More often that not, I find myself talking about emotional availability when working with couples. This can be tricky water to navigate at times. The term emotional availability carries with it ambiguity for most people, as well as fear and trepidation for many of the husbands who I work with.
Essentially, we are emotionally available to our partners when we are in touch with and comfortable expressing our own emotions, as well as being open and receptive to the emotions of our partners. This not only includes feelings like happiness, joy, and excitement, but also ones like sadness, shame, grief, and anger.
Why is emotional availability so hard for men?
Being emotionally available can be difficult for many men for a variety of reasons. Past trauma can lend itself to building walls, fortifying the need to keep people out, and ourselves in. In many ways we are socialized to be this way as well.
Strong men don’t show emotions! Society has taught us that being emotional is weak, admitting that we are sad or stressed, need a shoulder to cry on, or support in hard times is a sign of weakness. The strong man should be able to shoulder the load.
I have had many men sit in my office and tell me that they try to shield their wives from stress and pain—perhaps a noble intent, but one that usually makes our wives feel that they are being kept at arm’s length. Some men grow up in a family where emotions are hidden, not expressed or addressed. In those cases, being emotionally available is often miles beyond their comfort zone.
Why does it matter?
So, why is any of this important anyway? For many of the couples I work with, an emotionally unavailable partner, either one or both creates feelings of a lack of safety. When relationships lack safety, trust is also lacking. When trust can’t be found, you will also be looking hard for happiness and fulfillment, without success.
“Of course I trust my wife!” I have had many emotionally unavailable husbands tell me this when this topic arises. Sometimes it is hard for the husband in this scenario to see where the breakdown happens. I like to use the metaphor of the husband locked safely behind his castle walls, looking down from the watch tower at his wife outside the walls. He hollers at her, “Trust me, I really do trust you, just stay out there anyway!” How is the wife in this scenario supposed to believe him when there is a literal wall in the middle?
This wall of emotional unavailability is the position we put our partners in when we are not emotionally available. It’s hard to trust the fella on the wall if he refuses to open the door. A lasting and durable trust can only built when both people are inside the walls.
Am I emotionally unavailable to my partner?
You may be asking yourself, “Am I emotionally unavailable? Am I one of those guys behind the castle walls?” Here are a few things to think about that might help you answer that question.
Are you able to express your feelings in an honest and open way?
Does this exchange play out in your house? You are upset and go about your day silent and distant. Your wife asks, “Is something bothering you?” Your response is, “No,” and then you go on about your grumpy way and never talk about what is upsetting you.
Are you overly defensive, avoidant, or deflective when confronted?
Refer back to the previous question. Two days later when you are still grumpy and distant and your wife says, “What is going on with you, you’ve been so distant recently?” Is your response something along the line of, “Nothing, damn it, I am fine, all you do is pick at me, maybe you are the one with the problem!”
Can you validate your wife’s feelings?
When your wife comes home from work complaining about a co-worker, are you able to say to her, “I am sorry, that must be really tough to deal with that all day, I’d be upset too,” or do you tell her that she is making too big of a deal out of it and that the co-worker probably didn’t mean it that way?
If these scenes play out in your marriage then you may want to think about how you can become more emotionally available to your partner. Darlene Lancer, MFT and Author, shares her thoughts on the subject here. For more information about validating feelings, check out my previous blog, The Importance of Emotional Validation.