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In college I dated a guy who had a habit of using my emotional reactions against me. It wasn’t uncommon to hear him call me things like a “bundle of emotions”  and other terms that would make me feel like I was emotionally unstable when I had normal reactions to hurtful or problematic situations. At the start of our relationship, he was very expressive and affectionate. Then one day, without warning, he just stopped.

Naturally, the more he withdrew, the harder I clung to him, looking for some type of sign that he was still the person I knew at the beginning of our relationship. Needless to say, that person was long gone, and no matter how hard I tried, he wasn’t coming back. It took me a while to come to terms with this fact, though. I jumped through hoops and did handstands trying to breathe life back into that relationship. It wasn’t until I went to hug him one day and his body stiffened to the point it literally felt like I was hugging a statue that I realized it was time to cut my losses. In retrospect, my college boyfriend was and had always been emotionally unavailable. While he was able to put up a good front in the beginning, his personal issues made it impossible for him to sustain healthy emotional bonds over time.

Emotional availability is defined as being able to share feelings with another person and sustain emotional bonds. It is virtually impossible to have a healthy relationship with a person who is emotionally detached. Emotional unavailability can take on many different faces within relationships, but a defining characteristic is when one party finds it necessary to silence their emotions out of fear of being chastised by their partner.

“When you feel like you’re giving more than you’re receiving from him, in terms of quality time, you may find that you’re more affectionate or you’re always the first to apologize,” said relationship expert and author of Lust Now, Cry Later, Tahanee Sayyid Roberts. “The vibration just isn’t there on his end. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself going over and beyond and then kind of bending to them. Not being who you really are and not expressing how you really feel because of the rejection being received.”

It’s not always easy to identify when your partner is emotionally detached. In many cases, the emotionally available person is left feeling as though they’re the problem and often resorts to hoop-jumping measures to win the affection of their emotionally void lover. Over time, this tends to have a negative impact on their self-esteem as they begin to internalize the rejection.

“You start to question your worth. You think, ‘Maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not good enough for them. Maybe I’m doing something wrong.’ You start to beat yourself up,” Roberts explained.

The best thing to do in situations like this is to understand emotionally unavailable people can’t be “fixed.” They have to want better for themselves and seek the necessary help. And in many cases, it’s better for the emotionally available partner to leave, at least until this happens. A good sign it’s time to end the relationship is “When the abuse comes,” Roberts said, adding, “and I don’t mean physical abuse, but emotional abuse and mental abuse.”

While emotional abuse can be difficult to spot at times, patterns are easily recognizable because you know when you’re not being loved the way that you want to be.

“Follow your gut instinct. You know when something isn’t right. Everyone makes mistakes, but when you start to notice patterns and it begins to affect the way you view yourself and your self-worth starts to diminish, that’s a major sign,” Roberts advised. “Repetitive behavior is a sign that it’s time to walk away.”

Of course, leaving is much easier said than done, but leaving unhealthy relationships, regardless of how much time you’ve invested, is, in fact, a form of self-care.

“We convince ourselves that when we leave, they’re going to turn into this magnificent person and find someone else and it’s going to be all peaches and cream for them after we’ve invested all of these years,” said Roberts. “Nine times out of ten, they never change.”

While leaving will come with its share of challenges, in many cases, staying is even harder and comes with a price that many can’t afford to pay.

“It’s hard but you have to walk away because you’ll find yourself on the verge of really losing it mentally,” Roberts shared. “I always tell people there are signs and exits for everything we encounter in life. When you’re driving down the highway, you see a sign and then right after, you see an exit. This is the way you go to get to that street or to get to that area.”

Deciding to leave that unhealthy relationship was the best decision I ever made for myself and although it did not feel good at the moment, I knew that it was something that I had to do to protect what was left of my self-esteem, my mental health, and my future. Even ten years later, above all of the women’s retreats, vacations, self-help books, bubble baths, face masks, and body scrubs,  leaving that situation is still the best form of self-care I have ever practiced.

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