7 Signs of Emotional Unavailability in a Person

Does your partner put up a wall? Or is it you?

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“Being alone is scary, but not as scary as feeling alone in a relationship.”- Amelia Earhart

“He’s emotionally unavailable,” a woman said of her partner.

“I can’t seem to break through and figure out what he’s thinking. I can’t get close to him. It’s like he doesn’t trust me with his feelings.”

She’d been dating this man for six months and it didn’t seem to get any easier. She wanted to know if emotional unavailability was an actual “condition”; was it something that could be changed?

It’s a good question. “Emotional unavailability” is a term commonly used by people who are struggling in their relationships, when they can’t access the other person’s true feelings. Or they’re just confused about why they feel loved one day — then shut out the next.

What’s Emotional Unavailability?

A person who is emotionally unavailable finds it difficult to share feelings and to get genuinely close to another. While they can come across as evasive, cold, inconsistent — or just hard to read — it’s not that simple. Mostly, it comes down to a fear of intimacy; a struggle with trust.

That fear comes from their unique combination of personality traits, past experiences — especially loss, abandonment and rejection — and the feedback they’ve had from the world. Those things create their emotional legacy, which influences how they relate to others, not just partners but also friends and family.

Emotionally unavailable people are often described as “toxic” or as having narcissistic traits. While that can be true, it’s frequently not the case. Early loss and rejection can leave a painful imprint. Extreme shyness can close you up emotionally. For the person who genuinely struggles to “let down the guard”, love can be excruciating, as well as frightening.

Here are the key signs.

7 Signs of Emotional Unavailability in a Person

1. They avoid the “big” or “deep” stuff.

Diving down into the world of emotion and feelings makes them uncomfortable. They’ll be happy to listen to their partner’s emotional “stuff” but only up to a point. When the subject matter gets too heavy they’ll change the subject. And talk of formal commitment may rattle them or even push them away.

2. They have intimacy in the same basket with something else.

A person with trust issues often connects intimacy with high drama or conflict or inevitable loss/rejection — things that have happened in their past. Even when willing, they’re not free to love for love’s own sake because it means something uncomfortable for them.

3. They are naturally distrustful.

When a person’s been hurt or suffered significant loss, they struggle to enter relationships — even close friendships — with an open heart. That’s because they’re scared it’ll happen again and they can’t bear that sort of pain.

4. They can’t express their feelings.

Emotionally unavailable people often don’t have a language for expressing their feelings. It may be that they never learnt to match words with their feelings or had sound emotional expression modelled to them. It’s not that they don’t have feelings. They just don’t know how to release them appropriately.

5. They can cut people out of their life easily and often without reason.

Relationships — including friendships and family ties — can be terminated suddenly and without explanation. This is very hurtful, and confusing, if you’re on the end of it. These acts may have a toxic agenda. But they also just think it’s easier to end a relationship, than wade through an explanation of why.

6. They’re most comfortable with people outside their day-to-day orbit.

Emotionally unavailable people will often choose relationships they can keep at arm’s length. Affairs, long distance relationships, cultural divides: People who are not free to commit to them. It’s less stressful to keep some space between them and they don’t have the pressure of moving the relationship forward.

7. They respond to others’ feelings rather than offering their own.

They’ll often find it easy to show a lot of interest in you, especially at the beginning of a relationship because asking questions is non-threatening. It can be seductive because it makes you feel fascinating but it also keeps you away from their feelings, which is the whole point.

Is it over?

“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”- Hermann Hesse

It’s important to remember that not all people who struggle with emotional intimacy are toxic or “make bad partners”. There are often genuine reasons for emotional difficulties. With patience, and where trust is carefully built, they can make excellent mates.

However, I always say to clients who have difficult relationships of any kind, you need to consider YOUR experience of being with this person, whatever their issues. If a relationship is persistently hard and confusing, if you are doing all the heavy lifting, if it makes you feel bad about yourself, then you need to ask if being with them is worth it. Your life — and happiness — matters too.

Thanks for reading! Join my email list here if you’re interested in practical psychology for everyday life.

Clinical psychologist, writer. Editor of On the Couch: Practical psychology for everyday life. karen@onthecouch.co.nz

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