Language is a strange concept. Since the beginning, we as humans have found ways to communicate with one another in order to organize society. Whether it was through grunts and groans, banging on a drum, or various hand gestures, we’ve figured out how to send a message from one person to another in a variety of ways. Some effective. Some not.
As humans have developed, our language has evolved and changed. We’ve gone from cave drawings to pony express to SnapChat, and along the way new ideas have been expressed in new ways. As the pace of change quickens, new words are added to our lexicon to bring a depth to our language that was not previously available. Words like “rad” or “cool” are replaced with the much more meaningful language of “lit.” And new phenomena like people contorting their faces while looking at their phone and taking a photograph can now be described simply as a “selfie.” It’s all very complex and advanced as you can see. Shakespeare didn’t stand a chance in 2019!
One of the newer additions to the English lexicon of ideas is the concept of “emotional availability.” Originating, it seems, from research into parent-child relationships in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of emotional availability was first used to describe a mother’s supportive attitude toward her infant or toddler. This construct is foundational to attachment theories of development and parenting.
That’s all well and good, but as with most language the usage of “emotional availability” has been expanded in recent decades. Here are a few examples: “My husband is just not emotionally available to me!” “He’s a real dud. Totally emotionally unavailable!” “Today on the View, what to do when your man is not emotionally available.” Hmmm. I’m noticing a trend.
Where emotional availability was once used to determine health in parent-infant relationships, it’s now being used to describe the relationship between two partners with a heavy emphasis on a male partner’s inability to provide emotional availability to his significant other. This seems like a strange evolutionary shift in our language, and one that needs attention. The male-female relationship is now being measured using the same criteria of a mother’s responsiveness to her infant’s emotions. This can’t work out well for someone.
Before we go to far, we’d probably better get a definition. “Emotional availability refers to an individual’s emotional responsiveness and ‘attunement’ to another’s needs and goals; key is the acceptance of a wide range of emotions rather than responsiveness solely to distress.”1 At least that was the definition in the parent-child relationship. In this context, this definition makes perfect sense because it is the parent’s job to help the child develop that “wide range of emotions” to become a healthy human.
Here’s the rub. When it comes to intimate relationships, the definition just isn’t that clear. It involves the responsiveness and attunement part, but it also includes ideas like being “reachable” and “sharing your inner world” and “really connecting.” These nebulous phrases are about as clear as when my son responds with “bet” meaning something between “fo sho” and “I’ll prove you wrong.”2
So here’s the problem, men show up in my office trying to understand how to be emotionally available to their wives, but when asked what that means, most wives respond the way Justice Stewart did when he tried to define hardcore pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…” In other words, “You’re not doing something to meet my needs, but I can’t really tell you what that is, but if you loved me and you were a fully developed human, you would just know.”
And the guy looks at me begging me to throw him a life preserver.
There’s nothing wrong with the fact that women are requiring of their male partners that they become more attuned with their emotional needs. It’s actually a really good thing. But there’s something missing in the conversation – THIS IS AN ENTIRELY NEW IDEA!
Nowhere in recorded human history before very recently has it ever been asked of a man that he should become fully engaged in the wide range of human emotions and be able to empathize with those emotions in another human. In fact, the very opposite is true. Let’s get in the time machine to see what I mean.
Whoosh! (That’s the noise you hear when the time-space continuum is disrupted, I’m sure.) If we go way back to the time when humanity existed by hunting and gathering and give Grunk an emotional availability quiz found in the most recent scientific journal like Cosmopolitan, poor Grunk would fail miserably. His job was simple – find food, don’t get eaten, procreate, repeat. Not much going on in the emotional realm here. Time to fast forward.
We could go talk to someone a little more famous like Moses or King Tut, but let’s go over to Ancient Rome and visit a while, mostly because I like imagining myself in Rome as often as possible. The average male in Rome was not exactly an emotional genius. His wife and his children were his property to do with as he saw fit. His wife may have complained about his emotional availability, but she didn’t complain more than once.
Maybe we need a little more recent history. America in 1940. Let’s visit with a young couple. The first World War is over and they’ve survived the Great Depression. FDR just started his third term and there’s hope on the horizon. Surely this guy is emotionally available. While he’s a decent man, brings home a good paycheck, doesn’t drink too much, and he has never hit her, to define him as responsive in today’s terms would be a bit of a stretch.
And we’re back. And thankfully, I left the sound effects up to you for the most part. What I want you to see in this whirlwind tour of history is that today’s man is being held to a standard that he doesn’t exactly have the tools to meet. The things that were passed on to him by previous generations of men were mostly “don’t be a girl!” The story of the masculine has been a story of ignoring or worse, despising the emotional life. Emotional availability has just not been high on the list of values for men.
But wait, there’s more!
If you’re a female and you’re in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable male, you’re probably a little discouraged by this article so far. (Notice the empathy in that statement and how attuned I am as a man.) Fear not! There is hope on the horizon. If we took that same tour of history and asked those same men to operate the latest version of the iPhone, we’d get similarly discouraging results. What difference does that make? Men can learn this new language.
If you read the latest self-help mumbo-jumbo, you won’t hear this. You’ll get 10 steps to getting out of an emotionally unavailable relationship or something similar. And while there are some of these relationships that need the plug pulled, there are also plenty of men that really would love to find this enchanted land of emotional availability of which you speak so fondly. They just need a little help with how to get there.
Here’s where you can help.
- State your need in a clear and concise way. Please hear this one. Trying to get your spouse to meet your needs by raising a complaint every time the need isn’t met, is like giving directions to Seattle by stating, “Don’t go to Atlanta, or Dallas, or Kalamazoo.” Own your need. “I need you to spend 20 minutes at the end of the work day just reconnecting with me and being interested in what I have to say.” Now you’ve given him directions to Seattle! If he doesn’t follow them, its on him.
- Let him know when he’s getting warmer. If he schedules a date night and spends time with you in real conversation, but then out of the blue checks his work email and the score on the game, let him know what worked and what didn’t. Partial credit counts in relationships.
- Don’t over share. I’m not saying bottle up your feelings. I’m just saying that if you do all the work for him, he’s not going to have room to be curious. If you’re constantly texting him what you feel all day long, why would he ask you how your day was?
- Remember, shame is his Kryptonite. A man’s response to anything that tells him, “you’re not doing it right,” will either be to attack it or run from it. He either gets bigger or disappears. Neither response is particularly helpful in the relationship realm and neither will give you what you’re looking for so help me help you. Find that sweet spot of enlisting him in your quest for connection without tearing him down by comparing him to his Dad or Attila the Hun or your dog, Scruffy.
You may be thinking, “why do I have to do all the work for him?” (Again with the attunement thing? Pretty impressive,huh.) The short answer is, you don’t. You can choose to keep all of your emotional knowledge locked in the bank vault and hope that someday he figures out the combination. You can even trade him in hoping that there’s some other male out there whose Mom was emotionally responsive and accepted a wide range of emotions thus creating a superhuman that is wildly masculine AND an emotional genius. But if you want to get your emotional needs met in the current relationship, you are the only one who can assure that those needs are met because you’re the only one that knows the goal. Don’t do the work for him, but don’t shy away from coaching him.
This new world of emotionally available relationships has real potential. Some would even say that the best of today’s marriages are the best marriages the world has ever known.3 But they are also under a kind of pressure that no marriage in history has ever known. Show one another some grace as you press forward to this new kind of marriage. In the end, it has the potential to be lit!
Emde, R. N. (1980). Emotional availability: A reciprocal reward system for infants and parents with implications for prevention of psychosocial disorders. In P. M. Taylor (Ed.),Parent–infant relationships(pp. 87–115). Orlando, FL: Grune & Stratton.
Urban Dictionary. A helpful tool for understanding the language of the underdeveloped brain in teens and young adults. Just Google it, but be prepared to be both offended and confused.
Finkle, Eli J, The All or Nothing Marriage, Dutton Publishing, 2017.