When a woman complains that her man is distant — he seems emotionally unavailable and closed off, or isn’t making a move toward commitment — it’s usually because he is compartmentalizing his relationship with her.
There’s a mental box inside his brain with her name on it. When he feels like opening the box and enjoying the contents, he does. But when he’s done, he puts the lid on the box and places it back onto its shelf. The emotions he associates with this particular woman — angry, aroused, loving, calm, sad, etc. — also get packed away into the mental container. Over time, if a true emotional bond forms, her presence in his life won’t be so neatly walled off. But in the beginning stages, limiting her influence prevents him from being overwhelmed by a new romance.
If you’ve read many self-help articles aimed at women, you may have the idea that the male tendency to compartmentalize feelings and experiences is unhealthy. While it’s true that narcissism and emotional detachment can look a lot like compartmentalization, these are extreme and clinically rare examples. For most men, some compartmentalization is part of a normal coping strategy.
To better understand these masculine boundaries — which women often mistake for emotional unavailability — I invite you to examine compartmentalization from both male and female perspectives.
Consider these 3 observations:
1. For men, compartmentalization can be a useful approach to managing the complexities of life.
It is reflexive — he’s often not aware that he’s doing it.
2. To a woman on the receiving end, it can feel cold and mechanical, as if we’re being rejected.
Because it feels uncomfortable for us, we have a hard time accepting that it can be part of a healthy strategy for managing strong emotions.
3. Instead of automatically limiting a new man’s influence on her life, a woman is more likely to let him range freely across her heart and mind.
If she's not careful, she can quickly lose herself in the emotional rush. In fact, women who never learn to compartmentalize feelings at ALL are at risk of letting others free-range over them like a doormat; or wasting time on fantasy relationships; or becoming consumed with romantic obsessions.
Men automatically sort women into categories, all day long. Here are some boxes you might already occupy without even knowing it:
- Cute girl in his Instagram feed
- Mystery woman on the A train
- Work crush
- Girl he'd love to have sex with on a regular basis until he meets The One
- Future wife
From a man’s perspective, it’s reasonable to keep you in that box, peeking inside only when he feels like it. You exist for him at work, but not when he’s at home. You intrigue him on Saturdays at the dog park, but not on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. You don’t permeate his brain and keep him up at night. As most women have learned — often painfully — a man can avoid emotional intimacy through compartmentalization. For example, he might place you in the “attractive enough to flirt with (or sleep with)” category but NOT “future girlfriend or wife.”
If you’ve experienced the pain of a man holding you at arm’s length, and you never want to go there again, what can you do? Now that you understand a man’s highly compartmentalized psyche, use this expert tip in your next relationship:
Work with his need to compartmentalize, instead of fighting against it.
You aren’t threatened by his boundaries, because you understand this is how he copes with new emotions and experiences. At the beginning of a relationship, he’s not ready to let you free-range across his thoughts. So in between dates, you are going to disappear. Your actions will speak to him on a deep level, in a way that insisting on connection can’t.
You will continue to date others, because your time is valuable and what if he waits a long time before resurfacing? If he is okay with leaving you alone for days in between dates...
Like a ghost, you'll be gone.
Getting closer — if it's going to happen — has to be HIS idea. Remember, he has already placed you into some category, based on his instinctive assessment. It's not your job to prove to him that you deserve better than the "good enough for now" label. Read the signs and re-calibrate your level of interest and investment. If you want commitment and he's not feeling it, move on and date a man who sees right away that you're The One.
In the early stages of dating, try putting your own feelings toward a new man in the “just getting to know you” box. Don’t let any new relationship completely take over your thoughts or seep into other areas of your life. Follow The Rules and you'll create just the right amount of distance to observe clearly which box he has placed you in. (It's his loss, if he coded you wrong.)
An emotional bond — which is what women usually mean by "being in love" — takes time to develop. When you proceed slowly and let him set the pace, he won't want to maintain distance. Getting closer will be his idea, and it will feel natural to him to put your relationship at the center of all he does.
Robyn Wahlgast is a Rules Certified Dating and Relationship Coach for Women. Need advice about your own dating situation? Consider booking a private consultation with Robyn. Never miss a new blog post: subscribe to our FREE newsletter.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN MICHAEL FIORE'S DIGITAL ROMANCE.