A woman screams at a man who is ignoring her, representing how to connect with an emotionally unavailable partner

Do you have an emotionally unavailable partner? If so, you know the pain of trying and failing to connect with someone who you can’t quite reach emotionally. 

Relationships with an emotionally unavailable partner feel lonely and unfulfilling, and they can even make you feel bad about yourself. I meet many people in my couples counseling office who are in love with an emotionally unavailable man or woman, and many blame themselves for the relationship’s problems. They feel rejected and alone. They often have an unconscious belief that if they could just be better, then they would finally get the love and connection they crave from their emotionally unavailable partner. 

When I’m doing couples therapy with these clients, the first order of business is figuring out what exactly is happening. People use the phrase “emotional unavailability” to describe relationship issues that are actually quite different from each other. When we explore the problem, we often find a path to creating greater connection and intimacy in the relationship. But sometimes, relationships with an emotionally unavailable partner do not have the potential to change enough for both partners to feel satisfied. 

So what does this mean for you? It means that uncovering the reasons for emotional unavailability can point you in the direction of your best path forward. I hope this article helps you begin.

If you would prefer to listen, I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast about emotional unavailability. You can find it on this page (player below), or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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What Does ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ Mean?

When someone tells me that their partner is emotionally unavailable, I know that it means they want more than it feels like their partner is able or willing to give. It may be more love, affection, empathy, closeness, commitment, or some combination of these. 

The emotionally unavailable partner often avoids talking about their own feelings and feels uncomfortable around the emotions of others. They may shy away from intimacy and commitment, or they may do all of the things a good life partner is “supposed” to do, but something in the relationship still feels off. 

This can be pretty confusing for the partner of the emotionally unavailable person. They often feel quite lonely in the relationship, even if they’re spending a lot of time together. The relationship likely started off with a lot of excitement and chemistry, but over time they began to suspect their partner isn’t really invested in them or capable of meeting their emotional needs. When they try to talk about the issue, the emotionally unavailable partner usually shuts down or gets defensive. They question whether they’re asking too much, or if there’s genuinely something missing. 

Read more about what it means to be emotionally unavailable.

Why Am I Emotionally Unavailable? 

So, why does this happen? Is “emotional unavailability” a real thing, or just a catch-all label for other problems, like ​​commitment issues or a fear of intimacy? In my experience, there are a few reasons that one partner believes the other is emotionally unavailable:

  1.  Different expectations

We all have relationship scripts that we receive from our cultures and families of origin, and your scripts may be totally different from your partner’s. 

Some people’s scripts sound like this: 

When you care about something, you express that, outloud and with passion. 

Or: Sharing feelings and offering emotional support is what love looks like. 

Meanwhile, others sound more like this:

I show love by being physically present and helpful in practical ways. 

Or: The most loving, supportive thing I can do is keep my feelings to myself and not bother anyone else with them. 

Gender differences can be at the root of mismatched expectations in your relationship. Many women experience love and connection through talking, while men often don’t. This can leave women feeling like they can’t get what they need, and men feeling like they don’t know what they’re doing wrong or why their efforts are never enough. Men in this situation may feel inadequate and begin to withdraw emotionally, which only makes the dynamic more intense.  

If you suspect different expectations may be the issue, then working on that in couples counseling can help you build understanding and learn to speak each other’s love language

  1. Different levels of interest

Especially in newer relationships, feeling like your partner is “emotionally unavailable” can be a sign that you are more invested in the relationship than they are. If you’re the only one making a sincere effort, it will feel like trying to play tennis with a dead fish. It’s wise to pay attention to that feeling; it may be that they’re “just not that into you,” or they may be more attached to someone or something else in their life. Or, they may legitimately struggle to connect with others on an emotional level for a number of reasons. 

To gauge their interest, take a step back and see what happens. If they want to take a step toward you, they will. If they let things grow distant, then you get to decide whether you want to continue trying to breathe life into the relationship. 

  1. Lower emotional intelligence

People who are on the lower end of the emotional intelligence spectrum may be experienced by others as being emotionally unavailable. While emotional intelligence skills can absolutely be learned, it’s also true that some people have natural strengths around psychological mindedness and empathy that others have to work harder to develop. 

If this is the issue, it may feel like your partner is “emotionless” or uncomfortable around your feelings. They may say or do things that feel hurtful or inconsiderate, not because they’re trying to be mean, but because they’re not skilled at anticipating or responding to your emotions.

Having a lower level of emotional intelligence does not make your partner a bad person. While they may need to build emotional intelligence skills, the work for you will be increasing your awareness of and appreciation for your partner’s other wonderful qualities. 

  1. Unresolved conflict

Unresolved conflict can also be at the root of “emotional unavailability.” 

When someone has been betrayed, hurt, or emotionally invalidated repeatedly in a relationship, they will begin to withdraw. They no longer feel emotionally safe, and so they begin to avoid emotional intimacy with their partner in order to protect themselves. To their partner, it feels like they’ve suddenly gone cold or they’re just not as emotionally available as they used to be. 

It’s really important that you get support for this issue, sooner rather than later. It is possible to let emotional disengagement slide for too long, until one partner is fully emotionally detached and no longer has a stake in the relationship. (For more on this, listen to my podcast on the signs your relationship is failing). 

  1. Your partner experiences you as ‘needy’

When I speak to the emotionally unavailable partner, they usually say something like this:

My partner feels like a black hole of neediness. I try to be emotionally present for them, but it’s never enough. They’re always upset / stressed / unsatisfied, and it’s exhausting. I feel like I constantly need to take care of them and there’s no space for what I need. 

I know that can feel really unfair, but that is often the perspective on the other side of this dynamic. It doesn’t mean that it is objectively true; it could be that you do need a high level of reassurance and emotional closeness, or, your partner may be experiencing your totally normal expectations as “neediness.” 

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s right or wrong, and there’s no sense in framing it that way — what matters is whether or not you are compatible with each other and whether you are both willing to adjust your approach for the benefit of the other. 

  1. Your partner is going through something

You can’t give what you don’t have, and people who are going through hard things in their lives don’t have much to give. Stress from work can affect your relationship, as can burnout and exhaustion. Grief and mental health issues, like anxiety or depression, can also make you feel like your partner is not as emotionally available as you would like. If this is the problem, getting support for the root cause can make a big difference in your partner’s wellbeing and the quality of your relationship. 

  1. Your partner is self-absorbed

Sometimes, “emotionally unavailable” people are just self-absorbed. You have to remember that most people are primarily concerned with their own feelings, goals, interests, etc., and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s also true that some folks have a level of self-absorption that makes relationships feel out of balance. They may not show much interest in you or your feelings, and they may not exert much effort to meet your needs. 

On the extreme end of this spectrum would be having a relationship with a narcissist who genuinely doesn’t understand you as a separate person with distinct needs that are as important as their own. But most selfish people have a milder form of self-absorption that is more amenable to growth and change, if they’re willing to put in the work. 

How to Connect with an Emotionally Unavailable Partner

Emotional unavailability in a relationship isn’t always something that you can work through on your own, and that is okay. Getting connected with an experienced marriage and family therapist who understands relationship systems can help you or your partner become more emotionally available and create deep change in your relationship.

Very often, there are opportunities for growth that will allow you to build a closer, more satisfying connection. If you’d like to talk about this work with a couples counselor on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — For more expert advice on creating a deeper emotional connection with your partner, see my “emotional and sexual intimacy” collection of articles and podcasts.

Music in this episode is by Savage Blush with their song “Coming Down.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://thesavageblush.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.

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How to Connect with an Emotionally Unavailable Partner

The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

Free, Expert Advice — For You.

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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Hi, this is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast. Is your partner emotionally unavailable? If so, you know the pain of trying and failing to connect with someone who just won’t engage. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about how to handle this challenging situation and find the best path forward, ideally to connection.

When considering mood music for today, of course, there was no other choice but to return to PJ Harvey. C’mon Billy, the most poignant song about somebody who wants so desperately to get the love and affection they are craving. And the feeling that it catches is quite futile, actually. So I hope that your situation is not quite as extreme as the one that is illustrated in this beautiful song.

Today’s episode is thanks to our amazing listeners here in this community. Perhaps you, who’ve written left comments on the blog at growingself.com or gotten in touch with me to talk about this uniquely painful life experience, relational experience, and asked for advice. So I definitely wanted to explore this topic today. So we’re going to be talking all about how to connect with an emotionally unavailable partner. And I will be referencing other podcasts and articles that I’ve written on adjacent subjects.

You can find all of those on the blog at growingself.com/blog-podcast. You will navigate into the Love Collection. And from there, we’ll be primarily talking about content that is available in communication that connects and healthy relationships. But also, relationship clarity is a topic that we’ll be exploring together today. So references for everything are in those. I have podcast, Spotify playlists assembled for you in there if you want to continue the developing understanding of the things we’re talking about today.

Today, we’re going to be talking about a number of things with the intention of helping you understand what is emotionally unavailable? Like we hear this term thrown around, but what is this really and more importantly, like, why does it happen? And understanding that then informs the answer, because there are different reasons for the experience of somebody being emotionally unavailable in a relationship.

Here’s the part is that depending on the why, that informs the path forward. And we’ll be discussing all of this and the paths to either reconnection, or we will also be talking about situations in which the kind of emotional engagement you’re really seeking might not be possible in this particular relationship and what to do with that, if that winds up being the case. So, much to discuss. So let’s just dive right into this.

First, as always, let’s validate. Relationships with emotionally unavailable people can feel quite lonely and uncut, fulfilling and frustrating. They can also make you feel badly about yourself. If you are internalizing the reason why this is happening as being some statement about you, right? I meet with many people in couples counseling or for individual relationship counseling, actually. So you know, people who are coming in hoping to have healthier relationships, but doing it on their own, maybe they’re in a relationship with a partner who won’t engage with me either. So they won’t come into couples counseling. 

The individual comes in as they have some things to figure out. That it is not uncommon to have somebody holding the responsibility for this in a way that feels bad for them, feels disempowering for them, and oftentimes it’s not really helpful even though it’s understandable. I think it’s natural to want to either blame yourself for the relationships problems, like if I were different if I showed up in a different way, then I would get the love and affection that I’m craving. 

Sometimes, conversely true, it turns into a wall of blame for the other person. “This person is impossible, they are emotionally unavailable,” is a sweeping statement. “They will never be different,” and that is actually also disempowering and self-limiting, because again, depending on the reason why you are experiencing this disconnection, you may have more power than you know to create positive change in your relationship. But either way, it is a difficult experience to be in. It often feels frustrating to feel rejected, you feel alone. And it’s hard. 

The first thing that we’re going to do is just dive into what emotionally unavailable means. Because just like what I do in couples counseling, somebody comes in and says, “I feel disconnected, I feel like my partner is emotionally unavailable,” you know, they can be using that term to describe relationship issues or reasons why that are actually very different from each other. And there is absolutely a path forward to creating greater connection and intimacy in your relationship under certain circumstances.

Under others, relationships with emotionally unavailable people are actually limited. And so your choices there are, “Do I want to take the good parts of what this relationship has to offer?” which you know, is everything’s a mixed bag, there’s probably a lot of good in a relationship with the understanding that it is lacking these other pieces. And to get my emotional needs met, I might need to do that with friends or family, or other people. And then also, of course, the third path is to say, “I don’t actually think that I want to do this.”

We’ll talk about all of these different things, starting with uncovering what emotional unavailability-availability means and what it looks like. So to begin with that defining our term here, when somebody tells me that their partner is emotionally unavailable, what I hear is them saying, “I want my partner to feel more open to me. I want my partner to give more to me on an emotional level that it feels like they are able or willing to give.” It might be feelings or demonstrations of love and affection. It may be empathy or closeness, sometimes commitment, the ability to listen, and to feel like they’re understood by their partner. Sometimes a combination of all of these.

On the other side of this, somebody who is being characterized as emotionally unavailable, may avoid talking about their own feelings or potentially feel uncomfortable around the emotions of others in the relationship. It may seem like they’re shying away from intimacy or commitment. Maybe they still show up materially and do all the things a good life partner is supposed to do, but they’re not quite engaged. And, again, there can be good reasons for this that are actually relational in nature.

First of all, let’s talk about relational issues that can contribute to this experience. First of all, and this is actually the most common thing that I see in a couples counseling situation. It is a very common relational dynamic that we have talked about on other podcast episodes. I’ll refer you back to my communication series for a tutorial about all of these. But in a nutshell, there’s a very common relational dynamic, where two people very easily can fall into a pursue-withdrawal, relational dynamic.

The pursuing partner is feeling disconnected. They are feeling unloved, uncared for, unheard in terms of their attachment needs. And a normal and predictable response to this feeling of disconnection is to pursue, “Talk to me. Why aren’t you talking to me? We need to talk about this.” If that doesn’t work it’s like somebody’s knocking on the door and knocking louder and louder and harder and harder and all of a sudden they’re banging on the door. That is the experience of pursuing is almost a desperation to connect, you know?

On the other side of this dynamic, a withdrawing partner is taking a step back, feeling maybe threatened, overwhelmed, criticized, you know? They’re not seeing their partner is being hurt or desperate for connection. They see a wild angry maniac who just wants to yell at them and you know, and just so they are oftentimes getting defensive or avoiding conversations or stonewalling, even they don’t want to talk about it.

This dynamic is the core of evidence-based modalities of couples and family therapy, including emotionally focused couples therapy, where we are working actively with that pursue-withdrawal dynamic in the context of attachment needs, or connection on one side and emotional safety on the other. And helping two people recognize the dance that they’re doing together and how to soften that how to feel safer with each other, how by stepping in and more actively meeting somebody’s emotional needs can actually calm the situation down, and vice versa, how intentionally being a safer person can help somebody step forward. 

A corollary here is Gottman method of marriage counseling or couples therapy that takes a look at the four horsemen of the apocalypse that will always show up in relationships that are distressed, which is characterized by criticism and contempt on one side, and also that defensiveness and stonewalling on the other. So this is what relationships in distress look like, is when one person seems to be withdrawing and is emotionally unavailable, and it is making the other person feel very upset.

In distressed relationships, you can basically expect this, and I wanted to mention it because it would be a mistake to be characterizing your partner as globally emotionally unavailable if, in fact, they are having a normal and expected response to these relationship dynamics that can be changed. So, wanted to put that out there as just a way of thinking about this that might help you find a new path forward.

If you are aware that you are feeling angry or shorter, more critical of your partner, if you are wanting things from them that they are viewed, okay, now of refusing to give or being defensive about or refusing to talk about even, it may be worth the time and energy to take this in front of a good marriage counselor, a licensed marriage and family therapist who is educated and practices these evidence-based forms of couples therapy that I’m talking about. So you’re looking for either emotionally focused couples therapy, or somebody who practices the Gottman method to help you at the very least assess, are you having this experience because of relational dynamics? 

The corollary here is that if these relational dynamics change, your partner will no longer be “emotionally unavailable.” They will be able to step back into the ring with you and you can have the kind of relationship that you want, perhaps just not the way you’ve been trying to get it. So that honestly would be my first recommendation in this situation, because that is a solvable problem. Now, of course, there are other reasons why you could be experiencing your partner as emotionally unavailable.

Let’s just kind of walk through these and talk about what resolving them could look like in each situation. First of all, one thing that can often create this experience is when two people have different expectations about what connection in relationships look like. For example, we all have these old scripts, these old narratives that are formed in our family of origin or culture of origin, our life experiences, and this informs our inner map of the world around what relationships are supposed to be like. 

It is very effortless, I will say, automatic even to assume that other people feel the same way that we feel about relationships or how things should be. That’s kind of our default setting, is to assume that other people are more like us than they probably actually are. And so we for example you may have a script that is subconsciously running in your head that says when people love each other, they have emotionally intimate conversations about things that are really important.

They are sharing their inner world with each other, hopes and dreams and fears. And there’s lots of talking, maybe some crying, but like, this is how people should connect is through sharing of feelings, emotional support, that happens through conversation. Other people might also have narratives about what love is and how it is expressed through a very different thing.

You know, that somebody’s narrative could be love, is shown by us being together, like, physically together in the same home, working together towards common goals washing the dishes together, doing the things going to the grocery store together, like day to day life, I go to work, they do the things we’re doing it, we are having a family, I am pulling my weight. And when we have a good time, it could be through activities, maybe it’s through doing fun things together, maybe it’s through the quiet satisfaction of cleaning out the garage. But that is a very, very real thing.

What can also be associated with this inner narrative could be, and again, not saying that this is conscious, but this deep core belief is the most loving and supportive thing that I can do for my partner is to keep my feelings to myself, not bother them I’m okay, at the end of the day, as long as I just kind of keep going and showing up and doing my thing and carrying my weight. And making sure the car has its oil changed on a regular basis, and the grass is mowed and the things are done. I’m on down doing my stuff. I’m here, I’m right here with you. And, I don’t know what else you want from me.

It can also be part of that when paired with somebody who really is really craving a different kind of emotional experience. And you can probably even tell from the examples that I’m sharing right now that many times, not always, but frequently, gender differences can be at the root of some of these mismatched expectations in a relationship.

Many women experience love, connection, understanding, being understood, vulnerability, through talking, face to face conversations about deep intense important things, while men often don’t. They do not relate to each other that way. It is not something that they want to do or have had a lot of experience with many times. But when you think of two women sitting together, what are they doing, they’re talking about deep important things put two women in a room together and come back 15 minutes later, and that’s like, “So when I was six is when my parents moved to New Jersey, and let me tell you about that experience.”

But you know, you put two men in a room together and they leave the room and like walk out and start finding something to do. And of course, I’m being stereotypical here. For example, this is different in my relationship. I am a female, who, maybe it’s because I get so many of my, like I do a lot of talking in my day-to-day life in my profession. I get home at night and no more talking. My husband, however, is quite conversational. That is what he wants to do so we do that.

I just wanted to offer that as an example that you know, conversational, emotional intimacy is not the coin of the realm for everyone. And it’s important to be aware of yourself, if you have this expectation, this is what’s supposed to happen. And you are partnered with, often a man who does not do that the same way that you and your friends do it. You might feel legitimately and sincerely with all your heart and soul that I am with a uniquely emotionally unavailable person. 

My needs are not being met in this relationship. I don’t know if I can keep this you know, I just want to have these experiences with them. And they won’t do this with me. I feel rejected. I feel like they don’t understand me, what is wrong? Could this be better and it really can spiral into some difficult things and create the relational difficulties or contribute to the relational difficulties that we were talking about in Exhibit A.

The stereotypical female in this dynamic was really feeling like they are not getting what they need. They are feeling unloved, and they work harder to get that. They start to pursue that. Men in the stereotypical situation, often start feeling like they are doing something wrong. And they’re not totally sure what that is. But whatever they’re doing is not enough and they don’t really know how to be different. And so you will see them begin to feel threatened, emotionally unsafe, because they’re being criticized, and they don’t know how to fix it. Or they might start to feel inadequate, and they will begin to withdraw emotionally, which only makes this dynamic, more intense.

If you suspect that different expectations or ways of relating could potentially be at the core of this, that’s a really important awareness to have. It will be important to build bridges to the center, to a degree. I think that many, again, being stereotypical and many men have not been socialized to relate to each other through emotionally intimate conversations. And the emotional intelligence skills that come along with that are often necessary to build in order to be able to do that skillfully and successfully in relationships.

That involves figuring out how do I feel? How do I regulate myself? How does this other person feel accurate empathy, and then what is it that they are wanting for me in this moment so that I can respond in a thoughtful and effective way right now. So there’s lots of different micro-skills that go into this. And to learn how to do that is a process. It is a developmental process. 

To look at it through that lens, if you’ve been feeling angry, upset, hurt, rejected by a partner, who literally does not know how to do those things that might feel like second nature for you, it might be incredibly helpful for this relationship for you to understand that, first of all, but also develop a sense of compassion for that, and also a commitment to being a growth partner in their development.

Because not everybody gets to do that kind of development, until they get into a relationship that requires this of them, that becomes then the motivation to grow. And it’s a beautiful thing. But it is often inhibited or hampered, if there’s a lot of anger or judgment or criticism or blame involved ,like that emotional context is not conducive to growth, people need to feel safe in order to grow. But they also need to feel motivated.

Talking about this openly, talking about your hopes for how the relationship could be different, talking about what it means to you to have that kind of emotional connection that comes through talking and sharing an authenticity, that is also very important for you to be communicating in emotionally safe ways. Because if your partner doesn’t know that, they will not understand that this is a necessary growth moment for them. 

While this might be important growth work, it is extremely important to remain very self-aware about the very real possibility that you may have a supremacist orientation towards how this should work. And you know, supremacy is a very strong word. We hear about it a lot in terms of racial, like white supremacy, which is this orientation that a Eurocentric way of being, values, the way we talk, what we do, how our hair looks is correct, and everything else is sort of judged by that standard.

We talk about supremacy in those terms. But what is very easy to miss and is often very subtle, is the fact that we can easily carry supremacist orientations into our relationships. That we are holding this yardstick that we are using to judge our partner and whether or not their way of being is correct as determined by our own standards. And so while there’s like this duality in relationships, right? Growth is fantastic and we both want to grow. And for our partner’s own well being, if there are growth opportunities for them, I think it’s very important to be supportive of those and to be their champion.

But I see so often that many couples will fall into this dynamic where one person has decided that their partner’s way of being is not good enough and so now they need to grow their emotional intelligence skills or their empathy and really in that, miss their own growth opportunity, which is how do I evolve in such a way that I am able to see, understand and appreciate, genuinely appreciate the beauty and the value of someone else’s way of showing up in relationships? Of showing love and care that may be different from my own? So that is often a growth opportunity to.

Oh, for this, you may also want to consider checking out a podcast that I did a while ago on the subject of love languages. And we do a deeper dive into different ways of giving and experiencing love that I think could be helpful for you as you’re thinking about this. So I think you’ll also find that in the, I believe healthy relationships collection is where you’ll find that one. 

Okay, so what I have just been talking about are different reasons that air quote, emotional unavailability will show up in a relationship that are resolvable through growth work. So relational issues, different expectations, tying it in to different levels of emotional intelligence or competence in knowing how to connect that way. But now I want to shift a little bit and talk about some other situations, where you may also experience your partner as being emotionally unavailable that have more to do with kind of a macro situation rather than the relational dynamic. 

These can be multi-dimensional, but I think they’re really worth discussing Because understanding what’s going on, again, points the path forward. One of the things that is important to consider if you are with somebody that you’re experiencing is emotionally unavailable, is to ask yourself the question, “Has it always been this way, or has something changed, has something shifted?”

Frequently in my work as a counselor, as a coach, understanding the timeline of somebody’s experience can often be one of the most important parts of assessment because then we can begin to make connections around what is actually going on here. And so we need to mention the fact that when people are going through things that are difficult, either circumstantially or perhaps in their inner world, depression, grief, these things can also lead people to withdraw. 

If you are in a relationship, and you have felt a shift, it could be that your partner is experiencing a lot of stress, perhaps at work or in other parts of their lives. Burnout in a career can often manifest as symptoms of depression, and just like shutting down in big ways. If they are struggling to adjust to new phases of life parenting or having another child or a move. And certainly, if they’ve been dealing with a major loss. Even if they are not talking about this out loud, many people can particularly those who do not engage often in like a conversational processing outlet can experience just this kind of contraction that you can feel when you’re in a relationship with them. 

If your partner has become less emotionally available, one strategy here could be to just get curious. Has something changed? What does it feel like to be you these days? What is going on? With the understanding that you know, by definition, this person may really struggle to articulate that, to put it into language. But the path forward here is to be very gentle, very curious, perhaps even to experiment with very tentatively and cautiously putting some words to that, you know?

“I noticed that ever since you took this new job you’ve seen kind of withdrawn and I can’t help but wonder if you know that there’s a lot of pressure on you these days. That is maybe maybe you’re more preoccupied or you’re thinking about work a lot when you’re not on the job. Is that ever true for you?” Then if you’re really engaging with your own empathy and getting that right through your own emotional and intelligence skills, someone who may be like, “Yeah, that is exactly what’s going on”, even though they wouldn’t have been able to put that into words necessarily themselves.

That could be a potential path forward. But again, just using a lot of empathy, curiosity, gentleness, to make it safe, and even if they don’t actually feel like talking about it, for them to know that they’re, you’re there for them will create the kind of emotional safety that will allow them to perhaps open up and share what’s going on in their inner world. And then maybe that won’t change anything, I think it will also change the context.

So it turns into moving from, “My partner is emotionally unavailable” to “My partner is really going through like a dip right now and so I need to be supportive and emotionally available for them as they’re kind of moving through this.” Again, the timeline matters, because if they have been different previously and are now showing up in a different way with you, that’s the indication of really what is necessary.

Now, of course, other things can be contributing to an experience of emotional unavailability. And so going back to that timeline idea, these things will show up very early on typically in a relationship, and they are more macro.

For example, if you are dating or in a new relationship where somebody is not engaging with you in the way that you would like them to, it is very, very important that you pay attention to that and consider whether or not this relationship experience is the kind that you would like to have. Very important to understand relational dynamics here, which is, this is as true as physics, practically. The person who cares less about a relationship will always have more power, and in many ways, more emotional value in a relationship than the one who cares more.

If you are dating somebody who’s a little ambivalent, kind of less engaged, what that may create in you is an overwhelming desire to be with them and to get their attention, which will make you work harder and harder and to chase them emotionally in some ways. Particularly if you are dating, I would advise you to stop that.

Notice what you’re doing. Notice what’s happening, and instead move into an empowered stance of, “Does this feel good for me to be interacting and trying to get love, attention, respect from somebody who feels pretty distant? Is this what I want and deserve in my life?” Because you know, dating, as I’ve said many times on other podcasts, this is a dress rehearsal, it is an audition, it is different than a relationship. You are assessing another person to decide if this is somebody that you would like to have a relationship with.

If your experience of them is that they are self-absorbed, maybe less interested in you and your inner world than you are in theirs, I would take that very seriously. And factor that into your long-term plans. It can be very easy to assume that things could be different if they decided that they loved you, or if they you know, if you were more pleasing somehow, then it would change the way that they are showing up towards you. And that is a fallacy.

The narrative that will help you the most is to say, “Based on what I have learned so far about this person, would I like to keep doing this for the next 40 years?” That is a real mistake to assume that people can or will or even want to change. So do not date aspirationally. Be very, very literal and make reality-based decisions around who you spend time with. So you know, are they asking me questions about my day? Are they reaching out to me to make plans? Do they seem to care about how I feel?

Those are really, really important and significant. And if the answer to those is no, and if you would like that to be a yes, I would encourage you to consider other options, or you could certainly have a conversation about that, like, “Hey, I’ve noticed that this is happening, and it sort of makes me feel like maybe I’m more interested in doing this with you than you are with me. Is that true?” And then again it takes a lot of self-awareness and also courage for the person on the other side.

People will often hide when confronted that directly, but still, you get to ask those kinds of questions, and you get to decide what’s good enough for you in a dating relationship. So don’t try to force it. Somebody’s emotionally unavailable when you’re dating, they’re going to be that way times 10 when you’re married, so you know, just consider that, okay.

Another reason why you may be experiencing your partner as emotionally unavailable in macro senses, and these are hard, and I’m just going to caution you. You can stop listening to this right here if this might be feeling intense or triggering, but I say this out of a genuine desire to support your growth.

If you are experiencing your partner as emotionally unavailable, or some people that you’re dating, like, if you have this pattern, and basically like everybody that you date, or everybody that you’ve been in a relationship with is emotionally unavailable in one way or another, it could be that you might be a little self-absorbed, that you may crave a level of attention, validation, reflection of yourself, that other people experience as being needy.

If you, through your own growth work, have uncovered the fact that you have a more anxious attachment style, you want a lot from people that you are close to because it helps you feel okay about yourself. And if you don’t have that, it feels bad for you. It might even feel a little panicky, you may feel anxious. And so, again, the way of figuring out, “Okay, maybe Is this me,” is to notice the patterns. And so if nine out of 10 of people that you have dated or long-term relationships, they’re all emotionally unavailable. And you’re like, “Why do I keep attracting emotionally unavailable people? Why do I choose relationships with emotionally unavailable people?”

It could be that you do, you know? I mean, if your family of origin or early life experiences programmed you to try and get love and attention from people who were very self-absorbed or not emotionally available, and that feels extremely familiar and like what relationships should be, that can absolutely be a thing.

That is worth considering and exploring so that you can do what we had talked about a few minutes ago, which is moving back to this empowered place to say, “This is actually not good enough for me. And here’s what I really want to be looking for in a relationship, even though I would probably not be as attracted to emotionally available people as I am to cold, self-absorbed, withholding people because that is the way that I was wired. Thanks, Dad.”

You know, that is important growth work to do. And through this growth work, it could also be, “Oh, I have an anxious attachment style. And no matter who I am with, I am probably going to experience them as being emotionally unavailable because what I am seeking from someone is more than anybody can really give me.”

This is difficult. This is going into very deep places. And the level of personal responsibility and extreme ownership that it requires to be able to do this work is huge. So if you suspect that this may be true for you, it will be very important for you to connect with an excellent therapist who really understands attachment work. So I would be looking for a marriage and family therapist who has a clear understanding of these kinds of relational dynamics, who can really work with you around healing some of that so that you are able to, first and foremost, have a secure attachment within yourself.

When you are able to soothe yourself, comfort yourself, regulate yourself, you are able to stop needing other people to do that for you. And that can change everything in your relationships because without that, people that you are with will experience you as being not ever satisfied, that you are emotionally intense in a way that does not feel good for them. Will experience you as being always upset, stressed, unsatisfied, like trying to get me to do or say or be a way that I can’t be and it feels exhausting to me. 

When you are showing up in that way, people will back up from you. They will become more self-contained after a while because they feel like they’re always needing to take care of you or that you’re really reactive. They have to be very careful and cautious around you and that your emotional needs are such that there is no space for theirs. So you know, these are hard. 

I know that can feel really unfair because you did not create this inside of yourself, but that could be part of this equation. And I want to be fair for you because it is so disempowering to have a narrative that blames other people, that localizes the reason for the way that you feel on others all the time, because then there’s this fantasy of, “If I met the right person, I would have a very different experience.” And that may not be accurate. 

My hope is that this transparent information could allow a path forward, that would be one of growth and health for you, that would help you have the kind of relationships that you want to have. So, something to consider. I hope that the idea of empowerment is your takeaway from everything that we have discussed in this podcast today.

One of the most difficult things about experiencing a partner as emotionally unavailable is that it makes you feel stuck. It feels like you’re in a situation that is outside of your control. “My partner is emotionally unavailable, and everything that I do to try to knock on their door and get them to open up and get them to be with me feels like it is failing. And so I feel powerless in this situation.”

If there’s one big takeaway from our time together in this podcast today is that every single one of these scenarios that we talked through is actionable and contains a lot of empowerment for you. Whether or not the reason for your experience of emotional unavailability is due to a relational dynamic that is creating a pursue-withdraw pattern, different expectations around what should be happening in a relationship, if there are different levels of emotional intelligence or emotionally intimate conversational ability. And if there are situations that are more emotional in nature and more transient that is actionable too.

Even if your partner won’t go in and do growth work in the way that you might hope that they would, you can learn how to be supportive and helpful and also be setting you know, healthy limits and boundaries that support their well-being. And for that, I would refer you to a podcast that I recorded and I think there’s an article on our website growingself.com here to around codependent relationships. Because of course, you also don’t want to take responsibility for somebody’s level of functioning in a way that perpetuates their dysfunction. So you might want to check that out. 

Lastly too, if through this exploration, you’re thinking, “You know, I am programmed to enjoy the experience or to feel passionate feelings towards people who are self-absorbed and kind of callous,” that is also actionable, that there is a clear path of growth work to connect with somebody who can help you figure out what’s going on with that and what you would like to do differently and how to make that happen in the future.

Then of course lastly, if you’re understanding that that experience of emotional unavailability is due to this emotional dynamic inside of yourself that craves a level of value and being seen and comforted and supported by other people that is unsustainable for you and for relationships emotionally, that is also so are actionable.

You might consider checking out some podcasts that I’ve done on those subjects around how to love yourself. There’s a podcast on emotional reactivity. Certainly, When Anxious Meets Avoidant is a podcast I did recently that would be helpful to you. And you can find all of those on the blog at Growing Self. If you’d like to go to either our Love or Happiness collection, so go to growingself.com, the blog, and then enter into the Happiness Collection.

I would then go into healthy relationships or emotional wellness, where you’ll learn about all of these different relational dynamics. There’s tons of articles, we have articles on emotional intelligence, communication skills. I have organized everything, all kinds of podcast collections for you in different Spotify playlists, because I am here to be of service to you. And I think knowledge is power. And so educating yourself on what growth looks like, what are some ideas and strategies that you can use in order to grow in these areas? You know, it’s all there for you. And I do hope that you take advantage of it.

If in listening to any of this, you’ve thought, “I think it would probably be helpful, either me or us to talk to somebody about these issues and really engage in this growth work on a deeper level than is possible than an article or podcast,” obviously, you’re welcome to get in touch. Come to growingself.com. You can schedule a free consultation meeting with me or one of the other marriage and family therapists on our team to talk about your goals and your situation and how we may be able to help.

Thank you for spending this time with me today and we’ll go out again with Miss Polly Jean Harvey, pining away for the love of Billy. Take care, you guys.

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