I was musing on a heartfelt comment a reader had left asking for more information about anxious-withholding attachment types. I had wracked my brains trying to thing of what else I could write and then out of the blue an article popped up in my Facebook news feed which hit the nail on the head. It was one of those ah-ha articles where I suddenly understood something, ‘ping’ the lightbulb went off.
You see I had got myself all confused about what emotionally withholding actually meant. In my mind it was all cold-hearted bastard behaviour, the guy who never returns your calls, doesn’t like cuddling, prefers not to hold your hand. You know all clenched jawed and distant, stiff upper lip to the nth degree. NO. Duh (bet I wasn’t the only one that thought that though huh?) The article which you can read in its glorious entirety is here at Ravishly.com . Really go and read it.
What it means to be emotionally available (to quote the article)
“is not just about sharing his/her emotions; it is about his/her openness with another person and him/herself. It’s about where s/he is at in this moment emotionally and staying with that discomfort, instead of running or presenting it as fixed, resolved or all sorted out.
It is not about oversharing or being dramatic for the sake of it, it is sharing what is relevant to develop that connection in an authentic way. It is about knowing the personal behaviours that avoid true openness and availability. It is at the start very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien to someone who wasn’t taught how to be available emotionally growing up.”
God how brilliant a summary is that? There are so many interesting strands to pull out of these to paragraphs. It got me thinking about Brene Brown and her work on how shame can block us from truly being open and authentic with people. Shame is one of the emotions narcissistic families are steeped in but avoid facing.
Emotional availability is not developed properly in families where you cannot be yourself, you cannot show certain emotions, you do not address problematic interpersonal behaviours, where you do not even really know who you are because someone else gets all the limelight.
It’s about their openness with another person and themselves
The children of narcissists have such deep fears of being abandoned and rejected that any part of themselves they feared their mother may turn on gets shut down. A narcissist will turn on another person’s needs and feelings as the only feelings that matter to them are theirs. The narcissists’s children’s emotions get locked far away from their own conscious minds. These children grow up and wriggle away from their feelings. They can ignore, minimise or dismiss their partners emotions because they do not know how to handle the feelings they arouse, or worse they are so conditioned to suppress emotions in themselves and others they do it reflexively with no conscious awareness of what they are doing. I think they feel fear and shame of their needs and emotions.
Donald Winnocott the British psychoanalyst describes how children in these circumstances develop a “false self” which is the face that gets presented to the world, the one mummy wants to see while the true self is hidden back behind a thick curtain. The false self has few needs, experiences a limited range of emotions, is available whenever mummy wants them, achieves publicly in ways that she deems desirable. You are all familiar with this. Some children of NPD mothers will know they keep a lot of themselves back, some will believe the false self is really who they are. The true self may never be experienced. This is especially true of the narcissistic mother was the smothering controlling sort rather than the self-absorbed couldn’t give a damn sort. Why? because the smother mother tells the child what to feel, how to react and what face she wants them to show at all times. The child grows up to expect some outside agent to prescribe their emotional state to them, they don’t really feel it themselves.
If your household growing up was one where only one person’s moods and thoughts counted no one else’s inner world was ever given the time of day then the child will become an adult who simply doesn’t know how to share what is going on in their minds. They don’t know how to be open.
It’s about where they are at this moment emotionally
My husband has struggled enormously with being aware of his emotions from moment to moment. We often experience a sort of emotional jet lag where something has happened, an awkward phone conversation with his mother for example, and then two or three days later he starts acting out. The emotions of frustration or anger at his mother have taken that long to bubble up and even then he experiences them in a displaced way, getting cross with me or the kids, being petty or passive aggressive about something. Thank God for the marriage therapist. Each sessions usually involves the therapist stopping my husband and asking him “how are you feeling right now?” and he can describe a few basic emotions now, sad, angry, that sort of thing.
This is not being emotionally available. It’s like going to your fridge and having the milk tell you it will be available for your cup of tea in a couple of days when you need tea right now. Where does that leave you the partner? Hanging around twiddling your thumbs unable to connect to your partner about what is bothering them or you. By the time they feel it it’s too late. It means in the moment when you have a need for them to be relating to you they can’t, they let you down and you have to deal with your stuff by yourself. This is a lonely, wearying experience and over years you can just give up turning to them for support or sharing in this way altogether. Winnicott describes how relationships with people acting from their false self are always unsatisfactory in the long run.
The key to moving past this is mindfullness and an emotional vocabulary. I bought my kids this fantastic set of emotions cards which show a funny cartoon of a person looking sad or excited or whatever and the word is written on it. I ask them sometimes “how are you feeling?” or “when have you felt this way?” and they pick one of the cards and talk about it, it’s like a game. Your spouse needs this kind of a game. Something like this wheel of emotions is helpful. Google it, print it out and stick it up somewhere.
It’s about sharing what is relevant to develop an authentic connection
Relevant and authentic being the key words. Relevant according to my dictionary is:
Closely connected or appropriate to what is being done or considered and appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.
In short – appropriate and timely. I had a conversation with my spouse about something I had done the day before (stayed in bed in a dismal and despondent heap). In this conversation my husband shared how he had felt worried about what was wrong, but then went on to say he didn’t want me to tell him what the matter with me was, he just wanted to say how it had made him feel. He was dutifully doing what the marriage therapist has asked he do, share his feelings (and only his feelings), a day late. Not relevant. This is not timely because it didn’t happen in the moment while he was feeling the emotion. Not appropriate because in this scenario there was clearly something major going on with my emotions not his, but they were not made part of the conversation.
He actually said he didn’t need to know what was going on with me, just needed to say his bit. NOT AUTHENTIC. Why? Because just doing robotically what the therapist asked him to do without attempting to discover where I was is not a genuine connection, it is obediently acting in the way a grown-up (the therapist) has told him to and actively avoiding the uncomfortable bit of asking about my feelings and sitting there and listening to the reply. And let me tell you that is how it feels, it’s like watching Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory TV show read an appropriate response from a cue card that Penny or Leonard had prepared for him. My husband is not on the autistic spectrum but sometimes it really feels like he is.
So how could that have been authentic and relevant? On the day, at the goddamn time, he could have said he was worried. He could have asked “do you want to talk about this?”, “what’s going on love, you seem really sad today”, “I’m worried and confused”, “please talk to me about this when you’re up to it”. You know because it wasn’t about him giving me some automated status update on what he was feeling like a talking emotion thermometer.
It’s about personal behaviours which avoid true openness and availability
What kinds of personal behaviours avoid intimacy? Avoiding a person or subject if you get a whiff of uncomfortable emotions around them, over analysing someone as they talk to you rather than listen and feel, jumping in with solutions, being busy all the time so you can’t talk, staring at your phone or tablet all day, not thinking about your own moods or reactions, not reflecting on how a conversation has gone, not asking for feedback, not checking in with the other person after a tricky conversation, intellectualising the conversation by quoting books or theories, outright dismissing someone’s concerns as silly, unimportant, unlikely to happen, telling them they are overreacting, using formulaic responses “how are you?”, “I’m here for you” without actually doing anything else at all. You get the idea.
At the start it is very uncomfortable, awkward and even alien
I am struggling with the robotic nature of my husbands attempts to talk about his feelings. He uses the words but isn’t actually there. He is still hiding, peaking out from behind the thick curtain to see if it is safe. It isn’t. It won’t ever be completely safe. And no one is there telling him how to do it like his mum did all those years. You just get stuck in and thrash it out.
I feel a mixture of exasperated and anguish at how he is struggling to do this, it’s like watching a toddler stumble but not rush to pick them up. I have no idea how long it will take for him to get to a point where a normal conversation about how we both are is possible. I’m not talking about big, heavy topics here, just simple ones like what colour to paint the spare room. In the meantime I feel lonely. I still don’t have a relationship with someone who can be emotionally available or supportive and I have stopped expecting or even hoping for it. You know it’s not like watching my toddler stumble, it’s like watching someone else’s toddler stumble, I feel slightly sympathetic but at one step removed, apart from the occasional miserable half-day under a duvet I get on with my life.
That is the real tragedy of emotional unavailability, they crave closeness but act in ways which sabotage it. Ultimately the person they wish to be close to gives up and walks away.