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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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