The Psychology Of Learning To Love Emotionally Unavailable People

Today we are using the science of psychology to explain breaking up with emotionally unavailable people.

Emotionally unavailable people can be both male or female, although it seems this is something plaguing our men these days.  My own personal opinion on why that is is because we have told men to stuff their emotions for some time and they don’t have adequate resources for knowing how to handle emotions, especially when they have been hurt.  I also see women are hurting men more these days or at least men are expressing it more.  We are just now becoming better at acknowledging that men also experience abuse, but we don’t seem to be getting better at helping them process and deal with the hurt they have been through.  For whatever reason, emotional unavailableness has become a huge issue.  Now, girls who may have been really good to these guys are getting hurt because the guy is so closed off, yet wanting love, that their actions can be described as abusive to these women which leaves the woman hurt.  This scenario is the same for an emotional unavailable girl hurting a man this way.  I’m going to use the scenario of an emotionally unavailable guy for this blog, but understand it is a two way street.  Not being a male, I’m unsure if this is the same experience of dealing with unavailable women because they look a little different behaviorally, but the concepts I want to talk apply to both.  Feel free to share your experience in the comments.

In a relationship with someone who wants to work on a relationship, you are generally rewarded for your attention on a fixed ratio.  When you text this person doesn’t ignore you, they text you back.  When you share information, your partner shares information back.  Yet this isn’t what an emotionally unavailable person does.  They ignore your texts, they don’t show up, and they don’t share information.  In the former example of a healthy relationship, you are on what psychologists call a fixed ratio schedule.  You are rewarded for your actions every time you act for the most part.  When someone quits responding in this scenario,  you may hurt, but you quickly understand that you are done and move on.  Psychologists call this extinction.  This doesn’t happen when you get entangled with an emotionally unavailable person.  You may text back and forth like a regular relationship at first, which draws you in, but then you move to what is called an unfixed ratio.  Now you  may text your partner ten times one time, they five times, then fifteen before getting the reward of a response.  This teaches you to make your behavior more often to get to the magic number the person responds on.  This is called an unfixed ratio schedule in psychology.

This type of reward system makes your response rate high and steady.  This means you are learning to try harder to get the emotionally unavailable person to respond and you are persistent in it.  You may not even realize it, but this is where you become invested in the person you are seeing without them investing in you.  This is where you lose your balance.  This is the way gambling addictions are formed.  You never know when you are going to get the reward of affection from the emotionally unavailable person ( Indiana University ).

When the emotionally unavailable person cuts you off, you won’t even know it because you will thin you just need more effort or more actions to get the response again.  In fact, the website for says, “Extinction (stopping your behavior) following intermittent reinforcement (unfixed ratio schedule) can take thousands, even tens of thousands, responses” parenthesis mine.

Now, if you are like me, your emotionally unavailable person has gone hot and cold and has even come and gone, so when they quit responding you buy their lies and bide your time knowing they will eventually respond again.  You do this because your behavior eventually gets rewarded in a way that more or less causes addiction.  You don’t realize the emotionally unavailable person is trying to get rid of you because you don’t detect a change in their behavior.  You don’t detect that because you are used to not getting rewarded immediately.  Meanwhile, you are a stressor now to your emotionally unavailable person because your frequent behaviors to engage cause them stress and they just want rid of you.

So now we understand what happened to create the addiction of trying to interact with a person who is emotionally unavailable.  Now how do you dissolve that so you can let go of the illusion of love that has been created?  I hate to say it, but honestly time will make the intensity of the learned behavior fade and it is the best healer in this case.  It may take double the amount of time that a regular relationship breakup would need for healing.  I’ve found pairing the yearning to yet again reach out to the person with a truthful statement of what they really responded to you with.  For example, saying “Bob never wanted to make time to talk to you because he never cared for you or watned the same things as you.  Why are you chasing that?”  This helps create the extinction of behavior that you are trying to achieve.  I’ll be talking more about the smoke and mirror games in another post.  The last tip I have is comparing the behavior of the emotionally unavailable person you were accepting to your list of standards and remind yourself that the behavior you want isn’t what you were getting.  The idea with all these things is to lose hope that it would ever work out with the emotionally unavailable person so you can leave this in your past where it belongs.

Be sure to check back next Tuesday where I’ll be discussing that smoke and mirrors game that the emotionally unavailable person created that threw you off balance and is confusing your healing.



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