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Emotionally Unavailable

July 12, 2001

Dear Dr. Irene,

My spouse is emotionally unavailable. Because of it, it feels like abuse. It is abuse! Emotional abuse... All the components of emotional abuse are there....deceit, withholding, denial, discounting, disregard, invalidation, etc.

Recently, my spouse got tired of doing the monthly budget. Budget? There wasn't any, and our finances are a mess. So I took it over and we're now following a strict budget. It's caused me much anxiety, and I share this with him, especially since he lost $115,000 on the stock market and we're retired. I can appreciate your anxiety. But, keep in mind that just about everybody lost money in the market recently. Investors understand that it will come back in time.

Last week he wanted to order some posters from his favorite football team. Imagine my surprise knowing he knows as well as I that we're on this strict budget and don't have extra money to buy these things. I thought he was playing a power game on me, sort of testing how strong I could stand up to him and say "no."  

As it turns out, it was his way of telling me he doesn't like our strict budget and by purchasing something frivolous he was showing me that he isn't concerned about having a few bills. I'm not surprised. He's angry and his expression is passive-aggressive. Only after arguing, loud and messy, did he verbalize any of this. I told him that when he doesn't tell me what he thinks or feels, I am left to guess. Then if I guess wrong, I am blamed. He probably feels he has no power, so he acts out. Yuk!

He could have prevented this arguing if he'd told me right out, in the beginning, that he felt my budget was too tight and that he didn't like it, giving us an opportunity to work toward something both of us could live with. Easy for most people. He may not have the skills to tell you, he may not recognize that he has a problem with the budget you proposed, he may think he doesn't stand a chance arguing with you, he may not want to make waves, he may be so angry with you, he's looking for ways to retaliate. I know you're likely to say, "Yes, that last one is it!" But be careful! Your own anger at him may be in your way... (That's a common occurrence for victims of abuse, and for good reason!)

This game playing all in an effort to protect himself from having to be vulnerable and place his thoughts and feelings on the table, is very destructive. Yes. While you are certainly "right," you do not have the right to insist that he place his thoughts and feelings on the table. It simply doesn't work. The more you insist, the more he is likely to dig his heels in or retaliate passive-aggressively, as you describe. His behavior has caused me to see him as an enemy and I do not trust him. Who can blame you? But, knowing that your reaction is "normal" so to speak won't help clear up the problem. You two have a control battle raging - and you are both furious!

This man is so emotionally closed it's like living with a robot. Is he emotionally closed, or is he emotionally closed to you? He's clearly "wrong" in behaving in ways that shut you out and hurt you, but, have you asked why he's so angry? Yes, this is his issue... Yes, he probably had some conflict with mom, etc... But, whatever is going on inside him, you are participating in the drama. 

Consequently, I am living in an empty relationship. Honest to God, I swear to you, he does not ever, under any circumstances say, "Ouch." I used to believe he was a superb human being until I realized that no human is this divine. Hmmm... You used to admire him, and then you stopped... Why is his refusal to say "Ouch," which was once seen as an asset now seen as a liability? Because you are angry with him for other stuff? You are both so angry at each other, you have polarized. Think: How does he experience you? Yes, you do the right thing, but keep in mind there is no universal "right." For example, people have very different tolerance limits for finances. Yes, he should respect your stricter criteria. Ditto, you know him like a book and should not be surprised he wants to spend frivolously.  Then I began learning about abuse, and though his agenda may not be to hurt me, it feels the same Yes., which leads me to my question. Is there a correlation between emotionally unavailable and emotional abuse? Emotional unavailability is a form of emotional abuse. The difference may be in the intent, though the resultant damage is the same? Or is the intent the same? I'm not comfortable answering this question; in my opinion, there are too many individual variables and I am not aware of any research addressing this question.

I would appreciate your opinion because I've searched everywhere online and find very little discussed about emotionally unavailable, and I'm sure there are many of us out in the world who live with this dynamic.

JR

Dear JR,

You didn't ask for my advice, but you are going to get it anyway. Your outrage over his acting out (i.e., your own acting out) is virtually a guarantee that you two will get nowhere fast. I am not questioning the dynamics of your relationship, who is the "real" abuser, etc. I am assuming hubby is emotionally shut down and has some narcissistic features since you mention his strength and your original admiration for his being a "superb human being." In other words, let's assume he's abusive.

But:

I am suggesting you check your own behavior because your anger is virtually guaranteeing that your situation will not improve. You are in the role of "mommy" with an irresponsible, sulky son who is angry, doesn't know how to express or take responsibility for his anger, and is getting away with whatever he can. The more you try to police him, insist he stick to budget, etc., the more he will dig his heels in. Right now, you are stuck in a pattern where you insist he do the "right" thing. Well, guess what? It is the "right" thing, but he won't do it.

Deal with your own anger towards him. You will probably need counseling. You may not be able to heal the relationship - because he would have to participate in that - but you certainly can heal yourself. In other words, you can't change him, you can't control him. Stop wasting your energy!

You may want to take a look at this book: Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man : Coping With Personality Syndrome of Hidden Aggression-From the Bedroom to the Boardroom . Also, try a search with the words "passive aggressive."

Good luck to you!

.

 

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