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 contained. 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:
- 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.
- 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 resist the idea that it can be part of a healthy strategy for managing strong emotions.
- 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.
Here are some boxes you might occupy without even knowing it: Cute girl in his Instagram feed; Mystery woman on the A train; Work crush. 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.”
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. You are confident that when he’s ready to let you in again, he’ll come get you. Your actions will speak to him on a deep level, and help build trust in a way that insisting on connectedness can’t.
At the same time, try putting your own feelings toward him 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. An emotional bond takes time to develop. When you proceed slowly and let him set the pace, he won’t want to maintain distance. It will feel natural to him to put your relationship at the center of all he does.