Emotionally Unavailable Men/People In Relationships

Emotionally unavailable men are something many partners experience. I think the greatest pain about this problem is that it leaves both people in a relationship feeling even lonelier. Today’s episode is to help us understand this dynamic & move towards solutions instead of giving up.

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Emotionally unavailable men are something many partners experience. I think the greatest pain about this problem is that it leaves both people in a relationship feeling even lonelier. Today’s episode is to help us understand this dynamic & move towards solutions instead of giving up. Relationships can survive difficulties when there is a more balanced understanding instead of blame. Certainly women can also be emotionally unavailable, for today we will be speaking about men simply because it is more ordinary, so feel free to switch gender roles around as necessary.

So I’ve invited Keith Miller who is a  licensed clinical social worker and the founder and director of Keith Miller & Associates Counseling, a private psychotherapy practice based in Washington, DC. He is also a fellow podcaster for The Soul of Life podcast. He has written several books including 10 Myths About the Emotionally Unavailable Man: Stop Divorce in its Tracks which can be found on amazon & captured my attention. So glad you can join me today!

Rhoda: So let’s begin with, why do more men act emotionally remote?

Keith: Yeah, it’s a good question.  I’ll tell you kind of from the get-go that my opinion is based on clinical experience, it’s also based on some research that I’ve come across and I’ll point people in that direction, but you know, there are differences in the sexist. I’m a feminist. So I have a daughter, I want her to be just as strong as any man she’s around. I’m a feminist and I’m coming at this from an angle of how can we help? How can I help women be strong in their relationships and strong in life? 

And what I’ve discovered is that, actually, when we do pay attention to the differences between the sexes, instead of just ignoring them and saying, that we’re all equal, what we do find is that men may be emotionally unavailable, because of the way their bodies are, let’s just say constructed, especially the influence of testosterone in their development as children for one thing.

And of course, socialization we could talk about in and of itself, but just if we stick with the idea of testosterone being higher in most men than most women, and again, these are generalizations, not always true. But having testosterone in the body makes a huge difference, when you have the level of testosterone that most men have, their aggression tendency in their kind of fight response is triggered more quickly. So traditionally from an anthropological perspective, men have been the ones that go out and kill, right? They’re the ones that were sent into battles historically. And there’s a reason for that. 

Men are quicker to get into that fight response and get into that mode of violence, and so really, what men are doing, when they’re withdrawing and being remote, is trying to protect those that they love. They don’t want to get into that level of arousal. They’re constantly guarding, from a very young age, to not go over the line and be too aggressive. So that’s the simple answer. It may not be what we want to hear, but…

Rhoda: It does make sense. And my last interview with Michael Kimmel Dale, he said that testosterone, having a double testosterone marriage makes sex more of a priority, and so I do think testosterone and estrogen are very different things, is being emotionally unavailable really about being emotionally immature?

Keith: I don’t think so at all. Really, in fact the word, I mean, we can use the word immature. I would encourage people to think about giving up that word, if that’s what comes to mind for you, because it’s very imprecise, it’s like using a hammer to open a glass case. It really labels and  ignores what’s really going on. So if you ask yourself what’s going on, when you’re labeling somebody as immature, I think you’ll get a better answer. 

I would prefer to use more physiological terms or biological terms that somebody is emotionally unavailable because… they’re in a state of protection. I mean, that’s something we can all relate to, and by the way, I think all of us have these modes. That’s just the way we live from being very young, to being very old. 

We know this, that we still can get into that very protective mode and in fact, act very childish, but that doesn’t matter how old you are, and it doesn’t matter what gender you are. So it’s more about why somebody is in that mode and why that part of them, let’s say, if we use the word immature, why that part of them is coming out? I think that’s the better question to ask.

Rhoda: Oh, I like that. I really like that distinction. I especially loved your idea in the book that a long lasting and successful marriage is not necessarily based on compatibility, but instead on how partners react incompatibly, I really love that. Could you share more about it?

Keith: Sure. This is a short book that I wrote 10 myths about the emotionally unavailable man and the 10 minutes are really things that I might as well, just admit to everybody, they may not be myths for some people, like these may be as well called the 10 truths. 

I mean, the whole point of this book, and I hope people get this, is that I’m not trying to say men should just get away with being emotionally unavailable, just the opposite, in fact, that when we begin to see that, it’s how we respond to somebody when they’re in a state of withdrawal or sometimes we would call it a stonewalling state, they’re closed, right? Like a system can be closed. Your door can be closed. It’s just a state. And it’s one of many States that a person can be in.

And so it doesn’t define… it’s not a life sentence. And it can be very fluid, in fact, that state can be more fluid or less fluid, depending on how we respond to it. If I… and you’ve probably done this, we’ve all probably done it. If maybe your dresser drawer is stuck and you just, you know, it’s in a closed state, right. And you’re just trying to… you just got to get in there, you’ve got to open it up and you force it. 

Well, now it’s permanently stuck, or at least you do more damage and make it harder, you’re going to take apart the whole thing now. So I think our psychological states are really no different, how we respond to them in others, totally changes how they respond to us. 

And whether that state gets locked in more, in other words, we push harder to try to get them to open and they double down on staying closed. So, you know, that’s where we have the most power Rhoda, I think is when we look at what’s our state in relationship to the other person’s state, if we want to change their state, we’ve got to be really a lot more aware of our States of mind.

Rhoda: That makes a lot of sense. Really, especially like that. How do women get triggered by emotionally unavailable men? What is it about them that can contribute to the problem?

Keith: So this is a really important question. And I think it’s a sensitive question too, and I want to say for everybody listening to this, who may be listening to this, because you’re in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, and I don’t want to sugar coat this, this can be devastating to be with somebody who is withdrawn, people have described it to me as, you know, worse than not being married. 

It’s worse than not being able to find a partner, it’s you’re married and still alone, right? You’re in a very silent kind of desert, where you appear to be with somebody, but in fact it really feels empty. So it can feel very desperate and it can be dangerous for some women. So I just want to say as a big caveat, if somebody is listening to this, and they’re in a situation where their life is threatened, you know, this is not the advice we should be….

relationship, relationships, marriage, emotionally unavailable, podcast

They should be talking about how to get safe, how to take care of themselves and prioritize safety first. But this is a question of how does a woman maybe con contribute to some of the reactions that she doesn’t want, right. And so I’m really going to just underscore this again. It’s when you’re at the place emotionally, when you’re in a stable enough place and feel okay about yourself and you’re not self recriminating and blaming yourself for how he’s acting, then it’s okay to ask this question. 

You can begin to open up and say, well, maybe I are there ways in which I contributed to it. Two of my favorite colleagues on this subject dr. Steven Stosny and Patricia Love as you may know, have written many books or they have both written many books themselves, but the one they co-wrote together is called; how to change your marriage without talking about it.

And I borrow an idea from their book. Some of this material is almost straight out of their book. I’ve just kind of rearranged it for people. And the concept that they talk about in their dialogue is about how women, when they find a man who is stonewalling and is emotionally unavailable, you can almost guarantee that you’re going to find a hypercritical woman nearby, who is upset, and can’t take it anymore that he is so withdrawn, or at least just gets easily triggered by it. 

And in fact, these two traits go hand in hand, and we can look at this as we study couples in which we do interventions with couples, when we see one person who is in a… let’s say, let’s call it leaning in state, make it kind of not emotionally charged, it’s just a leaning in state towards the other person and the other person’s in a leaning out state.

So they may be leaning out because they’re ignoring the other person, they’re not responding. Maybe they’ve actually left the marriage in some way or they have cheated. So when you have those two States, you know, by working on the either state of either partner, you’re going to induce changes in the other. And so when we do see a person who shut down emotionally stonewalling, often if we talk to them about the history of that behavior, if they’re open and trusting to us, then they’ll begin to tell a story about, well, it wasn’t always this way, this is not really who I am. This is what I do when such and such happens. 

And I feel ashamed, or I feel threatened or disrespected. And so you’re usually going to find someone around them in their life, and it may not be obvious that it’s you, if you’re married to this person, but you probably can look in other chapters in their life and see how there may have been really critical people or people that shame that person, or even cultures or systems that shame that person for being vulnerable.

I just interviewed Dr. Richard Schwartz on my podcast, the soul of life. And he and I spoke about Mary Trump’s book; too much and never enough. And speaking about that level of family dysfunction, that when she married, Trump talks about reports incidents in the Trump family, where there are, you know, and this is tip, we see this in many families, where emotional vulnerability was not just not allowed and not modeled, but it was violently, it was met with a violent response exiling of those individuals, including Mary Trump’s father, who died of alcoholism and many causes. 

But we see that, when the person is not able to be vulnerable and it’s usually not hard to find it within their family, who were the people that showed them that it was okay to be vulnerable, that it was okay to let your guard down.

You may find that they didn’t have that, or, you know, they had incidents that where they did let their guard down and someone really betrayed them in a serious life-changing way. So, you know, I think that answers your question. There’s usually behaviors that we can see as antecedents to a person being in a closed withdrawn, emotionally withdrawn state. It doesn’t, I don’t think people are born that way. We don’t wake up saying, Hey, I want to be shut down and, you know, get rid of all my interactions with the world. I don’t think that’s the way we’re born.

Rhoda: I always think that shame is such an obstacle in the therapy office and within the person themselves. And one of the things I talk about when there’s recovery from addiction is for partners not to trigger that shame, if there is a relapse, shame is such a big deal, it really is, and it gets wired in, I think in childhood that you’re describing.  

Keith: Right. 

Rhoda: So I believe there’s a pattern that these couples often get stuck in, where the women are reaching a frustration level, that’s huge, and they are raging and the man often ends up withdrawing even further. Do you agree with this? And what’s one way to interrupt this pattern?

Keith: Yeah, it kind of piggybacks a little bit on what I was just saying, No, really, I think we can amplify that a little. We can kind of break that apart a little bit more perhaps. I mean, you know, anyone who is going to get the… you’re going to get the most traction. In other words, the most results in getting your partner to open up proportionate to the extent to which you are willing to open up, right? In some way. 

So I’ve seen that work over and over again. It’s just like a well-trained horse for me. I get on that thing and it takes us where we need to go. When we are able to look at what’s going on in us and stop what happens in every relationship, which is called projection.

You know, I will assume or attribute traits of myself that I do not like to you. So if you leave your clothes in a dirty mess on the floor, I may be critical of that, but it’s probably because I do it in some way, shape or form in my life, and it may not be close. I may pick on you because, you know, I’ve got some, you know, I don’t know, I’ve got some disorganization, some other area of my life, that I’d rather not really admit. 

So I think it’s just so important to unravel that and look at yourself. And I want people to hear that, you know, they should jump in, the water is fine. When you do this process, it can feel really scary at first a lot, some of the feedback that I’ve had from people, and these are good questions.

I welcome these questions. People who are skeptical of the angle that I’ve taken in this book, which can sound like I’m really not on women’s side. Right. It sounds like I’m kind of sticking up for men here, but the bigger story here is that if you can begin to humanize yourself and begin to realize the depth of your pain, instead of just trying to get rid of it, right? Or just trying to solve it and work, you know, kind of move on and get to something else. 

If you can get in touch with what’s hurting, then I think you’re going to be more compassionate and empathetic when he, if it’s a man that you’re in this position with, or she begins to do his work or her work of opening up their pain, because that’s what’s driving this Rhoda, is some sort of emotional pain.

You know, again, we don’t wake up in the morning. Some of us do, wake up rageful and ready to take down everybody. I really think that takes practice to get to that level, rage takes practice. We are not born that way. That’s not just from an energy perspective in our body and, the brain is an organ, it’s primary job. 

Its only job really is to move energy around very efficiently, and it conserves energy doing that job of moving electricity around our brain and to be angry is very costly, which is why typically we see people who are rageful having symptoms of depression. I mean their body is depleting itself, by using up the adrenaline and cortisol just to get up and, you know, just to read the newspaper in the morning, there’s rage, you know, it’s costly. 

So anytime we can talk about breaking down, what’s going on inside for you and bring the focus to you. I think it’s going to be helpful and make you more… give you more traction and to be able to say to the other person, Hey, you know, I’m being vulnerable here. I need you to be vulnerable also.

That makes a lot of sense. You know, a lot of people arrive in my office and they’ve jumped on the internet and they start diagnosing their partners. It’s a particular pet peeve of mine because I find it annoying. I’m very humble and careful about diagnosing. I think it’s something that you have to really have a lot of experience with and you can still get it wrong. One of the myths that you D bond is that many emotionally unavailable men get slapped with a diagnosis of being a narcissist or being Asperger. So I’d like to share more with my audience about that?

Keith: Sure, absolutely. The other one I didn’t really mention, but is, you know, antisocial or kind of, he’s a psychopath, you know, but narcissistic, you know, and women get these labels too, women famously get the label of borderline personality disorder, which if you look these up, these are what’s in the diagnostic and statistical manual, the DSM access to classification of mental illness. And to me and we may not get into this right now, but to me, the DSM stays, are sun setting. 

I think thankfully from a social worker’s perspective, that it’s becoming increasingly obsolete, and when you have places like the NI a national institutes of mental health withdrawing their support from the DSM, it’s something we have to use to categorize people. But for example, the access to disorders, including narcissism, antisocial disorder, personality disorder, they’re almost throw away labels.

In my 20 years of experience, I see clinicians using those labels as a way of saying I am over my head. There’s nothing I think I can do. I’m intimidated by this client. So I’m going to give you this label, which we basically say there’s no cure for it. But those of us who are trained in the trauma models realize that, in the understanding that all mental health or mental illness comes out of our developmental or experiences in life, we realized that, you know, a narcissistic trait is the tail end of a sequence of events. 

It’s a last resort for a person to organize their personality in such a way where they’re self-centered all the time and cannot leave any room for considering other people. And we, you know, famously, I think I, I get interviewed in the media tends to do this very often.

Whenever someone publicly is doing something to another person that appears or is harmful, the first thing people ask about in the media is, you know, what’s mentally wrong with this person? Why are they so narcissistic? Instead of asking the better question, which is, what would motivate somebody? What could they be so afraid of in life either now, or once upon a time that would make them do something so desperate? Narcissism is not a fun place to be, like if you’re just thinking about yourself. 

Again, going back to rage, it’s also very costly, and these types of people may not be able to see or express the vulnerability, but they’re feeling it for sure. It’s very costly. So I think of it as, you know, there are better questions to ask, there’s better labels to use, it kind of like when you asked about, you know, is this person immature?

I think, sure. If you want to label a person as one of these things, that’s fine. But the next step is to really pivot very quickly to how can you connect to this person to get them to open up? Not, you know, because the labels tend to, I don’t know anybody who says, I’m happy, you called me a narcissist, you know, it’s going to provoke. 

And then you’re going to now be chasing, starting an argument about something else, instead of getting to the heart of the matter, which is what could you be afraid of that would make you seem to not have room for me in your life? And that that’s like a soft question. Like it can be a soft question. What might you be afraid of? What could I be doing that might make you think you have to avoid me?

Rhoda: I like what you said about critical questions could be considered hard, and so what you want to think about is how to soften that edge. And that’s often something I talk about, is softening those edges, so you can meet more in the middle.

Keith: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, if we think about it, like if I met you for the first time and I said to you, you know, that’s a stupid t-shirt you have on, you know, the first words out of my mouth were condemning, and then, you know, five minutes later, I asked you for a favor, you know, it’s just not going to work. 

I mean, and we take this for granted that we… even if we don’t express them to our partners, we have these sometimes heavy duty criticisms of who they are as a person. And we don’t believe in them as a person. And then we… but yet we ask them to give us who they are, we ask for their heart. So, you know, it comes down to, are you willing to give more? Are you willing to be vulnerable and say, you know, Hey, what’s going on with you?

You know, it’s okay, if we can’t figure this out right now, we’ll get to this, you know, to have some optimism, and say, Hey, listen, you know, I want to talk about this. I got really hurt and bent out of shape by what you said the other day. But you know, it’s not the end of the world. I still love you. I want to make sure, you know, I’m here for you, but we got to figure out why did you say that terrible thing to me, you know? Like those messages.

Rhoda: Greasing the wheels, instead of slamming the door. Another myth you mentioned in your book is the belief women may have, that he secretly wants me to break down his fortress and needs me to save him from himself. What do you have to say about that?

Keith: Well, I mean, this is for any therapist out there or any of us in the healing professions. I think, I’ll speak for myself here, but, you know, yeah. I mentioned that I’ve been the emotionally unavailable man for my wife for 20 years. At times I’ve had those moments, I’ve told her to go throw up somewhere else when she was two months pregnant with our second child. 

We can’t help it, and there I am saying, you know, seeing it about to happen, instead of being there for her and just holding her hand or getting her what she needed. I said, can’t you go throw up somewhere else. And you know, so I’ve been that person for sure. And I… say your question one more time. I want to make sure I get it?

Rhoda: The myth in your book that women secretly or that the man secretly wants them to break down the walls of the castle?

Keith: Yes. I’ve taken it on sometimes myself to be sort of the one in the relationship that knows emotions better. You know, those of us that are trained and do this work, and I think women, I’m going to generalize here just for the sake of, I think, clarity, to clarify and ask yourself, because our socialization matters and women tend to be at least, we tend to socialize young girls to care, for example, you know, if I’m watching my daughter’s soccer match and I see a girl go down and get hurt, we see this at a very young age. All the other girls are going over instinctively and they stopped playing and they go to try to take care of and try to help.

And eventually they get trained not to do that, and you see that happening in sports as they advance, but little boys, maybe some of them will be interested in the person that fell, but just as many, or probably most will just continue playing on and not worry about that part. So it comes from a very young age. Yeah, I don’t know. I hope that answers your question. 

I think it’s something, I would encourage people not to be thinking of themselves as having the answers and because that’s a real sure way to get someone’s wall up, you know, their defenses, is to think that you have the solution, you know, and we see this happening. A lot of people will get together because in fact, no, for example, I hear a person say like, you know, she was perfect for me, because before this, I was a wreck, I was drinking too much.

I had, you know, just divorced my first wife and, you know, then I met you and you, you know, it’s because of you, you know, I couldn’t do this without you. I’ve become a better man because of you, all these wonderful things, but taking on that burden of being the other person’s savior you know, this is what I talk about in my… the reason I started my podcast, is as a healer, I know what it’s like to kind of take it on all myself and say, I’m going to be there for you and for me, I’m going to do everybody’s job here. And the body at a certain point, this was my story. The body just says, no, you can’t do that anymore. 

And so I suffered from… well, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was suffering from depression, and it showed up as neurological symptoms, brain fog, and memory loss, and it took me to about 40 doctors, and before someone finally said, this is straight up depression, so that led me to start the podcast and share this. So I don’t encourage people to take on any more burdens than they already have, focused on your own.

Rhoda: The third myth I wanted to cover today is, he doesn’t feel pain, like normal people feel pain?

Keith: I would ask you to consider, if you’ve ever had this, I’ve had people say this to me, like, there’s just something wrong with him. You know, I’m sitting there at the grocery store and, you know, our child is melting down and I’ve got my hands full. I’m trying to check out. And he says to me, like, I’ve got to go, like how in the world would he leave me there? How could he not see that, right? 

And so I think some women can be convinced by what they see, frankly, the behaviors, it’s pretty easy to go down this road and think, well, he just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand pain, when in fact just the opposite. I think this is so important, that when you see someone who is acting carelessly, it’s because… when this is just one way to think about it, I would ask people to try this on for themselves. 

But when someone’s avoiding pain or intolerance of pain, it’s usually because they’ve had an experience of too much pain, overwhelming pain. And so I think it really begs the question, you know, if somebody is avoidant and withdrawn, again, going back to this context in history, where was it, where they learned that that was a really bad thing to get in touch with their feelings?

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