Emotionally Unavailable: What It Looks Like And How to Deal with It in Relationships

Emotional unavailability is not exclusive to romantic relationships, but that’s where it has the most impact. It can be frustrating to be with someone who’s unable to have a serious conversation about feelings and to see them get distracted every time you bring up something that bothers you.
Today Flure dives into emotional unavailability in hopes of understanding this condition better and learning how to cope with it if you or your partner have it.

The meaning of emotional unavailability

We hear the words emotional unavailability a lot, but what does it mean? Simply put, emotional unavailability is a state in which a person can’t meet the emotional needs of others.
Say, you just lost your job, had something stolen, or ended up in a stressful situation that affects you mentally and physically. An emotionally available partner will be there for you with their attention, support, and kind words. Someone who’s emotionally unavailable, in turn, will show indifference or avoid you and the topic.

Signs someone is emotionally unavailable

Sometimes emotional unavailability is obvious, and sometimes it’s tricky to spot. There are signs though that will help you identify if someone around you is emotionally unavailable.
  1. They avoid commitment. And we mean any commitment, even the smallest things like going to a workout class together.
  2. They are not empathetic with how you feel, even if something objectively serious and bad is happening that people wouldn’t normally discount as a minor issue.
  3. They are afraid of intimacy. Sharing their inner thoughts, fears, and aspirations with you is a no-no.
  4. They get defensive and steer the conversation away from the topic of feelings.
  5. They start shaming you for bringing something up, like calling you needy.
  6. They always start joking about serious topics and never want to really talk about things.
  7. They are acting secretive and hiding things from you – even those that are not even worth hiding.
Side note: All these signs are symptoms of emotional unavailability, but please bear in mind that people can behave like that occasionally because they have a lot going on, feel stressed, or simply are not in the right mood. It’s the combination of the signs and their repeated expression that will indicate someone’s emotional block.

Causes of emotional unavailability

Emotional unavailability seems selfish and cruel, but not everyone is like that by choice. Sometimes, people are uncomfortable with their own emotions, and they don’t allow themselves to feel them, so the same goes for people around them.
In traditional patriarchal societies, a man would be continuously discouraged from and shamed for expressing emotions and showing vulnerability, so we end up with situations where a husband is unable to support their spouse properly because it’s not something he’s been taught and expected to do growing up.
Although it looks like boyfriends are disproportionately more unavailable in the emotions department, many girlfriends and non-binary people can demonstrate these patterns too.

What to do if your partner is emotionally unavailable

It can be draining to be in a relationship with someone who’s emotionally unavailable. It’s also unhealthy and can mess you up mentally if you view this person as the one. So if you see this pattern over a long period of time, don’t ignore it because there is not much chance that it will go away on its own.
Also, know that the other person needs to want to fix the issue too or at least to be somewhat acknowledging of it. Sometimes couples can get over it and move on, and sometimes the best choice is to leave the relationship because this dynamic is toxic.
But okay, not that we’ve warned you about potential worst-case scenarios, let’s cover the actionable tips that you can use to get you guys out of this situation.
  1. Try to understand if emotional unavailability is temporary or permanent. If the guy you’re seeing is going through a big life turmoil, they can switch off mentally for everything else. Like when a relative dies, or they struggle financially, or they’ve been betrayed by a friend. In that case, it’s kind of normal that they are not interested in anything else because they’re consumed with their issues. Although it can be frustrating, you might want to help them through this period and be more understanding. If they don’t change when the problem is resolved, then you have a real problem.
  2. In case you’re only starting to go out, and you fail to connect on a deeper level because the other person is dodging any sort of intimacy, your best bet is to ask them directly and see what they say. It’s a good position to clear the air because early on you’re only attracted to each other and it’s not likely that the partner is in love with you and vice versa, so it’s easier to talk about those things. If you ask and don’t like the answer, the choice is yours – adjust your expectations or walk away.
  3. Have a straight talk with yourself. Think about all the ways you react when faced with emotional unavailability. Do you think the way you handle the situation is the best way? Are you proud of the actions and words that follow? It’s not easy to be self-critical but you will ultimately benefit from analyzing your own behavior. And if you see that there is a clear pattern to your dynamic, it could help if you change the way you treat the situation on your end. Try something new and see how the partner reacts. For example, if your typical reaction is getting pointedly upset, perhaps you could try to stay calm, walk away, and start doing something on your own.
  4. Communicate your frustration patiently and repeatedly. This will probably take a lot of willpower on your end not to lash out, but sharing how their actions or words make you feel repeatedly can lead to an eventual change. The key here is to stay calm and “rational” and treat it like a maths problem, something along the lines of “You did X, and that made me feel like Y. In the future, I would prefer if you did Z because…”.
  5. Talk to a professional. No matter how dedicated you are to the cause, your ability to help has its limits. Plus, you might be too close to the situation to see everything objectively clear. A therapist, on the other hand, will be able to analyze it without bias and lead you in the right direction. As for doing couples therapy, if someone is very emotionally unavailable, they’ll probably freak out if you suggest that.

Am I emotionally unavailable? How to tell and what to do

If you’ve been with someone for a while, it can be hard to see their flaws and easy to make excuses for their behavior. But what is even harder, is seeing your own negative traits and problematic characteristics.
If you exhibit emotional unavailability, you’ll probably guess it by now after everything you’ve read on the topic here. But if you’re unsure, take some time to think and reflect:
  • Do you let people close to you or hold them at a distance?
  • When was the last time you felt and expressed strong emotions?
  • If you tend to close your feelings and emotions off from others, what could be the cause?
  • What’s your reaction when someone near you is expressing their emotions? Are you annoyed or angry? Do you empathize with them?
  • Look back at your childhood and previous romances – was there anything that you didn’t realize at the time, but see in a different light now?
It’s hard but you have to be honest with yourself for this exercise to work. Additionally, you can journal to describe your days and situations, and how they’ve made you feel. Reaching out to the therapist and asking them for advice is also a good idea.