Practical steps to breaking the cycle.
Becoming romantically involved with someone who is not available—emotionally or otherwise—is a clear path toward self-sabotage. This may seem obvious, but like many self-destructive behaviors, changing it is easier said than done. But how do you know if a potential love interest, or a current partner, is emotionally unavailable? How do you know if you, yourself, are emotionally unavailable? What does “emotionally unavailable” even mean?
I interviewed Amy Chan, author of Breakup Bootcamp: The Science To Rewiring Your Heart and founder of Renew Breakup Bootcamp, a company that takes a scientific and spiritual approach to healing the heart. Chan and her team of experts, including psychologists, hypnotists, and even a dominatrix, assist the brokenhearted to “move forward and use their pain as a catalyst to grow.” Chan’s own heartbreak was the catalyst for starting Renew, which offers post-breakup retreats several times a year for women. Not surprisingly, many of the women she works with struggle with unhealthy relationship patterns, often with emotionally unavailable partners. I asked Amy to help us understand this self-sabotaging phenomenon and explain how she helps her clients make changes. Below is my interview with Amy.
We often hear the phrase “emotionally unavailable” thrown around, which we know is something that can apply to different types of people, from narcissists to the avoidantly attached. Can you help us understand this phenomenon?
Emotionally unavailable means that someone is closed to intimacy. This person may disassociate from their own feelings and consequently can’t handle the feelings of others. You can be in a relationship and still be emotionally unavailable, but there’s always an emotional distance.
Is there a term other than “emotionally unavailable” that can be used to describe this type of behavior?
I think a more helpful term is “disconnected.” I view disconnected as feelings and behaviors that squelch intimacy. This means that someone who acts needy and codependent is also disconnected. They are still squelching intimacy and the development of a true, authentic connection. You could have an anxious attachment style and be codependent in relationships—this is also “disconnected.” In this case, it’s just that instead of avoiding the emotions and leaning into intimacy, you tend to feel controlled by your emotions and try to fuse with your partner. Both approaches are unavailable. Emotionally unavailable, disconnected, avoidant, codependent, anxious—these are all different labels that describe intimacy issues, but there’s a common denominator: the driving force is fear, not love.
Do you think this is a universal human phenomenon to be drawn to unavailable people (or things), or is this issue more than specific to those with a history of relational trauma, for example?
I do not think it’s a universal issue; it’s a self-worth issue. If you’re in a relationship with someone who is “emotionally unavailable/disconnected” there’s a point in time where you need to make a call and determine if it’s a dead-end relationship. Dead-end relationships refer to attachments to people who are painfully unattainable; mismatched relationships where two people are on different wavelengths; relationships chronically lacking in what both partners need/want. They are wastelands of emptiness, deprivation, and suffering. Love doesn’t mean self-sacrifice, and when you haven’t had a healthy model of what love and support feels like, you may grow up to be more susceptible to dead-end relationships because you have a dysfunctional view of what love is or you don’t feel worthy of love.
How are attraction patterns formed? Is it possible to change who we are attracted to?
I call it the chemistry compass. Our ability to love intimately and sexually unfolds in stages, starting with our attachment with our parents. Our early patterns of relating and attaching to others, if problematic in childhood, get “wired” in our brains in childhood and then repeated in adulthood. We then grow up with a chemistry compass that’s broken—pointing us to those who embody the worst emotional characteristics of our primary caregiver(s). Our psyche tries to re-create the scene of the original crime (how we were wounded as children) hoping that we can save ourselves by changing its ending.
Psychologist Ken Page describes this as “attractions of deprivation,” when “our conscious self is drawn to the positive qualities we yearn for, but our unconscious draws us to the qualities which hurt us the most as children.” Basically, we try to get our unmet childhood needs met by our romantic partner to resolve the wounds of our childhood. We’re often attracted to a [partner] who has qualities we dislike and then want him to get rid of the exact things we were first drawn to. This is where the loop from childhood plays out in adulthood. Our partner doesn’t fulfill the need we lacked growing up, which leads to the same, familiar conflict and suffering we experienced as a child. We develop instincts that become our chemistry compass—pointing us in the direction of who we find attractive or repulsive. So, if growing up you didn’t have a positive model of what a healthy, loving partnership looks like, it can be challenging to know what love feels like. Human beings like what feels familiar, and if inconsistency, fighting for love and attention, or enduring emotional abuse was your norm growing up, then subconsciously you’re going to keep choosing partners who make you feel the same way.
Is it possible to have a healthy, fulfilling relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner?
If you are [in a relationship with] someone who is emotionally unavailable, relationship bliss isn’t necessarily doomed. Both people need to develop goals for healthy intimacy and connection, and both must be equally invested in the process. If so, then a beautiful opportunity for two people to grow within the relationship is possible. Equally invested is key here. If you’re taking three steps for every one step your partner is, it’s not going to work. Both people need to want to make it work, and align their actions with their intentions. This is where external help can be useful. A coach or therapist that can keep both people accountable and provide an outside perspective.
One word of caution: be careful not to want someone else’s growth more than they do. That’s a setup for disaster. Being unavailable is about conditioning, and the desire and discipline to change those patterns and coping mechanisms is a choice that only that person can make. You can help inspire that choice, but you cannot make it for them.
What are some practical steps you can take to rewire your chemistry compass?
1. Date people outside your type.
Be open to going on dates with people who are outside your regular type. It might be helpful if you give yourself a number of dates or even a timeline, because if you base it only on how you feel, you’ll likely get discouraged and quit the exercise. The objective is to go out with people who may be compatible, even if the romantic chemistry is not there.
2. Reframe it from “dating” to “connecting.”
Instead of calling it “dating,” reframe it as an exercise in connection. Your goal is not to see if the person is your soul mate or life partner. Rather, the goal is to create connection. That takes the pressure off and helps you become open, curious, and intentional about creating a human connection. When you’re not worried about impressing the person or fantasizing about the future, you’re able to show up more authentically. Remember that chemistry can take time to build. The only thing you want to determine is, “Am I having a good time?” and at the end, “Do I want to see this person again?” That’s it. Your brain may not process it as romantic chemistry yet, and that’s okay.
3. Recognize that intensity does not equate to love.
If you have a history of dating people because you were following the initial intense chemistry, this is a signal that your chemistry compass is pointing you in the wrong direction. Instead of viewing intense chemistry as a green light to go, you should consider it as a signal to STOP. Love is not a fast-paced, hot/cold, anxiety-ridden roller-coaster ride. Intensity should be your signal to slow down, not speed up.
4. Slow down, and get an accountability partner to keep you in check.
The intensity can cause you to overlook the red flags and get so emotionally entangled that you don’t see that your chemistry compass has taken over and sent you down a dead-end road again. Even if everything in your body wants to see your new love interest every day, cut it down to one or two times in the week. If intensity and a fast pace have been your MO, you’ll benefit from getting someone to be your accountability partner so you start creating healthier habits.
5. Practice receiving love.
When someone shows up for you—is compassionate, supportive, loving, attentive—practice receiving it. If you have a history of dating disconnected (emotionally unavailable) people, you’re likely used to starving for attention and love, and you over-give and overcompensate to try to get the very thing you’re lacking from the relationship. You need to build your muscle to receive, and this can feel very uncomfortable at first. When someone gives you love, whether that is a compliment, a gift, or an act of service, take a moment and soak it in. Feel how it feels and where you feel it in your body. By doing so, you are building up your emotional memory of how healthy love feels.
This article was originally published on Psychology Today.