You’ve been dating someone for several months. You like them a lot, and it seems like they like you too. You enjoy the time you spend together, you have great sexual chemistry, and your interests match up so well. So, you want to have “the talk.” Are you dating, or are you in a relationship? They freeze up and change the subject, and suddenly, you’re left wondering — is this going anywhere?
You may have an emotionally unavailable partner. But what exactly does that mean?
What does “emotionally available” mean?
When someone is emotionally available, it means that they are able to develop and sustain emotional bonds in relationships. Emotional connection is an essential part of a healthy relationship, especially if you’re hoping for a long-term partnership. It’s a foundation to build a life together. Sexual chemistry may be important, but forging a path together into the future requires emotional stability.
If your partner is emotionally unavailable, they won’t be able to provide that stability. The future might always be nebulous because you’ll never know where you stand together. Taking big steps together, like buying a house or having children, can’t happen if you’re not sure if you’re even in a relationship.
Why are people emotionally unavailable?
Much of the research around emotional unavailability focuses on attachment theory and the relationships between parent and child. Early childhood caregivers play a large role in how we function in our future bonds. If our caregivers denied us emotional support or punished us for demonstrating emotional needs and expressions, we’re more likely to become emotionally unavailable.
We may also develop attachment wounds, which can be caused by abandonment, neglect, or ridicule. Those wounds cause us to stay emotionally distant as a form of protection. If you don’t let people in, they can’t hurt you. Emotional unavailability is self-preservation.
How do you know if someone is emotionally unavailable?
It isn’t always obvious when you’re dating someone emotionally unavailable. In fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. An emotionally unavailable partner may make you feel great in your relationship at first. After all, emotional unavailability doesn’t preclude anyone from attraction or the desire to find companionship. Most people don’t know that they’re emotionally unavailable and don’t recognize that they are acting in a way that’s preventing their relationship from progressing. But there are some signs to look out for if you’re starting to suspect that your partner isn’t emotionally available (or perhaps that you yourself aren’t).
1. They fear commitment.
Someone who fears commitment may struggle to label a relationship, but they may go beyond that. They often self-sabotage, causing the relationship to end. They could end the relationship themselves, even if it seemed like everything was going well. Or they could act in such a way that they force their partner to end it, like by suddenly acting in a different way that they know their partner wouldn’t like.
2. They struggle to make and keep plans.
Emotional availability involves making room in your life for someone else and expecting to share parts of your life with them, like attending your best friend’s wedding with them as your date. But an emotionally unavailable person tends to be more independent and unwilling to allow themselves to be that involved in their partner’s life. They often make excuses for planning too far into the future, especially if the planning means making room in their schedule for something that could be viewed as a relationship milestone, like spending the holidays together.
3. They avoid intimacy.
Although sex often comes to mind when we think of intimacy, an emotionally unavailable person may avoid intimacy of all kinds. In addition to sexual intimacy, there are spiritual, experiential, emotional, and intellectual forms as well, and someone with emotional unavailability could have issues in any or all of them. A person with a problem with intimacy may demonstrate it by being a serial dater or a perfectionist, having difficulty stating their needs, not liking physical contact, exhibiting low self-esteem, and displaying trust issues.
4. They are not empathetic toward you or others.
An emotionally unavailable person tends to exhibit lower empathy. Considering that we, in part, learn empathy through the actions of our earliest caregivers, and many people become emotionally unavailable because of a lack of care they received during their formative years, it makes sense why low empathy and emotional unavailability go hand in hand. Emotionally unavailable people have trouble with emotions, both processing their own and handling others’. They may have trouble dealing with sensitive situations, and they could even go so far as to react with anger when someone is acting in an emotional way. If one can’t be vulnerable with their partner and let themselves feel their emotions, it’s very difficult for that relationship to survive. Relationships come with emotions, which is something an emotionally unavailable person does not like.
5. You don’t feel like you’re getting any closer.
What kinds of relationship milestones have you hit, if any? Have you met any important people in their life? Have they shared their future plans, dreams, memories, or other parts of what makes them who they are with you? Have they said they loved you or demonstrated at least that they care for you in an intimate way? One of the best ways to tell if you’re dealing with an emotionally unavailable partner is by asking yourself if you’re any closer today than you were on your first date. If the relationship has been stagnant, and if you still feel like you’re on the outside looking in when it comes to getting to know them, you’re likely being faced with emotional unavailability.
This isn’t all to say that emotional unavailability has to mean the end of a relationship. But the first step has to be that your partner recognizes that they have a problem. And maybe they’re just not ready for a relationship. Perhaps it was too soon to date after a painful breakup. In which case, it may be best to part ways and let them take the time to heal.
If the root cause of their emotional unavailability comes from something deeper, like childhood neglect, they may need professional help, such as talking to a therapist. But they need to be willing to put in the work. Communicate with your partner the signs that you’ve been noticing and talk about how those behaviors have been affecting your relationship and yourself. Be respectful and not accusatory. Remember, those behaviors may stem from deeper trauma. Encourage them to seek help or offer to get help with them by going to couples counseling.
And if your partner does open up and exhibit emotions, remember that it’s a very big step for them. Treat them with the encouragement, support, and praise that taking that step deserves. With time and effort from you both, your relationship can finally start to take off without emotional unavailability in the way.