1. “I don’t know…”
A partner emotionally unavailable is often ‘stood away’ or detached from their deepest and most uncomfortable emotions. He or she has difficulty recognizing, identifying and discussing a difficult feeling. This lack of insight is glaringly evident in the midst of conflict. The ability to understand unpleasant emotions improves a person’s insight and self-awareness. These introspective capacities help an individual to grow and evolve and often prevent him from repeating a mistake in a relationship.
When a partner is asked why they did something insensitive, reckless, or hurtful in the relationship and they respond with “I don’t know,” it may indicate that they are unable to recognize and discuss important feelings. The exception to the “I don’t know” position is a partner’s tendency to use a past ordeal to excuse wrongdoing. Instead of looking within and trying to understand the emotional contributions to a faux pas, an emotionally unavailable person often uses past difficulty to elicit sympathy and escape “the cold shower”. For example, Helen calls Frank’s boss without his permission to discuss Frank’s insecurity about speaking at a corporate event. Franck can’t believe his ears during a meeting when his boss jokes about it and refers to the conversation with Hélène. Shocked and pissed off, Franck arrives home and confronts Hélène. Hélène is outraged that Franck is upset and angrily replies, “I was trying to help you, Franck.” Franck asserts himself again and asks why she didn’t discuss her thoughts with him before calling his boss. Hélène’s anger intensifies and she shouts: “I don’t know, Franck! I was trying to help! I don’t know!” The discussion is unproductive and escalates, so Franck excuses himself and goes for a walk. When he returns, Hélène is in the kitchen. Instead of communicating with awareness of how she hurt Franck, she said, “I had a bad day, Frank. That’s the last thing I want to talk about. I was trying to do something nice for you. I guess you just don’t like it.”
Frank is confused. Helen lacks the ability to consider the impact of his behavior, refuses to talk about the thought process that led to his error in judgment, and blames him for his unpleasant day. His shortcomings in responsibility and insight wrongly convince Franck that he is responsible for raising an issue in an effort to understand it and prevent it from happening again. Now Franck is doubly hurt and confused.
Making a mistake in a relationship and communicating an understanding of its impact on a loved one is emotionally smart. A person who is unable to self-reflect, truly understand a partner’s point of view, and discuss deeper feelings leading to insensitive action may repeatedly repeat, “I don’t know” when asked to look inside and discuss a feeling. Problems are rarely solved in a healthy way because the emotionally unavailable partner is inflexible and defensive.
2. “I didn’t do that…”
Due to an emotionally inept individual’s need to protect a deeply fragile ego, he or she operates with multiple unconscious defense mechanisms and swollen. Deflection allows a person to automatically kick out “threatening” data. Denying wrongdoing is common because a person subconsciously changes the script in their mind. Extreme cognitive distortions, also called thought errors, then allow an individual to rewrite history and positioning oneself as victim or hero.
In the example above, Helen is acting disrespectfully. She humiliates her husband and refuses to see his actions as hurtful. She says the phone call is an attempt to help, but in reality it may represent Helen’s need to be the hero of the relationship. Faced with a fait accompli, she assumes the position of victim and continues to evade sincere responsibility by blaming her actions on a bad day.
Hero/victim distortions create an alternate reality in which one partner is consistently “innocent” and “honorable” despite their manipulative and mean behavior. The need to constantly be the savior in a relationship is a way for a person emotionally immature to feel powerful. Yet gaining power in this selfish way weakens a loved one. In many cases, the emotionally intelligent partner stuck in this dynamic experiences deep self-doubt because their reality is continually questioned and juxtaposed with distortions.
3. “You are the one who…”
During a confrontation, it is common for an emotionally unavailable partner to redirect guilt on the person who raises a problem. Ignoring the issue at hand and unfairly blaming the other person for whatever comes to mind is a convenient way toavoid responsibility. “You are the selfish one! Remember when you ignored me on Wednesday when I needed you? What was that? How do you explain that?”
Unfairly assigning guilt, or using gaslighting, is often an effective diversion because the person being attacked is shocked and hurt by the unfair accusations. It’s nearly impossible to keep your cool in the face of this behavior, and often a person’s first impulse is to defend themselves. the emotionally unavailable partner successfully brushes aside guilt and discussion of himself.
A solidly defensive partner may be emotionally retarded and disconnected from the skills needed to resolve conflict: empathy, insight, openness, and responsibility. Understanding the manipulations that occur during conflict can help an emotionally intelligent person navigate the dysfunctional dynamics and maintain their own sanity.