As a 20-something who loves nothing more than chatting with a friend about our love lives over a happy hour beverage a la Sex and the City, every once in a while, I’ll notice the same theme recurring in my conversations about dating. For example, when cuffing season rolls around, the hot topic tends to be, “Who will do these adorable fall and winter activities with me if not a significant other?!” And when the weather starts to heat up, there’s a whole lot of “Wait—do I even like this person I’m dating at all?” in my love life debriefs. In the midst of all of the therapy-speak controversy on the internet, there are a lot of relationship terms that get thrown around when many of us don’t have the knowledge (or qualifications) to use them. With that, I’ve noticed one question that seems to be on everyone’s mind: “What does it really mean to be ’emotionally available?’”
The more I thought about emotional availability, the less I felt like I understood it. This was when I decided to investigate, because if this phrase is popping up in people’s Hinge profiles (yes, it has infiltrated the dating apps), then we all need to be on the same page about what emotional availability truly looks like. Whether you’re like me and simply want to understand the definition of the term, or you’re genuinely looking for signs of emotional availability in a potential partner, here’s a breakdown of everything I’ve learned about the true meaning of emotional availability.
What does being “emotionally available” even mean?
To get to the bottom of the definition of emotional availability, I consulted Patti Sabla, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and relationship coach. “Emotional availability is when someone is ready to make (and maintain) healthy emotional connections,” Sabla told me. “This could mean being able to be open and honest with another person while remaining true to themselves, or feeling ready to be vulnerable with someone knowing there is a chance they could be criticized or judged.” Vulnerability and openness are key markers of emotional availability; when someone is emotionally unavailable, they might pull back from opportunities to honestly share about themselves in a relationship.
One common misconception about emotional availability that Sabla pointed out is that emotional availability is something that is strictly useful to gauge in romantic relationships. In fact, emotional availability applies to building both romantic and platonic relationships. At the end of the day, all relationships require a degree of vulnerability, so it is possible to be emotionally available in a friendship, too.
Recognizing emotional availability in yourself
When I first started to question the meaning of emotional availability, I realized that the main reason why I didn’t understand the definition was because I wasn’t quite sure how to recognize it in myself. Like…am I emotionally available, or am I just thirsty as hell? Am I emotionally unavailable, or is this date just going badly? Given that I know from my SATC-style chats that I’m not the only gal with these questions, I asked Sabla for the green flags that you can look out for to recognize emotional availability in yourself. Here are the top four emotional availability green flags she pointed out to me:
- You are confident you won’t ignore the other person’s red flags
- You can celebrate people in happy relationships
- You feel ready to take a risk and be vulnerable with someone new
- You have recognized the toxic patterns in past relationships, and you aren’t worried about falling back into them
For me, the second green flag she mentioned stands out as the easiest gut check for emotional availability. All you have to do to figure it out is open Instagram: Does that picture of that couple getting engaged on your feed fill you with warm-and-fuzzy feelings, or does it make you slightly nauseous, even if you know you should be happy for them? If the answer is the former, congratulations, you have likely achieved some level of emotional availability. If the answer is the latter, then you might be in the emotionally unavailable camp—which is completely OK, as long as you are being honest with yourself about that fact.
Recognizing emotional availability in others
Now that you know whether or not you are emotionally available, how can you recognize that quality in other people? This is when the therapy-speak of it all can make things confusing because chances are, you’ve misinterpreted certain sayings or actions from potential partners as emotional availability at one point or another. For instance, you might take constant texting as a sign of emotional availability, when it’s usually simply a sign of available time. You might think that getting deep about past relationships early on indicates emotional availability, but it could also mean that the person you’re seeing is hung up on their ex.
According to Sabla, the best way to gauge another person’s emotional availability is to pay attention to their actions in your relationship. Willingness to be vulnerable manifests in the things that the person you’re dating does, from being respectful of your time to making future plans with you. When a person you’re seeing is emotionally available, they will call or text when they say they will, they will show up on time to dates and never cancel at the last minute, and they will commit to future dates. Sabla also pointed out that when a person is emotionally available, they will have uncomfortable conversations with you in person, rather than from behind a screen over text or email. By contrast, if someone you’re seeing is making false promises, playing games, delaying responses to your messages, or canceling plans last minute, those can be red flags for emotional unavailability.
When we bring it all back to Sabla’s definition of emotional availability as a willingness to be vulnerable, if you’re finding yourself getting really in your head about another person’s emotional availability, it never hurts to go ahead and ask them. Chances are, if they are truly emotionally available, they’ll be able to give you an honest answer. And next time you find yourself debating the potential emotional availability of a friend’s beau over cocktails, you can let her know that you’ve done your research.
What to do if you or someone you’re dating is emotionally unavailable
Aside from knowing more about the actual term itself, knowing the truth about emotional availability in your personal relationships actually does make a big difference when it comes to dating. “You can easily get hurt or waste your time if someone isn’t emotionally available,” Sabla said. “It is better to find that out sooner rather than later after you have invested time and emotional energy into the relationship.” So, determining whether or not someone is emotionally available in the early stages of dating is crucial because it can help paint the picture of how the relationship might pan out in the future.
Furthermore, figuring out whether you are emotionally available can save you time and energy in the dating world that you might simply need to put back into yourself. When I first started thinking about this question earlier this year, I realized that I was definitely emotionally unavailable; I decided to take two full months off of dating, and poof—when I got back on the apps, I instantly felt more excited about the people I was meeting. Of course, there is no cookie-cutter solution to emotional unavailability, but in my experience, taking a short dating hiatus can be a great way to go.
When it comes to recognizing emotional unavailability in someone you are dating, your course of action should definitely depend on the situation itself, not just the fact that emotional unavailability is present. For relationships that are integrated into your life, Sabla recommends having an open conversation. “Ask what they are doing to work on themselves to become emotionally available (individual therapy, group therapy, self-reflection, journaling, etc.),” Sabla said. “If they aren’t doing anything now to change and grow, they will likely be the same person in the later stages of dating that they are in the early stages.” At the end of the day, you definitely deserve vulnerability and honesty in any relationship you’re in, so if the person you’re dating is not willing to work on their emotional unavailability, it might be time to say “Thank you, next.”