A while back, I wrote a blog that asks the question, “Are you emotionally unavailable to your spouse?” In addition, it addresses the concept of emotional availability and why it is an important factor in our relationships. Without it, we push our partners away, which can make it difficult to trust each other. Similarly, keeping our partner at arm’s length does not generally lead to a loving relationship overall.
Do you remember the analogy of the husband behind his castle walls, keeping his wife on the outside? The only way to increase our emotional availability is to let them in. So, here are a few steps to do just that.
Many of the men I work with demonstrate what I think of as reflexive defensiveness. The minute they get uncomfortable or feel under attack, they retreat behind the castle walls and pull up the draw bridge. For some men this may be as simple as their wife discussing her sadness. With increased insight we can become more aware of this defensive cognitive process and we can slow it down. When you feel this happening, this emotional retreat, breath and relax and try to sit with the discomfort as long as you can. Slowing down this process will help you gain control of it and the more often you manage through the discomfort, the less its intensity becomes. You’ll feel a little vulnerable, don’t worry, you are supposed to, that is the point.
Don’t Fire The Cannons
Once safely behind our walls we will often begin to fire the cannons. If the walls feel like they won’t do the job, we go on the attack ourselves. Generally, we do this through our anger. This is often a pretty effective measure to ensure nobody gets too close. What would you do if somebody fired at you? Most people would run away or fire back. The trick here is to acknowledge your anger, recognize it, and then try to respond in a different way. For some people, just being aware that you are angry is difficult and takes practice. Once we are able to recognize this feeling we can increase our self-control and make the decision not to fire the cannons. You’ll feel a little more vulnerable, don’t worry, you are supposed to.
Look Beyond the Anger
It’s fairly well known that anger is a secondary emotion, there is always another emotion that precedes the anger, it may be shame, guilt, sadness, etc. For many of us it is better to feel angry than to feel sad. When we can slow down this process (see first bullet point) we can begin to look beyond our anger and get in touch with the primary emotion that is fueling the anger. I once worked with a couple in which the wife was something of a workaholic and in the eyes of her husband, put her career over him. When he came at her with anger, she would just defend herself and fire back. The anger is the firing of the cannons, but the real question is, “why are we holding the match in the first place?”
Lower the Drawbridge
Once we can look beyond our anger the next step is to respond to our partner from that primary emotion. This is lowering the drawbridge and letting our partner inside the castle walls. This is one of the central components to being emotionally available. The husband with the workaholic wife could not connect with her because his anger and resentment pushed her away. Progress was really made once he could talk from his sadness and express to her that he felt unworthy of her love. This is the real scary part, you will feel very vulnerable, but growth only comes with vulnerability.
I remember a client sharing a story with me in which he became very upset at a family member. He was very adept at hiding in his castle and struggled most of his life to express his primary emotions. We had worked on this for some time, as it was causing significant distress in his marriage. When he talked to his wife he got upset and began yelling, withdrawing into his castle. However, he decided to try something different. He was able to slow down and lowered the drawbridge. He broke down and told his wife that the incident was so difficult because it had brought back painful memories and feelings from his childhood. She wept with him and offered the support that he really needed. He told me that it was the most relieved and loved he’d felt in many years.
Let Them In
Getting to the point where you can consistently be emotionally available for your partner can be a difficult path and there is much that goes into it. One of the most important ingredients is self-esteem. It is hard and painfully difficult to let someone else inside the castle walls if we don’t like what is in there. If you try the above steps and find this process overly difficult perhaps you need to take a step back and address the self-esteem issue first.
For more information on emotional availability check out this story from thegoodmenproject.com.