This is a cross-post from my professional blog.
Some friends and I were talking recently about the concept of “emotionally unavailable” people. Most of us have had a friend—perhaps ourselves—who has tried to date someone who seemed into them, but just wasn’t quite present. Sometimes this type of partner is upfront about their ability to commit and/or be there. Sometimes, they aren’t, and their behavior seems confusing and contradictory. These pseudo-relationships can drag on for years until we are finally able to move on, understanding that however much the person enjoys our presence, they are not interested in making things more committed or structured than they currently are.
If I knew what to do in these situations I’d probably be retiring a millionaire, but I do have an analogy that might be helpful. I thought of it on the spot to give my friend some advice. (If you’ve ever been my client, you know how much I love a good geeky analogy.)
Computers come with different hard drive capacities. If yours doesn’t have enough space for you, you can maybe buy and install a new one—but for the moment, you’re stuck with the one your computer came with. Maybe you can’t afford a new one right now.
Different hard drives also have different things stored on them, and these things take up different amounts of space. I know people whose hard drives pretty much just contain the system files, maybe a few extra apps. These people use their computers mainly to get online. Maybe computers aren’t very important to them and they don’t use them much at all.
Some people have a lot to store—photos, music, videos, complex projects they’re working on. These folks are buying hard drives in capacities I didn’t even know existed. (This year, the world’s largest solid state drive hit 100 terabytes. What are they storing on that hard drive???)
Don’t think of the hard drive as your brain. Those analogies are really reductive, and usually insulting to us humans. The hard drive is a symbol, and it represents something I call your capacity as a person. That encompasses a lot of things—time, energy, physical and mental ability, willpower (which isn’t really a thing, but that’s another article; it’s useful here as a concept), tolerance for uncertainty or negative emotion, and much more. For instance, not everyone has the capacity to be a therapist. Being a therapist requires having a lot of space to hold other people’s pain. Not everyone has enough space for that. Unfortunately, some therapists end up without enough space to hold their loved ones’ pain, or even their own.
Say I have a 1 TB hard drive that’s full of music and photos. Maybe there’s 300 GB left over. Then a friend asks, “Could I put some of my videos on your hard drive? I need somewhere to store them for a while.” I say sure, but then they come over with their external drive and I see that they have an entire terabyte of videos. That’s not going to fit on my hard drive. I could probably store some of their videos, and that might still be helpful for them. But maybe they really needed to store the entire drive’s worth. I don’t have the capacity.
This kind of thing happens in friendships and relationships all the time. You might have a good amount of your own shit to deal with, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to your friends vent about their own problems from time to time, or give them advice about a work situation, or treat them to a nice dinner while they’re going through a breakup.
You might not be able to be a friend’s primary source of support as they navigate a serious illness, however. First of all, the time factor would be prohibitive—you may not be able to drive them to all of their medical appointments, be at their house enough to care for them when they can’t care for themselves, and so on. The stress of being a full-time caregiver would be way too much. Holding their anguish as they face the possibility of death or disability is also, well, a lot. Your friend needs more people on their team.
Some people are carrying a lot of trauma, hardship, or personal responsibilities with them already. No matter how large their hard drives happen to be, there may not be space there for you.
Not only that, but some people have pretty small hard drives to begin with. I’ve known many people who just don’t seem to have a lot of space for others in their lives. They don’t tolerate much emotional turbulence when it comes to other people. They may be interested in sex, casual friendship, or even romance, but they don’t have the capacity to build interdependent, long-lasting relationships with others—at least not until they do some work on themselves, and get some bigger hard drives. Some people want to do that work; others are perfectly content as they are.
Here’s where this analogy really breaks down—buying a new hard drive is a million times easier than increasing your capacity for holding other people. And while you can buy a larger hard drive for your friend whose computer you’re always wanting to store your videos on for some reason (this is weird), you cannot increase others’ capacity for them. They have to choose to do it for themselves, and they may not want to. Or it may take them a long time, or they may not be able to do it at all.
If you are hoping for a deeper relationship with someone whose hard drive seems to be too small—or who has way too much data on it already—you have to ask yourself whether or not it’s likely that this person is going to have more space for you anytime soon, and whether or not they want that space to be yours.
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