Do you think you might be dating someone who is emotionally unavailable? Or perhaps you’re wondering if you yourself might have some of these tendencies?
Emotionally unavailable people are uncomfortable when feeling and discussing painful or intense emotions. To feel safe, they create intimacy barriers and put up walls. This makes having a healthy, mature relationship incredibly hard.
So, how do you know if someone is emotionally unavailable? And can a relationship with an emotionally unavailable boyfriend or girlfriend ever work? Let’s delve deeper.
Why is your partner so emotionally unavailable?
Dating someone who is emotionally unavailable can be draining and confusing. The time you spend together may be intoxicating and fun, but somehow it feels like you’re always kept at an emotional arm’s length.
Almost every attempt to get closer to them is met with resistance and avoidance. And it seems like you’re constantly hitting an invisible but painful wall.
Passionate moments alternate with feeling rejected and unloved. In a way, it’s clear that something’s missing, but you also can’t let go just yet. Because what if this time you finally manage to overcome the barrier and they let you all the way in?
As time goes by, you may wonder more and more if the issue lies with you. Are you pushing them away? Are there things you could do differently?
Well, there might be! But before we get to that, let’s first explore what emotional unavailability exactly is and what makes someone behave in this way.
What is emotional unavailability?
To better understand what emotional unavailability means, it can be good to explore what the opposite is, namely emotional availability.
Being emotionally available means that you can sustain emotional bonds. It requires a certain degree of openness to intimacy as well as the capability to empathize and provide emotional support to both yourself and those around you.
Emde (1980) refers to emotional availability as the individual’s emotional responsiveness and “attunement” to another’s needs and goals. The key is acceptance of a wide range of emotions rather than responsiveness solely to distress.
While it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a beautiful bond with every person you partner up with, it certainly helps.
Emotionally unavailable people, on the other hand, fear intimacy. They always want to maintain some sort of safe distance. And instead of letting you in completely, they keep things on a surface level.
At least, most of the time…
Someone with emotionally unavailable tendencies often exhibits hot and cold behavior.
One minute they can’t get enough of you, and the next they give you the cold shoulder and disappear for days on end.
This makes being with an emotionally unavailable partner so draining, exhilarating, and confusing all at once. You never quite know where you stand. And just as you think you’re finally reeling them in, they make a U-turn and bail.
What causes emotional unavailability?
Emotional unavailability is linked to an avoidant attachment style. This insecure attachment style develops when a child’s parent or caregiver is consistently emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to their needs. A 2017 study shows that parental emotional availability has a positive effect on relationship success and emotional regulation.
There are two different types of avoidant attachment styles: fearful avoidant and dismissive avoidant. While they share an underlying fear of intimacy, their avoidance demonstrates itself in slightly different ways.
Individuals with a fearful avoidant attachment style desire a soul-shaking connection, but they also fear it immensely. I call these people “Spice of Lifers.” They tend to be hypervigilant with emotional cues, and can exhibit extremely confusing ‘hot and cold’ behavior.
People with a dismissive avoidant attachment style, on the other hand, seem to be more cut off from their emotions as a whole. I refer to these people as “Rolling Stones.” They may also exhibit some contradictory behavior, but this will generally be less intense and erratic than with a Spice of Lifer.
If you would like to learn more about the differences and similarities between the two types of emotional unavailability, then take a look at this video!
6 signs of an emotionally unavailable partner
By now, you might be wondering: “What does an emotionally unavailable man do?”, “What is emotional neglect in a marriage?”, or quite simply: “How do I spot the signs?”
Well, here are some things to look out for:
1. They don’t talk about their feelings
Unpleasant and intense feelings are emotionally unavailable people’s kryptonite. They find them immensely uncomfortable and challenging. And their self-protective coping mechanisms tend to consist of disassociating from their own emotions and pretending they don’t exist. After all, what you don’t (consciously) feel can’t hurt you, right?
Well, this can be kind of true, but only at first…
While it helps them avoid experiencing unwanted feelings, it also hinders their emotional development. And it consequently means that they can’t handle the emotions of others very well either.
By being disconnected from their emotions, they often don’t know for sure how they feel about someone. And if feeling their feelings is already hard, openly and honestly talking about them is usually even worse!
They know that it can lead to more closeness, intimacy, and vulnerability. But they also know that it can lead to getting hurt. So, when it comes to conversations that focus on intimate feelings, they will usually try to steer it in a more surface-level direction. And attempts to elicit deeper emotions from them are likely to result in them pulling away or cutting the conversation short.
2. They are afraid of commitment
In an emotionally unavailable partner, commitment generally elicits great amounts of anxiety and fear. They like to have their options open and don’t want to be tied down. They may not want to label your romantic relationship, get extremely uncomfortable when you try to talk about a potential future together, or call things off when they feel like it’s getting a bit too serious.
This commitment-phobic desire can be traced back to their fears about getting too close and intimate with others. But while it implies that they might not be the best partners for a long-term relationship (yet), it funnily enough also indicates that they take commitment incredibly seriously!
3. They are sometimes prone to love bombing
Emotionally unavailable people usually come off as cold and aloof, but they can also have a charming side to them. This side is especially present in the beginning stages of a relationship.
To prove how into you they are, they may shower you with attention and gifts. They text you sweet messages, show you lavish affection, and do big romantic gestures. This type of excessive communication in the early stages of a relationship is what psychologists call ‘love bombing.’
It can feel overwhelmingly good while it’s happening, but it never lasts long.
The more you get attached and feel ready for commitment, the more their avoidant tendencies start to kick in. Why? Because they are more in love with the fantasy of being in love. The minute things get real, their defenses kick in and they start to check out.
Your interest in them triggers their internal alarm system. And they can go to great lengths to try and undo some of the newly-developed intimacy that was blossoming between the two of you.
The over-the-top attention gets replaced with a more aloof and sporadic communication style. And little by little, they begin pushing you away in numerous ways, implementing distance and space. In the worst case, they may even outright ghost you.
4. They are sensitive to even simple requests
Many emotionally unavailable people deem themselves to be fiercely independent and self-sufficient. They usually learned to take care of themselves at a very early age and are not used to relying on others for help. They like being their own person, and they value their independence above all else.
Because of this, they often feel like partners are demanding too much of them. And what seems like a normal or benign request to you, can be greatly triggering to them.
For example, asking to meet up more frequently might make them feel like you’re trying to take away their independence. Likewise, simply sharing your thoughts and emotions after a rough day can make them wonder if you’re unable to self-soothe.
Most securely attached people would not jump to these kinds of conclusions, but emotionally unavailable people are quick to feel like you’re vying for control and they are constantly on the lookout for any signs of codependent tendencies.
5. They are defensive
Most emotionally unavailable people are conflict aversive. They can be charming and laid-back when things go smoothly, but when difficulties arise, their dominant response is generally defensiveness. Rather than expressing their true feelings or acknowledging their part, they defend and deflect. That, or they’ll minimize the issue and try to make light of everything.
This isn’t surprising. After all, conflict not only gives rise to difficult emotions and thoughts, but it can also lead to a more meaningful connection.
Most healthy relationships involve some degree of conflict. Working through disagreements and issues together can lead to a deeper emotional bond. It allows a relationship to grow. But it also requires a lot of vulnerability and emotional honesty. Two things emotionally unavailable people find hard to cultivate.
6. They tend to have addictions
Because emotionally unavailable people can’t tolerate their feelings very well, they often have a strong desire to numb them or to at least be less aware of them.
Over the years, they may have developed their own favorite way to escape their problems. Unfortunately, these are not always healthy. And it can pave the way to addiction.
Addictions can come in many forms. Be it to work, gaming, alcohol, drugs, or sex.
While the long-term consequences are dire, they are usually overlooked in favor of the short-term benefits, namely the ability to zone out and forget about life stressors. Even if just for a while.
A quick little side note!
The label ‘emotionally unavailable’ gets thrown around loosely and frequently. And not in all cases correctly.
For example, does not wanting to delve head-first into a whirlwind romance mean that someone is inherently emotionally unavailable? Or have they perhaps been hurt in the past and do they now want to take things more slowly to avoid making the same mistakes? Maybe they just got out of a long-term relationship and are not ready to commit so soon again? Or perhaps they are naturally more reserved and shy?
There are numerous reasons why someone may not (yet) be emotionally available at a specific moment in time, in a specific partnership, but that does not mean that they are doomed to remain that way forever.
Can an emotionally unavailable person love you?
Emotional unavailability can sabotage the best of relationships. A loving bond requires openness, emotional honesty, and trust – all qualities that emotionally unavailable people struggle a great deal with.
With that being said, this does not mean that they are incapable of experiencing loving feelings for someone!
So, yes, an emotionally unavailable person can definitely love you. Albeit in their own way.
And just as there are signs to spot an emotionally unavailable person, so are there some signs that show that said person is quite into you – or at the very least may be getting there:
- They break their own rules and seem conflicted
- They don’t want to have sex with you right away
- They leave you alone in their apartment
- They make plans and travel with you
- They introduce you to their family
- They express their feelings in several love languages
If you would like to know more, in this video, I discuss the signs an emotionally unavailable man is in love with you in more detail:
How do you deal with an emotionally unavailable partner?
As mentioned earlier, emotionally unavailable people are definitely capable of love. But being in a relationship with someone who shuns emotional intimacy, can be frustrating, painful, and lonely. This is especially true for people with an anxious attachment style (‘Open Hearts’) as they generally want as little emotional distance as possible.
So, how to deal with an emotionally unavailable partner?
Here are six traits that greatly attract emotionally unavailable partners:
Consistency boils down to knowing what you want and not changing what you think or feel just because your partner thinks or feels differently. (Something people with people-pleasing tendencies are especially prone to doing when trying to win someone over!)
Self-possession means you don’t chase constant external validation and approval to feel good about yourself.
You know your inherent value and accept yourself as you are, flaws and all.
Being boundaried refers to knowing what you will and won’t allow. It involves a high level of self-respect and internal strength.
Instead of desperately catering to your partner’s every whim, you’re aware of your own feelings and desires and know where your limits are.
A passionate person is in touch with their vital energy and lives a life that they deem to be fulfilling.
This type of energy is incredibly attractive. And by having your own hobbies and pursuits you will also find it much easier to grant your partner space and alone time. After all, you have interesting things to do too!
Having a non-judgemental and accepting attitude means that you don’t cling to negative or fearful assumptions. It paves the way to a more harmonious environment. And it allows your partner to relax more, knowing that their every word and move is not being held under a magnifying glass.
Being non-judgemental does not mean that you should be a yes-(wo)man or a doormat! Anything but.
Using your ability to say no can be very attractive. This is what being discerning is all about. It lets your partner know that you’re not one to simply settle for what’s available – you consciously chose and choose to be with them.
In this video, I explore the six surprising traits that make an emotionally unavailable partner fall in love in more depth.
Can a relationship last with an emotionally unavailable man?
Emotionally unavailable people behave the way they do because they feel extremely threatened. Intimacy triggers their alarm system and it sends them into an overwhelmingly scary fight or flight mode: they feel like they either need to fend for themselves (visible in their defensiveness and self-protective mechanisms) or escape (visible in their reducing contact or suddenly ghosting you).
Over time, these fight or flight reactions become automated habits over which they have little conscious control.
While rewiring these automatic reactions isn’t easy, it is possible! But it will take time, it requires a lot of internal work, and, most importantly, your partner must want it themselves.
You can give them support and offer a safe environment, but what you can’t (or shouldn’t) do is demand change or try to change them yourself.
This only sets you up for disappointment and heartbreak.
If you would like to explore this topic further, then take a look at this Q&A video:
When to leave an emotionally unavailable partner?
When both partners are willing to put in equal effort a beautiful opportunity arises to grow together within the relationship.
In some cases, however, leaving an emotionally unavailable partner might be the best course of action.
If your partner is unwilling to change and you feel like the entire relationship depends on you it may be time to rethink your future together. And even if your partner is willing to work on themselves, there might still be other reasons to consider splitting up.
For example, despite their efforts, they may not be capable of offering you what you seek and need from a romantic relationship. And the emotional distance can leave you feeling unloved, unheard, unseen, unwanted.
In addition, if you find yourself in a toxic or abusive relationship, knowing when to leave an emotionally unavailable husband or wife (emotionally unavailable husband divorce) becomes a necessity.
Over to you!
While dating an emotionally unavailable partner can be incredibly confusing and draining, their avoidant tendencies don’t have to be a relationship death sentence. Having a healthy relationship is possible. But for this, both partners will have to muster up a lot of patience, effort, and a willingness to dig deep below the surface.
Is there anything else you would like to know about emotional unavailability? And do you recognize yourself or your partner in this article? If so, what aspects do you find the most challenging?
Share it in the comments below!
I think this attachment type is extremely common amongst those with ASD1, what used to be called aspergers syndrome (particularly men.) In which case, it may have nothing to do with how they were parented, but being from a different Neurodiverse type. If that is the reason for the avoidant attachment, an approach to grow and become secure would have to consider and incorporate considerations for that neurodiversity. Different root, different route to prospering.