Think back to when you were involved with someone who threw you into the emotional wringer. A friend probably called them 'emotionally unavailable,' to which you nodded enthusiastically as you triple-checked your phone. (Nope, still no response to your text from seven hours ago.)
It'd be nice if the term was just a throwaway label to help you deal with people who just aren't interested in committing to you.
But sadly, the breed does in fact exist. And as anyone with a pulse knows, feelings can be scary. But that goes tenfold for the emotionally unavailable, who use excuses to hide from authentic connection.
As if dating today wasn't hard enough, plucking out the emotionally unavailable from an already shrinking pool of available partners is just one more thing you have to deal with.
What does 'emotionally unavailable' actually mean?
Feelings are overwhelming as is, but for the emotionally unavailable, it’s a task and a half to even acknowledge what’s happening in their heads. They shrink away from vulnerable moments that would otherwise create a real connection.
'Someone who is emotionally unavailable has a hard time receiving love and other deep emotions from others,' says therapist Alyson Cohen.
It’s tough to understand 'the feelings of others, because they can hardly understand their own.' They’re not self-aware about how their aversion to intimacy affects the other person, either.
'Often, they can appear quite socially advanced, but more complex emotions that go beyond niceties are often lacking,'
Cohen says. It’s easy for them to push people away who tiptoe toward their emotional boundaries—which, btw, can be extreme. Meanwhile, on your side, it feels like something in the relationship is off, and you can’t quite find your footing.
What are signs of an emotionally unavailable partner?
1. They haven’t been in serious relationships
No, relationship history isn’t everything, but it can give a hint or two about what the future could look like. If a person hasn’t been in a long-term, meaningful relationship, they might be incapable of it. 'These partners will exit relationships before they are able to get more serious,' Cohen says.
2. They don’t like talking about real life
As in, less 'Let’s talk about Peaky Blinders' and more 'Let’s talk about the work crisis ruining my life.' An emotionally unavailable partner won’t seem engaged during these chats, even when you want their ear the most. If you can’t bond over the real conflict in your life, it’s a barrier to close connection.
3. They’re not affectionate
If your partner is emotionally evasive, your intimate life might be getting more mild by the day. Touch, compliments, and (duh) sex are all means to intimacy, which the emotionally unavailable avoids.
On your side, 'the partner yearning for emotional closeness may get turned off sexually if that effort isn’t made,' Feuerman says. The result? 'The relationship can feel more like a friendship or roommate situation.' Not exactly romantic.
P.S. This applies for the little sweet gestures, too. Say you pick up his favourite popchips on your way home, to show them you're thinking of them and want to make them happy. He’ll eat the crisps alright, but he won’t understand or fully appreciate the sentiment behind it.
4. They’re unavailable...literally
Let’s go back to that text you sent seven hours ago. Still nada? Someone who is emotionally unavailable can be hard to get in contact with, and communication even via text can be spotty. It's intentional.
'Your partner is putting physical distance between the two of you, which can also mask their emotional distance,' Cohen says. And if they say they’re busy all the time? Don’t even get me started on that excuse. It's 2019...who isn't busy?
5. They don’t respect your time
A rain check for a dinner date once in a while is totally acceptable—even you have those days when you’d rather wrap up in a blanket solo—but someone who is emotionally unavailable tends to cancel All. The. Time. Not only are your plans botched, but it’s a way to cut down on quality time spent together.
6. They think emotions are weak
For the emotionally unavailable, people who wear their heart on their sleeves are easy to criticise and judge.
This goes back to their avoidant attachment style, which is why they associate emotional needs with negativity. Uncomfortable with being serious, they might poke fun of you or lighten the mood when you start real talk (cue: 'You're so sensitive').
'They’re showing that vulnerability is a turnoff,' Cohen says.
7. They misunderstand you
'The emotionally unavailable partner can make someone with very healthy views of intimacy and closeness feel bad about their needs,' Feuerman says.
They may not even realise they're doing it (again, they're not good at reading emotions). Regardless, feeling misunderstood or dismissed can feel like a harsh rejection, not to mention extremely frustrating, especially when you're trying to handle things diplomatically.
That’s the opposite of what you should feel in a relationship.
8. They call you 'intense'
Say it with me: 'My feelings are valid.' Closed-off people can see those who express their emotions as really intense or overdramatic—and often will call you out on it so you second-guess what you’re actually feeling. Really, they struggle to be empathetic.
Relationship therapist and owner of Modern Love Counseling Alysha Jeney, says this type of partner 'deals with your feelings the same way they deal with theirs.' Read: shutting them down.
9. They’re defensive
Considering an emotionally unavailable partner cannot, for the life of them, say how they truly feel, they automatically go on the defence when they’re exposed. They often blame others rather than recognising and confronting the emotional fallout.
10. They pull away
While you’re over here speaking your truth, your partner is over there running further and further away. The more you try to connect, Feuerman says, the more they pull away.
'The push for closeness may feel uncomfortable or scary,' she explains. Hence, emotionally unavailable people withdraw and say (or silently convey) 'no comment' when talk of conflict or your future together comes up.
11. They don’t put the same effort into the relationship
Equal partnership, who? The emotionally unavailable partner just can’t seem to get to the same place as you. 'They anticipate being let down, so they don’t make the effort,' Feuerman says. She notes when that person stops putting energy into the relationship, the end is near.
What to do if you really like this person
Here’s where it gets personal. It comes down to you to decide if it’s worth pursuing a relationship with someone who shows signs of being emotionally unavailable. Whatever your choice, proceed with caution.
'It was Maya Angelou who said, When people show you who they are, believe them,' Cohen says. 'And in this scenario, I agree with that quote.' She says staying with someone who is emotionally unavailable could be a disaster—not quite the green light you might be looking for.
For the sake of your mental health, it’s important to remember that it’s not up to you to change this person’s ways. Again, while emotional unavailability could be a temporary result of one's current circumstances, many times, it goes way back to long before they met you.
A one-sided relationship with someone who can’t support or love you in the way you deserve is exhausting, not to mention could toe the line of a specific type of emotional abuse, called gaslighting.
If the person shows no signs of changing their habits, think of moving on as an act of self-care. I know it hurts to give up on someone you want, but it will be a lot less painful if you part ways early.
Now, on the flip side, if your heart of hearts believes that 'your partner is struggling with opening up or being responsive to your emotions,' then 'they may just need help learning how to tolerate and understand feelings,' Jeney says. There’s room to ask them questions that will help give you clarity on their hesitations, or learn what affection means to them. Just remember to be gentle and patient, and try not to get all heated up.
Partnered with this talk and a concerted, mutual (keyword here) effort to progress—bonus points if your partner goes to therapy!—it’s possible to have a future together. 'A person might be able to break down the walls of someone who has some willingness to slowly take out the bricks,' Feuerman says.
'It is ultimately up to them to become more emotionally accessible, present, and engaged.'
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