A couple sits on the couch looking unhappy representing what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable

What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable? Is being emotionally unavailable a real thing, or is it just another label we assign to partners who don’t meet our expectations in one way or another?

Over the years, I’ve been a couples counselor for many frustrated people who say their partner is emotionally unavailable. And often, they’re right — some people are less given to emotional intimacy than others. But being emotionally unavailable is not a diagnosis; it’s more like a cluster of traits that your partner might display for a number of different reasons. If you’re in a committed relationship with someone who’s emotionally unavailable, couples therapy can help you figure out the true source of the problem in your relationship. Often, this process illuminates the path to building a connection that is deeper and more mutually satisfying. 

But other times, relationships with emotionally unavailable partners don’t have much potential for change. Some clients come to the realization that their relationship won’t ever be what they want it to be, and so they choose to move on. This decision is never easy, but it’s one you can make with clarity if you understand the reasons that you’re feeling disconnected from your partner, and what your options are for addressing the problem. 

And of course, if you’re dating, it’s wise to learn about the red flags that someone might be emotionally unavailable, before you dive head-first into a shallow pool. This article will help you do that, too. Read on to learn about what it means to be emotionally unavailable, what causes emotional unavailability, and whether your relationship has the potential to grow. 

What Does ‘Emotionally Unavailable’ Mean?

Emotionally unavailable is a term that refers to someone who doesn’t seem able or willing to meet the emotional needs of others. An emotionally unavailable person might have trouble getting close to other people, difficulty committing to a partner, and trouble deepening their relationships through vulnerability and reciprocity. They may avoid talking about their own feelings, and they may not know how to respond when a partner opens up to them. People who are in relationships with emotionally unavailable partners often feel like their partner is cold, detached, or somehow not fully present in the relationship. 

Signs of Emotional Unavailability

So, how can you tell if your partner (or potential partner) is emotionally unavailable? There are a few tell-tale signs of emotional unavailability to look out for, especially in the early days of a relationship when you’re still getting to know each other: 

  1. Inconsistency

Emotionally unavailable partners often run hot and cold. They may exchange a hundred flirty texts when they’re in the mood, then leave you on “read” for 12 hours when they’re not. Or, they might make big promises about the future (especially when you’re starting to get fed up with the status quo), only to let you down when the time comes. Overall, the pattern is not showing up for you in a consistent way. 

  1. They don’t share their feelings

Does it seem like your partner’s feelings are behind a wall or under the bed or something? Emotionally unavailable people often don’t discuss emotionally vulnerable topics. They may deflect from conversations about feelings by cracking jokes, changing the subject, or always saying that “they’re fine.” It may seem like they just don’t have many feelings, but it’s more likely that they have a fear of emotional intimacy. Over time, these relationships can begin to feel lonely and emotionally hollow because of the lack of emotional intimacy.

  1.  They avoid defining the relationship

If you’ve been together for several months and you still don’t have clarity about where this is going, how your partner feels about you, or whether or not they’re still seeing other people, that can be a sign that your partner may be emotionally unavailable, especially if they avoid your efforts to clarify the nature of the relationship. 

The big risk here is that you may end up feeling emotionally attached to someone who doesn’t want the relationship that you want, especially if you’re a bit of a people pleaser who doesn’t like to complain. When you’re dating, setting clear, healthy boundaries and being willing to have courageous conversations about your needs and feelings can save you from wasting your time with Mr. or Ms. Not Worth It. 

  1. Discomfort with the feelings of others

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What happens when you share your feelings with your partner? If they try to reason with you, invalidate your emotions, or they just seem indifferent, that can be a sign that they’re emotionally unavailable. 

  1. Being with them makes you feel anxious

Finally, how do you feel when you’re around your partner? 

Even if your mind isn’t sure what’s going on, your body will tell you when you’re not feeling emotionally connected to someone you’re attached to. You’ll feel anxiety, which can be easy to confuse with the “butterflies-in-the-stomach” feeling of falling in love. 

It’s also very common for people to believe that they’re “the problem” in the relationship, and that if they could just be “good enough” for their emotionally unavailable partner, then they could earn their love. This is especially true for anyone with an anxious attachment style, but even very secure people can feel a supercharged version of new relationship anxiety when partnered with someone who isn’t being emotionally responsive to them. 

What causes emotional unavailability?

The causes of emotional unavailability fall into three main categories: 

  1. Who they are.
  2. The situation they’re in.
  3. The relationship itself.

Let’s tackle #1 first.

Some people show up as emotionally unavailable due to deep-seated traits or “issues” that are specific to them. Many of these problems can be improved significantly with therapy or coaching, as long as the emotionally unavailable person is committed to their own personal growth. Unfortunately, having a partner who is committed to their growth doesn’t cut it. 

These causes include: 

  • Having an avoidant attachment style — Being in a relationship with someone who has an avoidant attachment style can feel like trying to ingratiate yourself to a feral cat. Working with a good therapist who uses an attachment lens can be very helpful, especially for couples in anxious-avoidant pairings.
  • Fear of commitment — Sometimes, the root cause of emotional unavailability is a fear of commitment, which often happens when someone has old relational wounds that they haven’t addressed, or if they’ve had bad experiences that have tainted how they view relationships (which can happen to children of divorce). Fear of commitment is a problem that can be very responsive to therapy. 
  • Having lower emotional intelligenceEmotional intelligence is the ability to feel your own feelings, manage them effectively, and understand and connect with the hearts and minds of others. When someone is lower in emotional intelligence, they may appear emotionally unavailable. Fortunately, it is entirely possible to increase emotional intelligence with some coaching and practice.
  • Unresolved trauma — When someone has lived through trauma, it can impact how they show up in relationships. This is especially true if they experienced a betrayal trauma that left them feeling unsafe getting close to others. If this is the problem, working with a good trauma-informed therapist can make a big difference.
  • Being generally self-absorbedPeople who are highly self-centered are in many ways emotionally unavailable, because they’re too focused on their own needs and desires to worry about meeting a partner’s emotional needs. This problem is not so easy to solve, because highly selfish people don’t often feel motivated to work on themselves for the benefit of others. If selfishness is the root issue, you may need to re-evaluate whether you want to stay in the relationship, and manage your expectations if you do. 

Situational Causes of Emotional Unavailability

There are other reasons that someone might seem emotionally unavailable that are more situational in nature. 

These include things like: 

If your partner is going through a hard time, it probably is impacting their ability to be emotionally available for you. They may be acting withdrawn or grouchy. They may not be pulling their weight around the house in the way that you’re used to, or not offering as much emotional support as you would like. 

These problems are usually temporary and tend to resolve as the situation improves. But long periods of disconnection can do a lot of damage to your emotional bond if you don’t understand what’s going on and have empathy for each other.

Relational Causes of Emotional Unavailability

Finally, sometimes one partner appears to be emotionally unavailable because of problems in the relationship itself. Some of these problems can be improved, but others are a signal that the relationship may not be healthy or sustainable for you. 

Here are a few examples of common relational issues that can lead to emotional unavailability: 

  • Being on the “distancer” side of a pursuer-distancer dynamic 

If you feel like your partner always shuts down in conflict and you have to dial up the intensity to get any response from them, that’s a sign that you’re caught in a pursuer-distancer pattern, which is an unhealthy conflict pattern that can damage relationships. If your partner is the distancer in your relationship, it can feel like they’re emotionally unavailable, when really they’re retreating from feelings of overwhelm in reaction to your intensity. It’s understandable to get upset when you’re feeling like you can’t get through to your partner, but the more elevated you get, the more your partner will withdraw. Breaking the pursuer-distancer pattern allows your partner to become open and responsive to you. 

If this is what’s going on, I caution you to seek help for your relationship sooner rather than later. A pursue-withdraw pattern is one of the most reliable indicators that a relationship is in trouble

  • Being partnered with someone who has an anxious attachment style

If your partner experiences you as “being needy” — either because you truly need a lot of validation, affection, and reassurance, or because they have a low threshold for giving those things to others — they may seem “emotionally unavailable” to you when they fall short of meeting your needs. 

Anxious partners tend to trigger avoidant reactions in others, and avoidant partners trigger anxiety. If this is what’s going on, you can both improve your relationship dynamics by learning better ways to manage your own attachment quirks to create a relationship that feels more secure.

  • They’re in a relationship with someone else. 

Unfortunately, sometimes the person you’re seeing seems a little emotionally unavailable because they’re literally unavailable. You may have signed up for being the other woman or man, but in most cases, it’s not something your partner is advertising. Instead, you may be noticing them dropping off the map for long stretches, avoiding certain topics, and generally being shifty and inconsistent.

Especially in a new relationship, pay attention to how you feel and trust yourself if things aren’t adding up. You deserve more than to be a bit player in someone else’s drama.

  • They’re not over their Ex

It would be wonderful if everyone waited until they were fully healed from a breakup or divorce before jumping back into the dating pool. Unfortunately, not everyone operates that way. In fact, some people date while they’re heartbroken to avoid the work of grieving their former relationship. These connections can be confusing, especially for the unwitting new partners who can never measure up to the idealized Ex. 

If you’re dating someone who is still attached to their Ex, putting the relationship on ice is your best move. If they are invested enough to come back around once they’re healed, they will. If not, you’ve just saved yourself some time and heartache. 

  • They’re just not that into you

Finally, if your partner is being inconsistent, non-committal, and they’re not taking any steps to grow the relationship, that could be a sign that they just aren’t that into you.

This mostly applies to new relationships, but sometimes these situations can drag on for many months or even years. If you’re not sure, you can ask them if they see a future with you. It’s possible that they would like to grow the relationship but they aren’t sure how. Or, it could be that they’re just passing the time. If it’s the latter, don’t waste a second trying to get them to change their mind. 

Emotionally Unavailable Therapy

Building a safe, supportive relationship with a therapist can help an emotionally unavailable person learn to trust others, get in touch with their feelings, and feel comfortable fully engaging in relationships with the people they love. 

And if you have a pattern of getting into relationships with people who aren’t emotionally available, you could benefit from working with a good therapist as well. 

If you’re interested in doing this valuable work with a clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation

With love, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby


P.S. — For more advice on building healthy, connected relationships, check out my “Growing Together” collection of articles and podcasts. I made it for you!

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