink!"

  • Sarcasm and scorn - "For you, intimacy is a four-letter word."

  • Judging and name-calling - "People who don't care about other people are really selfish and pathetic, don't you think?"

  • Labeling - "Poor Portia - she's a real social cripple."  /  "Rudy just won't make the effort."

  • Indignation and resentment - "Is it too much to ask that you call and tell me you'll be late?"

  • Pretense and denial -  "Why no - I really do enjoy being with you. Really."

  • Puzzling - "Lou insists he loves me, but I don't feel loved!" (This may be because you're wounded.)

  • Avoiding - "Marta's a real cold fish, but I'd never tell her that. It'd hurt her feelings."

  • Advising - "You should socialize more. Get out and have some fun! Life's passing you by!"

  • Thinking things like this but not saying them.

      Notice your thought and feelings now. Do you see any themes in these examples?


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common irritating social behaviors. This article proposes that "emotionally unavailability" is an inability or unwillingness to feel and express emotions, needs, thoughts, and perceptions. This is unintentional, and comes from early-childhood trauma and inherited psychological wounds, The article illustrates relationship options with an "unavailable" person, and responses to avoid. The former are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a genuine (vs. dutiful) mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights,

  • understanding what may cause "emotional unavailability" (psychological wounds); and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

  For more perspective, see this and these response-options to guarded and unresponsive people.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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