“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” ~Sigmund Freud
There’s a misunderstanding of what emotional unavailability looks like in action. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that if we wound up with an emotionally unavailable partner, then we must have deserved it for being out of touch with our own emotions.
However, if you aren’t actively looking for the signs, haven’t experienced them firsthand or don’t know what signs to look for, it’s easy to get blindsided.
Unavailability comes in many forms — there are addictions, entitlement, and workaholism, just to name a few. Or, it can come in the form of relying on one go-to emotion (i.e. “toxic positivity”) at the expense of authentic emotional expression.
Those who have been in a relationship with someone who’s emotionally unavailable may not have seen what was going on until the inevitable “ghosting” left them heartbroken at least, or traumatized at worst.
On the flip-side, maybe you’re the one with a history of ghosting partners and notice a habit is in play.
If so, congratulate yourself on your self-awareness.
Emotional unavailability typically starts in childhood. The most common reason is from an insecure attachment being formed with our primary caregivers. If we weren’t provided a secure foundation for our own emotions growing up, we risk feeling uncomfortable around all emotions.
For example, some may have grown up in environments that encouraged emotional toughness and shamed a child for showing any emotions outside of “approved” ones, such as being happy or angry.
If caregivers aren’t modeling a healthy way for kids to recognize and accept their own emotions, this sets them up for pushing away any emotion that isn’t “approved”.
It also hands them the potential for depression, anxiety, or a personality disorder down the road.
Partners who are emotionally unavailable can be labeled as standoffish, aloof, flaky, “happy” all the time, or appearing as cold, distant and easily triggered. Emotional unavailability is a behavior pattern that’s in play as part of a push-pull attachment and wears many hats.
When emotions are out of sync, we need to look at the behavior that has taken over where emotions should be.
The opposite of emotional unavailability is emotional insecurity; they’re two sides of the same coin. One partner may be out-of-touch with their emotions, while the other may be too in-touch with their emotions; so starts the push-pull dance.
There’s usually more happening with emotional unavailability than can be overtly seen or labeled.
For example, we label ‘ghosting’ as synonymous with emotional unavailability. And, it is. Yet, ghosting is not the problem; it’s a result of the problem.
The problem is engulfment, or a feeling of being trapped. If we can’t be comfortable with our own feelings as we’re experiencing them, were taught to shut them down, shamed for having emotions, or raised with an iron fist — we aren’t going to be comfortable around anyone’s feelings, including our own.
Engulfment can trigger overwhelming fear, anger or anxiety which can be emotionally paralyzing. Engulfment triggers past pain or shame where the focus gets flipped towards chasing emotional numbness in an effort to push away feeling engulfed.
When feeling engulfed gets triggered in a relationship, so does running for the door.
Emotionally Unavailable Behavior
Emotional unavailability can look different for everyone. One person may shut down while still appearing invested or present in the relationship. Clues that they may have emotionally checked out aren’t always seen at first, and usually show up as red flags down the line.
Another may try to “fix” things with a go-to emotion of being “happy” all the time as a way of dodging vulnerable emotions.
Still others may have a long history of exes, an extensive online dating history, or may push away the idea of relationships altogether. Or, some may struggle with being alone and may have overlapping relationships as a way of “feeling” or validating themselves.
Those who lack emotional availability also lack emotional empathy, so they may keep conversations superficial, intellectualize conversations, or turn to excessive flattery as a way of redirecting the conversation away from anything too touchy-feely.
Some may not be aware of feeling anxious or depressed because of having pushed away most (or all) feelings. Anger may mask fear or sadness or 'happiness’ may mask anxiety or depression. Feeling numb is also commonly reported, and often a preferred feeling.
As a result, when anxiety is triggered from experiencing fears of intimacy or engulfment, or depression is triggered from feeling shame or sadness, these feelings get masked by keeping themselves busy. The busier they keep themselves, the longer the cycle is in play.
They Try To “Fix” You. Those who are emotionally unavailable can get their emotional fix by “fixing” others, even when the help is not wanted or asked for. They may toss out their opinion or make brash suggestions about what you should do with your life, and they may get condescending if their “fix” isn’t heeded. They may shame or devalue the person they were trying to “save” if their advice isn’t taken, as their own self-worth often hinges on “saving” others.
There is an imbalance of power with those who struggle with emotional unavailability. They often misidentify intimacy by coming in as a hero to “save” or “fix” their partners. However, trying to “save” others only extends their own suffering by keeping them chained to their emotional unavailability.
Relationships Are Shallow. Because intimate relationships require just that— intimacy — those who battle with emotional unavailability are usually ‘happiest’ in shallow relationships where things replace emotions. They may turn to kink or casual sex, may emotionally or mentally tune out by bingeing Netflix, or may have a list of go-to hobbies and things to do that don’t require emotional investment.
For the unsuspecting partner, these signs may be subtle or go unnoticed as them being introverted or happiest interfacing with technology or a book. The biggest difference between introverted behavior and a sign of emotional unavailability is how (or whether) others’ emotions and feelings are taken into consideration.
Trust Issues. Simply put, if a person is emotionally unavailable — they struggle with trusting anyone, including themselves. Trust is something that’s rejected, both with partners and others in their lives, so everyone remains at arms-distance. Those who are emotionally unavailable often have histories where their trust was betrayed, so now trust is something that is pushed away.
Trust issues undermine intimacy and a person’s ability to remain emotionally present. If a person can’t trust themselves as feeling worthy of love and intimacy, they won’t trust anyone with their emotions.
One Fight, And It’s Curtains. This shouldn’t be confused with simple arguments like choosing what to have for dinner, or which route is the fastest to work. When emotional unavailability is in play, relationship issues that could paint themselves or their partner as less-than-perfect get ignored or minimized because imperfection can trigger an emotional reaction, especially shame or guilt.
When there’s emotional issues that need to be discussed such as the direction of the relationship or wanting to build intimacy through couple’s therapy, an emotionally unavailable partner will often jump ship.
When this happens, it leaves the other partner carrying the weight of the relationship and blaming themselves for wanting a deeper connection or more emotional closeness.
Solution Driven. Don’t confuse this with solution focused. Solution driven is about finding any band-aid in the moment to turn off emotions and to avoid further discussion that can lead to emotionally charged reactions. An emotionally unavailable partner may shut down the opinion of others by redirecting the conversation to another topic. The thing is, it’s usually done in such a way that the partner may not know they’re having their needs manipulated or their voice silenced.
Solution focused, on the other hand, is geared towards being emotionally vulnerable, and finding a solution together where both partners feel heard and valued. This can’t happen if emotions aren’t addressed or available.
Finding A Solution
First, if you’re the partner of someone who is emotionally unavailable, now is the time to examine your emotional investment in yourself and the relationship so you know which direction is best for you.
Don’t have expectations on whether your partner can become more comfortable in recognizing or experiencing their emotions because you may be setting yourself up for heartbreak. Many times, when relationships are at a crossroads that require partners to level up emotionally, those who battle with emotional unavailability may ditch one relationship for a “fresh start” in another relationship where emotions aren’t yet in play.
Knowing when to wave the white flag is also important when it comes to someone who’s emotionally unavailable. All the support and intervention in the world won’t help if a person isn’t at a place in wanting it.
Encourage and support them, but also recognize that your needs are important, too.
If you’re the person battling emotional unavailability, a safe place to start is in recognizing your go-to habits and patterns such as superficial relationships with those in your life, avoiding or redirecting conversations (i.e. texting instead of phone or in-person), examining your history of how your relationships have played out, any hobbies used to emotionally numb, or a habit of being dismissive or avoidant around others.
As a couple, ground-rules should be established such as using a “safe word” for when feeling emotionally engulfed is triggered, so that a time-out can happen while each partner has space to reflect on their emotions before discussing together.
Because feelings of being judged or shamed usually run high with someone who’s emotionally unavailable, chances are they aren’t going to trust that a partner will be nonjudgmental by simply saying they are. Actions speak a lot louder in this situation — giving space, modeling emotional availability and providing encouragement and support can have a bigger impact.
Understanding where emotional unavailability started can help in healing. Visit the past, but don’t live there. When focusing on being more present for each other, reflecting on the past is needed in order to understand what direction to take in the relationship, but stay forward-focused together.
Patience is key. Impatience is tied into expectation which can destroy a relationship. The fastest way to push someone away is by being impatient, giving ultimatums or having expectations. The only thing that should be ‘expected’ is that becoming comfortable with emotional availability is going to take time. And, 'expect’ a learning curve.
Lastly, emotional unavailability is a double-edged sword. It not only screws with the person who’s in an emotional battle with themselves, it hurts those involved, especially when a partner’s unconditional love is on the line. Another side of the double-edged sword is knowing when to keep supporting, versus when to throw in the towel and tap out.
The thing is, you’re not noticing the push-pull when things are great or when emotions are based on good times and “happiness”.
You notice it when the shit starts hitting the fan; when you realize you’re all-in, maybe for the first time in your life. You notice the push-pull as the relationship starts triggering you, both positively and negatively. You may be feeling things you’ve not experienced before, or maybe you’re now seeing you were emotionally unavailable yourself and the love you’re feeling has made you want to push through your own emotional limitations.
These same emotions that may be stirring inside of you as new and vulnerable experiences, may be the same emotions that get you left behind if you’re emotionally invested with an emotionally unavailable partner.
To conquer emotional unavailability, both partners need to be pulling together in the same direction.
Ainsworth M. D. S., Blehar M., Waters E., Wall S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1. London: Basic Books.