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What’s So Wrong With Being Emotionally Unavailable?

Therapists tell us to share our feelings, but experience suggests it doesn’t always work out well

When Jennifer was dating in Brooklyn in her early 20s, “vulnerability” was just starting to become a buzzword in the self-help space, thanks in part to a viral 2011 TED Talk by sociologist Brené Brown. Jennifer’s friends would circulate the video when anyone was going through a hard time. Back then, Jennifer took the content a little too seriously, and overshot the mark in emotional availability. “I’d just blurt out all my feelings to a guy I didn’t know and probably wouldn’t see again,” she tells me. 

Over the years, Jennifer, who is now 33, learned that holding back could help her make better decisions. In doing so, she had more time to gather information to help her decide if sharing her emotions was actually worth it. In many ways, therapists like Omar Ruiz would describe this as an example of having healthy boundaries. “Being emotionally unavailable is beneficial when it forces a person to not commit themselves to a relationship that they may not be ready for,” Ruiz explains. “This experience allows someone the space to reflect on what it is that they really need and want.”

Given that many romantic relationships don’t work out (research suggests up to 85 percent end in a breakup), then what’s so wrong with being emotionally unavailable? Maybe if more people pulled back a bit, we could bring that figure down. All of which is to say: As long as you’re dealing with your emotions personally, keeping your feelings from others doesn’t sound like the worst move. 

Still, Ruiz wouldn’t agree that emotional unavailability is the best policy early on in romantic relationships. Rather, he recommends being open-minded instead of being an open book. As opposed to unloading all of your insecurities or past trauma too soon, ask more questions about the other person. “Being open-minded allows for people to not limit their options, consider other perspectives and be empathetic,” Ruiz says. 

On the flip side, being emotionally unavailable “would look like you’re guarded, you’re preoccupied from giving attention to another person or show difficulty with being affectionate or loving toward someone.” Basically, if a person cannot stomach being open-minded as a jumping-off point, they’re not capable of being emotionally available later on.

Outside of romantic relationships, lawyer and professional mediator Doug Noll stresses that being emotionally unavailable is never advisable. Noll has seen the consequences of emotional unavailability firsthand teaching emotional competency to violent offenders through his organization Prisoners for Peace. “Generally, emotional unavailability develops from emotional invalidation during childhood, whenever a parent tells a child not to feel the way they feel,” Noll explains. In his opinion, emotional invalidation is “the most insidious, pervasive form of childhood emotional abuse” because it robs a person of the emotional intelligence required to connect with others and lead a happy life.

Emotional intelligence — or the ability to read and interpret your own and other people’s emotions — is required for being emotionally available in a healthy way, says Noll. Essentially, emotionally intelligent people know how to read the room and not share too much too soon. 

Interestingly, whether you’re completely walled off or spewing your emotions everywhere, the solution is generally the same. “People need to work on developing a healthy sense of self before considering getting to know someone,” Ruiz suggests, which you can do by getting physically and mentally healthier, setting and reaching career goals and focusing on being emotionally available in platonic and familial relationships you’ve already invested in. After that, if you still don’t want to share your emotions — or can’t stop sharing them — “think about getting help from a therapist who specializes in relationships,” says Ruiz.

For Jennifer, while she hasn’t become less available over time, she has become more secure. Now when she goes on a first date and has a strong emotion she wants to share, she’ll wait and talk about it with a friend afterward, instead of her date. “It’s none of their business early on,” she says. 

Ironically, that instinct is a good sign that she’s more available than she’s ever been.