It can be really challenging to accept a partner when they refuse or shy away from being emotionally vulnerable. But why do some people have difficulty expressing emotions? If we can understand why this is so, does it make it easier to let a partner who clams up way too easily feel less burden to open up?
I spoke with nine relationship experts about this topic, and what I found is striking: Though generally when I pose the same question to multiple experts, I get a myriad of different takes and responses, almost all of the people with whom I spoke could agree on one thing: If you're encountering someone who has a really hard time letting you know where they are emotionally, they are probably holding onto old stuff from their past. This might mean past relationships or even go as far back as childhood, but regardless of the case, it is not about you.
So what is it about? Read on to learn why it's such a big deal for some of us to really let go, loosen up and open their hearts — and what you should do if this describes your partner, and how to cope in your relationship in the meantime.
1. Old Habits Die Hard
"Often, couples who have experienced years of emotional abuse — judgement, ridicule, humiliation, and condemnation — from previous love interests find it difficult to open up and be transparent with their current partner," author and relationship expert Alexis Nicole White tells Bustle. "Thus, they are often afraid to share their most intimate thoughts and feelings with their mate." Those old feelings can crop up, and everything comes flooding back to haunt them.
"It is simply a coping mechanism that establishes borders and boundaries that make it nearly impossible for their partner to penetrate," she says. Don't take it personally — and be patient.
2. Fear Of Being Vulnerable
"The difficult part of being emotionally open comes from the lack of desire to be vulnerable," Texas-based psychotherapist Richard E. Toney tells Bustle. "When a person is open and there is not trust built, one may feel as if he or she could possibly fall prey to scrutiny in the future when an argument occurs." Without trust, it can feel like a death sentence to attempt real emotional openness. "This is due to issues with trust from past relationships," Toney says. "People have a tendency to bring old baggage into new relationships."
Though it would be nice in some ways if a partner could enter a new relationship with a clean slate, that would come with its own set of problems. "Those who are afraid to be emotionally open have doubts that the person who they are in a relationship with will actually take care of their heart," he says. You have to show your partner that you'll guard their heart fiercely (and gently), and the only way you can really do that is by doing it slowly, over the course of many months.
3. Insecurity Runs Deep
"Emotional unavailability is one of the leading causes of a demise of any relationships," Darren Pierre, educator, speaker and author of The Invitation to Love: Recognizing the Gift Despite Pain, Fear, and Resistance , tells Bustle. "Often this emotionally closed-off space is based in insecurity, and that insecurity is often rooted in childhood wounds." Once again, this can all be traced back to the past.
"Childhood is where we learn our worth, childhood is where we learn the safety — or harm — that arises from being vulnerable, and childhood is where we learned to express or suppress love," Pierre says. "If you want to find a partner who is emotionally open, begin to look for those people who aren't afraid to engage in introspection, who practice resilience, and demonstrate a value in the art of self-care." If you meet someone who loves talking about their thoughts and taking long bubble baths, you may be on the right track.
4. No Practice
"From the couples I've worked with in my private practice, the number-one reason that it is hard for some partners to be emotionally open is usually associated with past interpersonal traumas, which can include a bad breakup, growing up in an emotionally abusive household, or the absence of a parent in their lives while growing up," author, life strategist and speaker Carey Yazeed tells Bustle. "The second reason why some partners have a hard time emotionally opening up is because they simply don't know how."
Whether clamming up is a sign of being punished in the past for opening up or just plain feeling clueless about how best to proceed, this silence is real either way. For your partner, it's possible that "expressing emotions in their household while growing up was something that just didn't happen," Yazeed says. If this is the case, warm them up to it carefully by talking about yourself and slowly trying to engage them.
5. A Past Partner Is Still Lurking
"It’s hard for some partners to be emotionally open for a variety of reasons," Tiya Cunningham-Sumter, certified life and love coach and author of A Conversation Piece , tells Bustle. "Some are still harboring painful feelings from relationships past." As other experts have pointed out, this scenario sets up a situation rife with anxiety on your partner's part. "They can’t trust the new partner because of the last partner," she says.
"In other cases, some people aren’t sure what their partner will do with the emotions they reveal," Cunningham-Sumter says. "They wonder if they may be judged and sometimes fear that their partner will use what they know about them to actually hurt them." Though they may be totally open to letting you know how they feel, they might be afraid of what might happen if they do. "No one wants their emotions trampled on, so many choose not to be as open," she says. "Sometimes it’s easier, and it definitely feels safer for some." But this, of course, doesn't feel great for the person on the receiving end. It can happen on both sides, though, she reminds: "Some couples just aren’t ready to go all-in with their heart or their emotions."
6. Some Families Discourage Emotion
"Some families weren't safe to open up in," dating coach and licensed marriage and family therapist Pella Weisman tells Bustle. "Your partner may have been shamed when they showed strong feelings, so they learned not to show them and maybe even not to feel them." As a child and young adult, your partner might have been taught that being emotionally vulnerable is a terrible idea, and they may have internalized that.
"Your partner may have been neglected or abused, and learned that it wasn't safe to love because love hurts," Weisman says. "Your partner may have grown up in a household where no one shared their feelings. They may have never learned how to be emotionally intimate with someone." Regardless of the case, the last thing they need is judgment. If your partner is gun-shy about expressing emotions, work together with lots of care and love to uncover some of their real feelings — and, once again, go slow.
7. Deep Feelings Weren't Discussed In The Past
"For those who struggle to open up emotionally, there are a potential causes for this," licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist Natalie Finegood Goldberg tells Bustle. "The first is that they may have opened up in the past and been hurt as a result — maybe an ex used their vulnerability against them or shamed them for it." As many experts have pointed out, it can take just one awful experience with a past partner to really shut down someone's emotional availability.
"Another cause for difficulty opening up can be their family history," she says. "If during childhood they were ignored, shamed, or dismissed when expressing their feelings, then it stands to reason that opening up is unnecessary or even potentially dangerous." Though they may want to open up to you, it may feel too scary or painful to do so. "Similarly, someone may have come from a very happy and supportive family, but if deep feelings were not talked about, or their parents never opened up emotionally, so they may just not have the language or awareness of how to go deeper and talk openly on that level." If this is the case, try leading by example and see what comes — you might both be surprised at the outcome.
8. Fear Of Uncovering Old Emotional Trauma
"If you or your partner find it hard to be emotionally open with each other, consider that when you open your heart, any emotional pain that's not been expressed previously comes forward," spiritual empath Tracee Dunblazier tells Bustle."It's a natural part of the grief process."
If your partner is typically someone who prefers to keep it all to themselves, they may be avoiding this emotional pain. "Being honest and open about it can not only help you heal, but bring you and your partner closer," Dunblazier says. A long talk might remind them it's safe — and healthy — to let it all out.
9. Hurt And Confusion From The Past Can Linger
"Past relationships could have resulted in hurt and confusion," online dating expert Anita Covic tells Bustle. "This could leave that fear that a future partner could, once again, hurt them." As most other experts have pointed out, relationships are very much informed by the ones that have come before, and "it is important to look at every new relationship as that — a clean slate, a new opportunity to connect with a new, and, possibly, forever love," she says.
But that doesn't make it easy. "It’s OK to take a new relationship slowly in order to work up to opening up emotionally," Covic says. "If the relationship is one that isn’t meant to be, then the partners won’t be able to open up. If the pairing is truly meant to last, then that emotional comfort will come naturally and won’t be planned in advance.”
In a perfect world, this is true. But if it doesn't come naturally, you can also work together to help your partner feel comfortable enough to let you in — gently.