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The Truth About Being Emotionally Unavailable & How to Open Up

Emotional availability means being able to express your feelings and needs in a way that allows others to respond appropriately, builds intimacy and deepens relationships. We all have different levels of emotionally availability and there is no right or wrong. However, when someone becomes very emotionally unavailable it can negatively affect their relationships, especially if their partner is more emotionally open. If an emotionally unavailable person has learnt coping mechanisms which involve keeping people at a distance, avoiding intimacy or mistreating others, then they can be closing themselves off from potentially positive relationships.

What Does Emotionally Unavailable Mean?

To be emotionally unavailable is to be uncomfortable or unwilling to express authentic emotions towards another person. This person may find it difficult to handle or express their feelings, particularly in response to another person’s needs or cues. Emotional unavailability might not always be easy to spot and can manifest in different ways. If you think you or your partner might have these kind of tendencies, read on to discover more about the causes, signs and potential next steps.

What Causes Emotional Unavailability?

There are several reasons why people become emotionally unavailable. One reason is that they may be afraid of being rejected or hurting others. Another reason is that they may fear losing control of themselves. They may also believe that they will lose respect from others if they show their true feelings.

This type of behaviour is usually learned during childhood and is often linked to a person’s attachment style. If you are raised in a family who tends not to be overt with emotions, you may not feel comfortable when faced with them in later life. Or you may not effectively pick up on people’s emotional cues or know how to handle very intense situations. Other causes include a negative relationship experience such as being cheated on or experiencing a painful breakup. Sometimes the cause is previous trauma, conditions like depression or stress or simply a person’s circumstances and priorities.

Although some emotionally unavailable people can exhibit hurtful, confusing or misleading behaviour, they are not bad people. Their actions are often coping mechanisms designed to navigate situations that unsettle them, that they don’t understand, or that they don’t feel comfortable with. Not everyone wants to be emotionally vulnerable and this is OK. However, in a relationship, unless you are both on the same page, it can cause issues.

Is My Partner Emotionally Unavailable or Just Not Interested?

One of the reasons why many of my clients want to discuss issues related to emotional unavailability is because it can be upsetting and stressful for the other person. If one person wants a deeper emotional connection and feels their needs are not being met, it puts pressure on the other person. This often pushes them further away if the couple are struggling with communication and not meeting each other halfway. Emotionally unavailable partners can come across as uncaring, aloof, distant, dishonest and even cruel.

Some questions to ask yourself when considering if your relationship shows markers of one person being emotionally unavailable…

1) Do they listen when you talk?
2) Do you feel comfortable talking to them about personal issues?
3) Are you able to share your thoughts and feelings without feeling judged?
4) Do you feel safe enough to express yourself?
5) Do you feel respected by them?
6) Do you feel valued by them?
7) Do you feel loved by them?

You should still feel that underneath all the issues the person does care for you, even though they don’t always show it in the way you would like. If you are the one who is constantly pushing and reaching you may need to take a step back and ask why. How much can your partner reasonably change? If this is a repeated pattern for you it might be worth exploring why you keep attracting emotionally unavailable partners.

being emotionally unavailable can make you feel distant

What are the Signs of an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?

The term ’emotionally unavailable’ is a blanket term and has actually come into use reasonably recently. It is used to describe a set of behaviours that show a person struggles with emotional and close connection. Although, of course, everyone is different and not every person will have every sign.

Vague or Complete Denial of Feelings

A partner who isn’t very in tune with their emotions may be very vague about what they are feeling. Perhaps they just mirror your emotions back to you or remain very non-committal. They may also completely deny they feel anything at all. You’ll probably hear them say they are ‘fine’ a lot and they will probably avoid conflict at all costs. It can be very frustrating feeling as though you aren’t getting anything at all and usually just makes you more frustrated or upset.

Contradicting or Inconsistent Behaviour

Does your partner or potential date often say one thing and do another? Maybe they say they want to meet but then seem to avoid actually setting a date? They might flash hot and cold seeming ultra keen one day then distant the next. Perhaps they stay up texting you all night but when it comes to getting together the next day they would rather see their mates. Or maybe you see them all the time but when you ask to put a label on your relationship they panic.

Dismissive

In order to avoid focus on their emotions, an emotionally unavailable partner might try and dismiss yours. They may say you’re over sensitive or over reacting, exhibiting classic gaslighting behaviour. They may blame you in order to avoid responsibility or admit guilt themselves. In some cases emotionally unavailable people prefer to date multiple people, keeping their options open and maintaining surface level relationships. They may cheat and lie and become defensive if things start to get too deep.

Disengaged or Checked Out

Many people who struggle with deep connections turn to other things as a distraction or protective barrier. This could include technology like mobile phones, substance abuse like drugs or alcohol or just a TV screen. Do you feel like you’re constantly talking to your partner from behind their phone screen? They may be using the phone to distract themselves so they don’t have to deal with anything deeper.

Avoids Deep Communication

Are you itching for conversations on the greater issues of life but find yourself alone? Talking to others about our hopes, dreams, fears and beliefs deepens love and connection but can also make us vulnerable and open to criticism and judgement. Some people have not learnt to be comfortable with this level of scrutiny. If a new partner keeps avoiding conversations about exclusivity, the future of the relationship or the L word, these may be signs.

One Sided Effort

Do you feel like it’s always you making all the effort and plans? If your partner is unavailable emotionally they may not be all that great at organising activities and bonding experiences for you. Especially anything that might offer opportunities for closeness or deepness. For example, you want to go for a weekend away or a romantic meal, they want to watch their favourite Netflix show with a takeaway. If this is a repeating pattern it might be worth asking why.

The Difference Between Emotionally Unavailable Men & Women

Both men and women can be emotionally unavailable although it is often more associated with men. Whilst it’s true that it is perhaps more common in men, women can also have this trait. Speaking generally, there are a few differences in how it presents in men and women.

An emotionally unavailable man may…

  • Be commitment phobic
  • Deflect feelings
  • Refuse to share anything that might seem weak
  • Mock people who do share their feelings
  • Be extremely self-reliant

Women may be more likely to…

  • Hold themselves back from expressions of love or vulnerability
  • Avoid sex or clarify it’s purely physical
  • Look down on others for being vulnerable
  • Be self-sufficient to a fault
  • Criticise partners for not doing enough but hate relinquishing control
  • May be more likely to marry or enter long term relationships than men

How Can I Help Myself When Someone Becomes Emotionally Unavailable Towards Me?

If you notice any of these signs, it might mean that your partner is not emotionally available. However, there are things you can do to help yourself cope with this situation. Whilst you are not receiving what you need emotionally from your partner you can seek it elsewhere from other support like family and friends.

When you approach the subject with your partner do so slowly and carefully without blame. You need to be upfront and honest about what you need whilst also giving them their space and avoiding too much pressure. There is some research that suggests people find it easier to open up whilst engaging in physical activity so perhaps consider broaching the subject on a hike.

It might be worth exploring with a relationship coach whether your attachment style is making you seek out emotionally unavailable partners. If your partner is willing it will help to see a couples therapist near you who can help you both work through this tricky dynamic.

Am I Emotionally Unavailable?

Do you recognise some of the signs of emotional unavailability in yourself or your relationships? Do you….

  • Sometimes not show interest in your partner
  • Sometimes not listen when your partner talks
  • Struggle to respond to your partner’s needs
  • Cringe at the thought of deep conversations and sharing
  • Find intense emotions uncomfortable
  • Prefer low key and easy social situations such as hanging out with mates
  • Pride yourself on being fiercely independent or self-reliant
  • Not want to be seen as weak
  • Often run when relationships get serious
  • Hate clingy or overly dependent people
  • Struggle with trust issues
  • Prefer to keep your options open and be free
  • Enjoy distractions such as electronics or alcohol
  • Experience anxiety or panic when you feel under pressure to ‘perform emotionally’
  • Struggle to understand what your partner wants from you
  • Feel uncomfortable around very upset or crying people
  • Feel self conscious in difficult or deep conversations
  • Prefer to avoid conflict even at the expense of your own wellbeing
  • Do you fear or avoid intimacy?

How Can I Change?

If you recognise these traits in yourself and wish to be more emotionally open you should try and do so gradually. You have developed these coping mechanisms for a reason and wrenching yourself out of your comfort zone too soon may do more harm than good. Focus on the benefits of making these changes and what you will gain from them – not just how they might please a partner. It may help to read more on attachment styles and how emotional unavailability develops. You may benefit from speaking to an experienced relationship coach who can offer valuable tips and insights.

Should I Leave an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?

This is a very personal decision.

If the roots of their behaviour seem clear or the person genuinely seems to want to try and change to make the relationship work, then there is definitely no reason not to give it a go. It might be that a professional is needed to maintain some neutral ground and help you both navigate through this tricky situation.

It can be hard to distinguish between an emotionally unavailable partner and someone who is simply not interested. If you are threatening to walk away and they are begging you to stay, or if you give some distance and they pursue, it might be that they themselves are struggling. They may have feelings for you but haven’t learnt how to effectively show them or maintain a healthy relationship.

However, whilst we like to think the best of people, sometimes it might be best to end an unhealthy relationship if you feel it is having a negative effect on your happiness and well-being. You can speak to a therapist to help you make the decision, gain some perspective and move on from the relationship if necessary.

Whatever your decision, you don’t need to do it alone.

Relationship and Couples Therapy by Alix Needham

Alix Needham is a highly experienced, expert couples and relationship therapist. She has helped many clients with complex issues like those mentioned above. If you’d like to learn more about how she can help you, please do reach out.

Further Reading on Relationships

How to Improve a Relationship Struggling Since Lockdown

Signs Your Relationship is in Trouble

Couples Counselling Online – The New Way Forward for Modern Couples

Co-Dependent Relationships

How Hypnotherapy Can Save Your Relationship

My techniques guarantee that you remain in control at every session. These techniques, developed over 25 years, are so effective that many issues can be addressed in as little as three sessions and my location in the very heart of London means you can book sessions to work around work.

when a person is emotionally unavailable it can be difficult to connect
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