Healthy relationships are one of the cornerstones of a healthy and happy life. A ‘healthy‘ relationship does not necessarily mean exclusive and long-term, but rather a relationship dynamic in which both partners are open to each other and prioritize healthy communication. Partners communicate with honesty and authenticity and consider the relationship’s health a priority. Such partners can be said to be emotionally available. One partner can communicate their wants, needs, and feelings without fearing invalidation or rejection because the other offers a safe space.
Unfortunately, not all of our relationships play out that way. We enter into and stay in relationships for various reasons that do not always serve our best interests. Sometimes we find ourselves with a partner who offers relief from a sense of loneliness. Sometimes we get attached to our partner and compensate by pulling away emotionally out of fear of that attachment. Sometimes we become so familiar with our partner that the emotional connection loses its spark and we start doing things with minimal effort without any enthusiasm or commitment—becoming emotionally unavailable. Now, you may be wondering what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable, and whether or not your partner is truly emotionally unavailable.
Such relationship dynamics often lead to emotional unavailability from one partner, where one does not seem to make the same effort as the other. In this article, we will take a deep dive into what emotional unavailability means, how to spot it in yourself and others, and finally, how to become a more emotionally available partner.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
To be emotionally unavailable is to experience difficulty opening up and communicating honestly about one’s feelings with their partner. There are many reasons why a partner might become emotionally unavailable. Some partners are emotionally unavailable from day one, while others can lose touch with that part of themselves over time in a relationship.
Whatever the reason, a one-sided relationship is harmful to both partners. The available but neglected partner may continue to seek love and affection from a partner who cannot seem to provide that need, while the emotionally unavailable person builds up residual fear and resistance to their own emotions. They may continue to feel overwhelmed by their partner’s need for closeness and, in response, engage in avoidant behaviors such as isolation, overworking, or even substance misuse.
What are the signs of emotional unavailability?
Emotionally unavailable people tend to display some of the following signs.
1. Avoidance of intimacy
Intimacy is about more than the physical connection you have with someone. Authentic, emotional intimacy involves vulnerability and a willingness to see and be seen by the other person truly. Those emotionally unavailable can display physical love and affection but become incredibly uncomfortable and avoidant when the connection begins to transcend.
2. Not sharing personal thoughts and feelings
Some emotionally unavailable may find it challenging to share their inner experience with another person, especially a romantic partner. Sharing one’s own feelings, thoughts, views, dreams, regrets, and longings with another is another level of intimacy that the emotionally unavailable person struggles to reach. The apparent inability to share such things often stems from fear of rejection or the pain of invalidation.
Of course, in the early days of a relationship or when you have just met someone, it is wise to be careful with your level of vulnerability. Still, if you find yourself in a serious relationship and are still unable to reach that level of intimacy and connection, the relationship becomes jeopardized.
3. Unwillingness to commit
An emotionally unavailable person may find it hard to commit to a serious relationship. Instead, they may continue to engage in short-term, non-exclusive relationships. Seeing other people may help that person avoid becoming too attached to one person, but this is a maladaptive coping mechanism for the underlying fear of rejection so often experienced by emotionally unavailable people.
Why are some people emotionally unavailable?
It is normal for one partner to feel left out, rejected, or neglected when the other is closed off emotionally. The partner seeking the emotional connection may even criticize the other for their lack of openness. However, one’s emotional unavailability often stems from deeper feelings of fear or insecurity that inhibit them from free and authentic self-expression.
However, it does not mean that one should tolerate their partner’s lack of effort regarding the emotional connection within the relationship. Understanding the root causes of emotional unavailability may help the seeking partner understand that it is not entirely about them.
1. Negative childhood experiences
Issues with one’s emotional well-being often stem from negative childhood experiences. That emotionally unavailable partner who, on the surface, appears cold and uncaring may be acting that way as a means of self-protection—a coping mechanism they learned in childhood that helped them deal with feelings of rejection or invalidation.
If your parent or guardian responded with rejection, criticism, or lack of healthy attention and affection when you asked for your needs when you were a child, you might have learned that asking for your needs can be dangerous and may jeopardize your relationship with them.
In adult relationships, that fear of rejection and subsequent closing off or shutting down your emotions and needs can manifest as emotional unavailability. Our childhood experiences are in the past and should be faced and overcome if one wishes to have healthy relationships in the present, but overcoming those early formative experiences is not easy. It takes a deep dive into the psyche and requires compassionate and understanding support.
2. Hurtful past relationships
Most of us have several romantic relationships in our lifetime. These can range from partnerships that last several years to short-term relationships. Regardless of length or even intensity, our relationships today significantly impact the relationships that follow.
If one has had a committed relationship experience that was upsetting, confusing, or even traumatic, it can negatively impact their relationships. Maybe one was emotionally available in the past but had their trust broken by a partner who did not respect them. Or, maybe, the person was criticized or even shamed for their authentic feelings and emotions and felt forced to suppress them to fit into the crowd.
3. Gender stereotypes
There is a general misinformed belief that men are less emotionally open and vulnerable than women. Such a stereotype has been harmful to all genders for as long as it has existed. We are all human and capable of having genuine and authentic emotional vulnerability. Young boys are often taught to suppress such a state in favor of a tougher, stoic, and more ‘manly‘ approach to life, which can be a problem. Such a lesson only serves to suppress that emotional vulnerability further and may lead that young boy into manhood limited by his learned stereotypes.
Equally, a woman might suffer from gender stereotypes related to emotional availability. The very same stereotype that teaches a young boy to be more manly is the same that views emotional openness as a wholly feminine trait. As such, a woman may have expectations around her to open up or share those that do not feel right for her as an individual, and if she is to close off or keep her feelings to herself, she may face criticism.
Such stereotypes serve no one and only cause harm. The truth is that emotional vulnerability is not gender-specific and is a skill that, once developed, can drastically improve the quality of your life and your relationships.
How to become emotionally available
Emotional unavailability is a complex issue with several potential causes. If this is something you are struggling with, understand that it is entirely possible to overcome your unavailability. It takes some conscious inner work, and you may not fully open up overnight. Instead, it is something that gradually changes with more attention, compassion, and internal investigation we cultivate and carry out.
Equally, if you are the other partner and the person you are with is emotionally unavailable, understand that they may not change overnight. You do not have to tolerate disrespectful behavior, but understanding that change takes time may help you cultivate more compassion for your partner or love interest.
Identify the root cause
Explore the feelings and resistance you experience when a situation in your life calls for emotional openness and vulnerability. If your partner wants to discuss the relationship or is seeking your affection and that makes you feel uncomfortable, take a moment to pause, breathe, and ask yourself why you are so reluctant to open up.
Are you afraid of being rejected? Does the idea of opening up and becoming vulnerable trigger an underlying fear? Does it make you feel like a child, confused and frightened? Does it make you fear a potential loss of control or identity if you were to allow someone to get close to you?
These are big and difficult questions to ask yourself and will be difficult to answer if you are not willing to understand yourself on a deeper level. It is wise to speak to people you love and trust about what you are experiencing. Friends and family may be able to offer insight from another perspective.
Learn about your emotions
It is hard to express your feelings and emotions to your partner if you are not already familiar with them yourself. Sure, a conversation can be a catalyst for profound self-realization, but it is best to support yourself with some prep work.
Consider keeping a journal. This is a book in which you write about your feelings and experiences. It is for you and nobody else. You do not need to show others what you write and even tell anyone you have a journal. It is a safe space for you to explore your mind and come to realizations and insights that you may not have achieved otherwise.
You can also seek emotional understanding through art and other forms of creative expression. Create something yourself, a piece of writing, painting, or photograph, and explore how it feels to create. Moreover, explore other artists and immerse yourself in their work. Art has a profound positive and cathartic effect on the mind.
Embrace your fear
We heal in connection to others. If your emotional unavailability stems from hurt feelings from a past relationship, whether a romantic relationship or that between you and your primary caregiver in childhood, then it is through a healthy, loving, understanding, supportive, and compassionate relationship with another person that you can heal. Of course, you can do a lot of healing work alone, but it is best to take a multi-pronged approach.
Do your work through conscious inner exploration and investigation, journaling, mediation, and creativity, but support that exploration with healthy and growth-oriented relationships with others.
If possible, find someone who you trust. It can be a friend or family member, but you can go even deeper with a romantic partner. As long as they are willing to have patience and understanding, you can move through the pain that keeps you stuck in emotional unavailability and begin to emerge from that shell with a new sense of belonging, meaning, understanding, and emotional courage.
Emotional unavailability is often a coping mechanism for underlying feelings of fear of rejection and abandonment. Closing oneself from intimacy and vulnerability helps protect the wounded inner self from further pain.
However, as a coping mechanism, it is maladaptive, which means it does not serve our highest health and well-being. Instead, it isolates us further from the love and connection we need, ultimately jeopardizing our physical and mental health.
The good news is that even if you are not an emotionally available person today, that can change. We are in a constant state of growth and change. If you can take the advice outlined in this article, your friends, therapist, or relationship experts, you can begin to release the emotional blocks that prevent you from getting what you need.
On a final note, if you are comfortable with your emotions but have a partner who is struggling to express theirs, have patience with them. Do not tolerate disrespect and place as many boundaries around yourself as possible. Still, remember that the emotionally unavailable person behaves that way to deal with pain. It may just take a little encouragement to get them ready to open up.