When someone tells you that they’re “emotionally unavailable,” it can sound a lot like they’re just not that into you. But experts say emotional unavailability is a real condition, and it isn’t hopeless.
“Being emotionally unavailable is real — when someone doesn’t want a commitment, they’re not going to be there for you because that would imply they’re into you and the relationship,” April Masini, a New York-based relationship and etiquette expert, tells Global News. “But an emotionally unavailable person can change — when they want to.”
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It’s easy to chalk up emotional unavailability to a “cold” personality or even a narcissist, but it can go deeper than that.
“Emotional unavailability happens when someone has difficulty understanding how their unresolved hurt and anger issues manifest in ways that cause distance in their relationships,” Chantal Heide, an author and relationship expert in Waterloo, Ont., says. “The end result is someone who seems to constantly keep people at a distance, while they themselves maintain a self-protective shield in an attempt to avoid further hurt.”
But Masini says that it can also manifest itself in paradoxical behaviour. For example, instead of coming off as aloof, an emotionally unavailable person can be really happy and excited to see you, but they won’t remember what’s important to you or details about your life. In essence, they’ll be thrilled to spend time with you, but they won’t consider you when you’re not together. It’s the ultimate “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
Of course, an emotionally unavailable person can change, but like any personal overhaul, they have to want to do it themselves.
“The trick is for you not to try and change them. If they feel that they want to be more involved in your feelings, then they will,” Masini says.
Provide encouragement and praise them for doing thoughtful things, because believe it or not, some emotionally unavailable people don’t realize this is important.
“Tell them you really appreciated it when they asked about your mother because her illness has been weighing on you, and it makes you feel valued to share that with them because they asked,” she says. “This is their normal, and whenever there is a behavioural gap in a relationship, it’s good to point it out without prejudice.”
It’s also important to give them space and the time to address their behaviours, and work on changing them. Therapy can help to find the source of anger and hurt, and teach them how to redirect their feelings.
Heide also suggests meditation, which will “shrink the amygdala, also known as the fight or flight section of the brain, reducing the capacity to feel stress and anxiety, and increase grey matter in the hippocampus, the brain’s centre of compassion and introspection. This helps increase positive feelings.”
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If you’re the one who suffers from emotional unavailability, the onus of change falls to you. Be honest with yourself and confront the hard truths. It isn’t just for your own benefit, but for that of those around you.
“It’s much easier for people to forgive us when we show insight and a desire to act responsibly,” Heide says. “Learning how to properly apologize by excluding the word ‘but,’ and including a solution for avoiding the negative behaviour in the future, helps soothe the hurt feelings caused when you are reactive and push away those who love you.”