How To Be Emotionally Available In A Relationship In Just 5 Steps!

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Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you become more emotionally available. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.

When most people are asked to describe the closest bonds they have with their dear friends and loved ones, there tends to be a common feature to all of them: the ability to share and discuss their feelings.

They know that they can trust these people, so they can open up to them about their fears and hurts, as well as sharing their joys and achievements. They’ll be heard and supported, and the others will reciprocate by opening up to them in turn. This is what being emotionally available looks like.

So what happens when a person can’t (or won’t) share their feelings with others? If they avoid expressing (or even feeling) much of anything at all?

This often results in superficial connections with others that lack depth and lasting power.

Friendships might be more like acquaintanceships: those you wave to at the coffee shop or chat about the weather with, but there’s no personal information exchanged.

Intimate relationships are likely either short-term—even simply one-night stands—or otherwise emotionally detached.

What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?

In simplest terms, to be emotionally unavailable means that you aren’t comfortable with emotional engagement.

For instance, have you ever heard someone use the phrase that they don’t want to “catch feelings” for someone? As though feeling emotions would be akin to some kind of STI?

In a situation like this, they don’t want to develop an emotional connection or attachment to another person; this usually pertains to someone they’re sexually involved with. Sure, they enjoy spending time with this person and being physically intimate, but they don’t want any kind of emotional involvement. They’re not interested in even having feelings here, let alone talking about them.

Alternatively, the person might not be intentionally trying to keep others at a distance; they might not be in touch with their own feelings at all. As a result, they can’t share their emotions with others because they don’t know what they’re feeling. They’re disconnected, numb, or generally unfamiliar with what different emotions feel like.

There’s a wide range of reasons as to why this distancing may happen, and each cause will have a different approach to heal it.

Let’s take a look at what it really means to be emotionally unavailable, as well as what may have caused this type of distancing to begin with. Once we’ve delved into the “why” a bit, we can explore some approaches you can use to open up and feel a bit more.

First and foremost, let’s check out some telltale signs that your emotional availability might be on the lower end of the spectrum:

Signs you might be emotionally unavailable:

Emotional unavailability can take a wide variety of different forms. These will depend on your individual personality, as well as which emotions are being tamped down.

  • You feel awkward or uncomfortable when people tell you that they care about you or love you (or joke about it when and if it happens)
  • You tend to keep your interactions light-hearted (e.g., cracking jokes, telling funny stories) instead of opening up about the details of your own life
  • You have difficulty trusting people and always assume that they’re going to hurt you, betray your trust, or otherwise screw you over
  • Your guard is always up, in that you might expect threats around every corner
  • If things are going well, you feel as though you’re waiting for the “other shoe to drop”
  • You might freak out if you think that you’re starting to have feelings for another person that go beyond wanting to share a pizza with them
  • You might find excuses to avoid spending time with a person unless it’s in a group or there’s a clear exit strategy
  • You try to avoid showing vulnerability or weakness by any means possible
  • You may be afraid of developing strong feelings for someone because you know how much it’ll hurt if they end the relationship (or that they’ll reject you)
  • If anything emotional comes up, you redirect attention elsewhere by changing the subject, or finding an excuse to leave the area
  • You may be uncompromising in your relationship, in that you expect the other person to change to suit your whims, but refuse to make any personal changes in turn
  • You often look for faults or other imperfections in your partner (or their behavior) as an excuse to end the relationship
  • You might try to use physical intimacy as a way to avoid talking about your feelings, or topics related to where the relationship might be heading
  • You have difficulty expressing any kind of emotion unless you’re severely inebriated, and then you can’t remember doing so the following day (or you pretend that you can’t), which allows you to avoid discussing what’s been said

These are just some of the most common signs that a person is emotionally unavailable. They will differ from one individual to another, of course, but they’ll generally be variations on common ground.

What causes a person to be emotionally unavailable?

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably well aware that you’re emotionally unavailable in your personal relationships and hope to do something to change that. The thing is, there’s always a reason for emotional unavailability, and it’s usually different for every person.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, because there are so many causes.

Consider someone who goes to a doctor because they have a skin rash. The doctor wouldn’t automatically hand them a cream or salve after a rudimentary examination—they would ask a simple question first: “Do you know what caused it?

This is because the cream that will alleviate eczema won’t do much for poison ivy, and it could worsen dermatitis caused by a new laundry detergent. As such, questions need to be asked about when the rash started, whether the patient had been out in the woods, switched soaps, eaten new foods, and so on. This is what will help the doctor get to the root cause, so they then know how to alleviate the problem.

The same goes for emotional and psychological issues.

In order to understand how to be more emotionally available, we first have to understand how and why those emotions got shut down to begin with.

Let’s go over three of the most common causes.

1. Numbing out as a result of past traumas.

One of the primary reasons why a person shuts down and retreats emotionally is that they have had to deal with severe trauma. This may have been an isolated incident, or it could have been a stressful situation that they were unable to escape for long periods of time.

For example, I counselled one person who had become numb and retreated into themselves after they’d found their best friend’s body as the result of an overdose. Their way of dealing with the shock and loss was to just shut down so they didn’t have to feel anything.

Similarly, many people who have survived long-term traumatic situations such as war, refugee camps, or severely abusive family situations end up with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). People who have this disorder often try to “push away” any feelings they have entirely. By keeping the floodgates completely shut, they won’t have to deal with any of the painful emotions and memories that threaten to overwhelm and hurt them.

The problem with keeping these gates shut is that it closes off access to any emotions. This means that they’ll certainly avoid feeling anxiety, despair, grief, and the like, but they will also lose access to emotions associated with love, affection, and joy.

It’s important to note that feeling numb isn’t necessarily a choice. While some people may have made the choice to shut down, others might have done so on autopilot. Quite simply, their psyches may have become numb as a way to save them from even more severe mental and emotional trauma.

The problem here is that those emotions they shut down haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve been repressed and set aside rather than worked through, which can result in severe anxiety and depression along with the aforementioned PTSD.

Recent studies show that 97% of people with major depressive disorder (MDD) suffered trauma in childhood[1]. Many of them aren’t even aware that they are emotionally unavailable, as they’re entirely focused on keeping themselves safe from harm. Thus, they really aren’t paying much attention to how their behaviors affect others, or their interpersonal relationships as a whole.

2. Fear of the inevitable pain associated with rejection and/or loss.

Another reason why a person might avoid being emotionally available is that they’re afraid to be. Their past experiences have shown them that being vulnerable leaves them open to pain. Since they want to avoid feeling the pain they’ve experienced in the past, they’ve learned to brace and protect themselves from it by any means necessary.

One type of pain they might have experienced could revolve around rejection or loss.

For example, they may have fallen for someone quite intensely and taken a great deal of courage to let that person know how they felt, only to be told that their crush wasn’t interested in them “that way.”

Alternatively, they might have had issues with previous partners that hurt or scarred them badly. For example, humiliation in the bedroom, or having their physical form criticized or mocked by a partner might have shut them down emotionally. Now they’d rather keep others at a distance instead of risking feeling that they aren’t “good enough,” or can’t live up to their partner’s expectations.

Others might be afraid of losing those who are close to them, so they do their best to avoid forming attachments.

This often happens to people who lose a close family member, romantic partner, or close friend. The pain and grief associated with that kind of loss makes them hesitant to create strong emotional bonds just in case they experience it again.

They’d rather be alone or just have casual connections with others than have to face the excruciating pain of loss.

3. Fear of repercussions.

For some people, their experience with communicating their emotions openly and honestly has always been negative. As a result, they don’t express how they’re really feeling—whether verbally or through body language—because they’re worried about what might happen to them if they do.

As an example, someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family might have learned early on that being honest about how they felt meant that they would be subjected to abuse: either emotional or physical.

In a dysfunctional household, they may have been encouraged to tell their parents/caregivers what they thought and how they felt, with the assurance that they would be listened to, and wouldn’t get into “trouble” for doing so.

Then, when they actually believed that and opened up, they ended up being punished. Maybe they were gaslit and undermined, or they could have been beaten, grounded, and so on.

Either way, the lesson they learned was that they couldn’t trust the people around them with their emotions, so they would either keep those feelings to themselves or not feel anything at all. If people don’t have any ammunition to use against them, then they can’t be hurt.

As you can imagine, this can be quite a hindrance when it comes to interpersonal relationships. For example, it might be devastating to a partner to discover that the one they love won’t trust them with personal struggles or emotions because they don’t want what they’ve admitted to be “used against them” in the future.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to cultivate an intimate partnership with a person who won’t tell you what they’re feeling. That makes things very one-sided, as well as superficial. Being emotionally available means taking the risk to be vulnerable with the ones you love and having faith that they won’t try to intentionally damage you just because they can.

How to be emotionally available.

It sounds easier said than done, doesn’t it? It’s not like there’s an “on/off” switch you can flick when someone tells you that you aren’t emotionally available, as though you’d just forgotten to turn that on again.

When someone has had to be emotionally numb or distant for a long time for the sake of preservation, bringing those emotions back to the surface can take a fair bit of time and effort.

Here are several things you can do to develop your emotional availability.

We really do recommend that you seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you to address the causes of your unavailability and in showing you how to open up.

1. Try to be aware of when you’re numb or being intentionally unavailable.

One of the most important ways to overcome emotional unavailability is to recognize both when and why you’re being distant. This will require you to be aware of your reactions to different situations and to be honest about why you’re behaving a certain way.

Once again, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably well aware that you keep people at arm’s length, and you’d like to get over that so you can develop stronger bonds with others.

This can be difficult to do if your go-to response to most situations is to retreat emotionally. Furthermore, it’s difficult to alter or break behaviors that have become second nature for many years.

For instance, your emotional unavailability might manifest as die-hard independence. You may have learned a long time ago that you can’t depend on other people, so you’ve muscled through and taken care of everything yourself, always.

If and when you find yourself in a situation where you need other people, such as if you injure yourself or get really ill, you may balk at the possibility of being vulnerable and letting others know that you do, in fact, need them.

After all, if you reach out and ask for help, you might end up disappointed again.

Your standard response up until now would likely be to just take care of yourself so you don’t have to face the possibility of being let down or hurt by those who claim to care.

Identifying this mindset and behavior is the first step to changing it.

Try to engage in self-reflection on a regular basis, such as through meditation or journaling. Be especially aware when you catch yourself withdrawing from someone whom you’d prefer to be closer to.

Ask yourself what it is they’re doing that’s making you feel like you have to protect yourself by being invulnerable. Then consider what the ramifications would be if you actually let them “in” rather than keeping them at a safe distance.

Are you afraid that they’ll take advantage of you if you appear “weak” in front of them? Or are you worried that if you open the floodgates a bit, then all the other stuff you’ve been repressing will come pouring out, and you might end up having a messy breakdown?

2. Play.

Believe it or not, one of the best ways to become more emotionally available is to play.

We’re not talking about chess or solitary video games either, but rather games with others that allow you to lower your guard a bit and have some solid laughs. There are countless games out there that you can choose from too, depending on what type of person you are.

For example, if you’re a rough-and-tumble sort who loves intense physical activity with your friends, you could play something like ultimate frisbee or laser tag. Alternatively, if you have a dark sense of humor and like word play, consider a game such as Cards Against Humanity or Joking Hazard.

Laughing is one of the most difficult emotional responses to repress and is a great way to start loosening up a bit with people you like and trust. After all, it’s difficult not to be emotionally available when you’re doubled over, howling with laughter.

Additionally, playing—especially with others—doesn’t just release endorphins and other happy hormones: it’s also an opportunity for cooperation and help without any kind of pressure. You can lean over and suggest an appalling card combination to a friend of yours, or teach someone a great frisbee-catching technique.

Suddenly, you realize that you’ve actually just bonded with someone, and there wasn’t any negativity involved!

That kind of positive reinforcement is huge. By realizing that you can open up a bit and not get hurt, you’ll be encouraged to do it again in the future. Then that in turn will have a positive result, and things will continue to spiral outward positively from there.

3. Spend time with animals.

Animals are amazing for opening up our hearts because they love us unconditionally and won’t betray our trust. You can wrap yourself around your dog and have a good cry, or tell your cat or rabbit about the most horrible things you’ve been through, and they won’t judge you, distance themselves from you, or tell anyone else your secrets.

(Okay, the cat might judge you, but it’ll still curl up on your lap because it loves you anyway.)

Studies show that spending time with animals is immensely beneficial to one’s overall wellbeing, provided that they aren’t heinously allergic to them. This is because a positive interaction with an animal releases endorphins (happy hormones), stabilizes blood pressure, eases depression and anxiety, and encourages emotional connection.

In fact, you’ve likely heard about “emotional support animals” recently, as they’ve become far more common in helping to treat people with depressive disorders and PTSD[2].

Dogs and horses are two of the most common species used in these kinds of therapies, but birds, small mammals, and even fish can be beneficial, depending on one’s personal affinities.

If you already have an animal companion, spend more time with them. Walk the dog more often, groom and/or brush them, cuddle with them, even read aloud to them. You’ll be amazed to see how your heart opens up to these wonderful beings, and how this can benefit all your other relationships in turn.

4. Communicate what you’re going through with those closest to you.

If you’re taking sincere action to be more emotionally available, it’s likely because there are people in your life whom you truly care about and want to be closer to. Maybe you’d like to strengthen and deepen your relationship with your partner, or be less distant with your children. Or perhaps you just want to be able to experience life a bit more vibrantly.

Either way, it’s important to let the people closest to you know what you’re going through so they can play supportive roles as needed.

For example, if your partner has been the one to tell you that you aren’t emotionally available, consider letting them know a bit about why you’ve been so numb and detached. You don’t have to go into great detail or anything (especially if that would be traumatic to everyone involved), but just enough to explain that you aren’t just intentionally being unavailable.

Explain to them that you’re going to ebb and flow, and that every time you start to get a bit closer or more open, you may have to retreat to stoic solitude for a little bit to regroup. This is rather like testing the waters to ensure that they’re safe before you continue to move forward. Opening up and being more emotionally available means being vulnerable. And if you’ve been in a place of invulnerability for some time, this is going to be a huge shift for you.

If this person truly cares about you, they’ll undoubtedly be willing to support and stand by you during this metamorphosis. Just keep them informed about what’s going on rather than freezing them out, leaving them wondering if they’ve done something wrong because today you’re silent and distant while yesterday you were warm and playful.

Do you know what communication style works best for you? Are you more comfortable having conversations with people? Texting back and forth? Or perhaps writing letters by hand?

If so, tell your loved ones that you’d like them to inform you when you’re being distant with them or shutting them out. Then let them know the best way to communicate with you so you’ll receive their input effectively instead of immediately getting defensive or pushing away further.

Here’s an example: let’s say that you shut down and go quiet when you’re stressed out about work.

You might not be the type of person who would react well if your partner brought up that subject to talk about over dinner, or when you’re trying to wind down for sleep.

Determine the best time and method to communicate, whether it’s by a handwritten letter that you can read on your own time, or a predetermined time slot you can use to discuss things. Then let them know the tone that you prefer and will respond to best, such as gentle awareness versus accusations and tears.

This basically creates a neutral zone in which both parties can communicate what they’re thinking and feeling without any kind of hostility or defensiveness. You’ll be in the right frame of mind to listen to them, and they’ll feel validated about the fact that they’re being heard.

Furthermore, it’s important to remember that these are people who love you, and who want to connect with you on a deeper level.

As a result, they’re likely to be eager and willing to communicate with you in the most effective way possible to help you break through your emotional barriers—gently, with unconditional love, support, and understanding.

5. Open up a bit at a time, as you feel more comfortable doing so.

Becoming more emotionally available doesn’t mean that you need to knock down all your protective walls at once. In fact, trying to do so may have a negative effect on your emotional and physical wellbeing.

See this situation rather like a person who’s severely dehydrated. If they take big gulps of water, they’re going to throw their electrolytes out of balance. They’ll throw up, start shaking, and possibly lose even more water in the process. In contrast, taking small sips a bit at a time will rehydrate them without imbalance or illness.

Taking small steps toward greater emotional availability will allow you to continue to feel safe and in control during this process. It also offers the opportunity for little tendrils of connection to reach through so they can establish themselves, rather than forcing them.

As an example, let’s say you’ve been keeping things really light and fun with someone you’re dating, but you want to connect with them on a deeper level. Perhaps they’ve mentioned that they want to get to know you better but feel like you’re keeping them at arm’s length.

When you’re in the right frame of mind to do so, let them know that you’re aware that you’re being emotionally unavailable, and that you’re trying to learn how to be more open.

You don’t need to pour all your past emotional traumas out on the table all at once, especially if they’ve been particularly intense. Simply share one aspect about yourself that you’ve been keeping from them. Just one.

This could be something challenging that you’re going through, something difficult that you had to deal with in the past, or even just some personal trait that you feel silly about.

Show them the tiniest bit of vulnerability and allow them to step up and accept you.

And support you.

And stick around.

Then, when you feel a bit safer, do it again with another bit of info.

Bit by bit, those little tendrils will reach further and you’ll feel more comfortable with your vulnerability with this person. You’ll realize that they love and accept you as you are, and that you’re worthy of their love.

6. Be more present and attentive with your children.

This aspect will only apply to people with kids, but it is an important matter to touch upon.

If you aren’t emotionally available to your friends and partners, there’s a good chance that you aren’t able to get close to your kids either. The adults in your life might be able to accept that you’re naturally detached or aloof, but children don’t have that kind of discernment.

To them, if a parent is being distant or dismissive toward them, they’ll wonder whether they’ve done something wrong. If they’re emotionally demonstrative and you pull away, they’ll think that you hate them.

Similarly, if they try to express their feelings to you and you brush them off as unimportant, they’ll learn that their thoughts and emotions are insignificant, so they should just ignore or repress them. Like you do.

And then the cycle will continue through them. Twenty years down the line, they could be the ones who are reading articles like this, trying to figure out how to be emotionally available to others, because they don’t know how.

Do you remember what the second tip was on this list? It was play. And when it comes to children, play is so important. You don’t have to talk to them about your past experiences or try to explain why you hold back your feelings; you can just play with them. Focus on them and the thing you are playing together and they will feel loved and valued by you.

7. Find a therapist you feel comfortable with.

One of the best ways to learn how to open your heart and mind back up so you can be more emotionally available is to work with a therapist.

It’s important to “shop around” in this regard, so to speak. You might luck out with a wonderful counsellor the first time you go looking for one, or it might take you a while to find one you can click properly with. This is often a Goldilocks situation in which one therapist might be too emotionally soft for you, another may be too severe, but you’ll inevitably find the one that’s “just right” for your personality and individual needs.

There are several reasons why working with a therapist can be immensely beneficial when trying to be more emotionally open.

For one, people with PTSD (or who have been numb for long periods of time) often need to feel more intense positive stimuli in order to be able to feel anything at all[3]. Therapists will know how to help expose you to intense emotions so you can start feeling positive things like joy and excitement again.

After that, you can start to work together in order to widen your spectrum of emotional experience.

Working with a therapist is just like getting physiotherapy after a bad injury. You could muscle through and heal from a broken back on your own, but things would go more smoothly (and heal more quickly) if a physiotherapist were helping you along, right?

None of us are issue-free, and that’s what therapists and counselors are for.

A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

And, no, you won’t be sacrificing on quality or results by opting for online therapy over in-person therapy. After all, you still get access to a fully qualified professional. It’s just a lot more convenient for you, and quite often it works out far more affordable too.

Getting therapy is also nothing to be ashamed of. Most people could benefit from some therapy, but they are too stubborn to admit it. You’ve already taken a huge first step by searching for this article and reading it all the way through. The next logical step is to get more personal advice than an article on the internet could ever provide.

Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

Being emotionally available after years, or even decades, of distance takes a lot of courage.

After all, there’s the very real possibility that when you take the plunge to be a bit more emotionally available, you may end up rejected and/or hurt again.

Some degree of hurt is inevitable in personal relationships, but being able to feel deep, sincere love – and be loved in turn – really is worth the risk.

This article has taken you on a journey to explore what it means to be emotionally unavailable, the reasons why you might be this way, and how you might open up a little more.

Now it’s your turn to take a journey of your own. You will face challenges, but you can overcome them with perseverance and practice.

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References:

  1. Christensen MC, Ren H, Fagiolini A. Emotional blunting in patients with depression. Part III: relationship with psychological trauma. Ann Gen Psychiatry. 2022 Jun 21;21(1):21. doi: 10.1186/s12991-022-00395-1. PMID: 35729621; PMCID: PMC9210060.
  2. Eric L Altschuler, MD, PhD, Animal-Assisted Therapy for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Lessons from “Case Reports” in Media Stories, Military Medicine, https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usx073
  3. Litz BT, Gray MJ. Emotional numbing in posttraumatic stress disorder: current and future research directions. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2002 Apr;36(2):198–204. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1614.2002.01002.x. PMID: 11982540.

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About Author

Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.