Emotionally Unavailable: What It Means & 15 Signs To Look For
We hear the phrase "emotionally unavailable" thrown around quite a bit, but what does that even mean, really?
Maybe someone has told you that you always end up with emotionally unavailable people, and you're trying to break the habit. Maybe you simply suspect your new partner or fresh Tinder honey might be emotionally unavailable. Whatever it is, here's what you need to know about how to spot an emotionally unavailable person.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
Being emotionally unavailable describes someone who is not open to discussing or sharing their feelings. "When a person is emotionally unavailable, it means that they're unwilling or unable to manage the emotional aspects of a relationship," licensed marriage therapist Weena Culins, LCMFT, previously told mbg.
Emotionally unavailable people can be evasive, flaky, or hard to read. According to licensed psychotherapist Pam Shaffer, MFT, this behavior reflects an inability or refusal to emotionally show up for a partner. "It doesn't mean that something is wrong with you," she adds, "but it may mean that you are using your emotional bandwidth to cope with your own feelings or circumstances, so you don't have enough to necessarily tune into another person."
According to licensed couples therapist Brooke Sprowl, LCSW, CNTS, the term "emotionally unavailable" is essentially born from meme culture and has been popularized in the last decade or so, so you won't find it in any diagnostic psychology manual. It's a phrase that has further found its footing due to "hookup culture" and dating app popularity.
Signs of an emotionally unavailable partner
They don't communicate consistently
Sure, not everyone is available all the time for a super-quick text back, but if this is happening all the time, take note. If "someone is leaving you guessing as to when they are going to talk to you, chances are good that they are not emotionally available to truly connect and make you feel heard," Shaffer says. When someone is there for you and is into you, they want to talk to you and will make the effort.
They avoid conversations that go deeper
If the person you're seeing has no interest in getting "deep" with your conversations, especially when it comes to your relationship, that's a sign of emotional unavailability. If they "avoid engaging in communication or discussions centered around commitment or even getting closer in the relationship," you should beware, says Fran Walfish, Ph.D., a family and relationship psychotherapist, and author of The Self-Aware Parent.
Someone who doesn't want to share anything truly impactful about themselves is rarely someone who wants to have a serious relationship.
They feel overwhelmed or smothered by emotional intimacy
Emotionally unavailable people often masquerade as being fiercely independent and self-sufficient. Sprowl says that this is often an illusion used to evade being vulnerable with feelings. Wanting a little space in a relationship can be a sign of emotional control and wherewithal, but sometimes an excessive need for alone time in a relationship can be a reflection of discomfort with intimacy.
The "primary drive is independence, and their greatest fear is engulfment—in other words, losing themselves in another person or being subsumed. They seek space and solitude to regulate their anxiety, especially during conflicts," she says.
It's possible to date with an avoidant attachment style, mind you, but it likely means there are some insecurities that need healing.
They avoid labels
Pretending you're not in a relationship when you are in a relationship is a red flag. If the person you're dating doesn't want to "label" the relationship, chances are things are not organically developing in a healthy way. "Relationships can take many forms, but if someone refuses to define their relationship or talk about what you can both expect from it while still wanting all the benefits of it, they might not be ready to be an available partner," Shaffer explains.
They seem to want perfection
If you feel like you need to be perfect, chill, sexy, and interesting all the time in order to keep someone interested, chances are you're not the issue. Emotionally unavailable people can be impossible to mollify because they are always looking for something negative to latch onto in order to justify their crappy behavior. They seek perfection in imperfect humans so that they can use your flaws as justification for ending things or not getting serious with you.
They go from hot to cold
People who are emotionally unavailable tend to confuse their partners with their inconsistent behavior. They vacillate between being very hot and into the relationship one second, only to go totally cold the next. This can feel uncomfortable and scary. If someone makes you feel safe and comfortable one day, only to disappear for a week—this person is likely not emotionally available to you. While the temptation to come back when someone comes out of the rough may be great, it can ultimately be quite damaging to you. No one should feel like they're being jerked around.
They are unclear about what they want from you
"If you're second-guessing what you say all the time or can't get a clear answer on what your partner wants or needs from a relationship, they may not be available to be vulnerable with you," Shaffer says. This can also lead to that feeling of "walking on eggshells," wherein you worry one wrong step or word uttered will lead this person to stop calling you. This does not make for a productive dynamic. "When people are available, they allow themselves to tell their partner what they want, even though it can be scary to open up," Shaffer says.
They don't compromise their time
People who are emotionally unavailable are often unaware of the feelings of others. (This is also a typical sign of a narcissist, by the way.) They tend to value control over situations and aren't willing to compromise. If the person you're seeing wants you to bend over backward to fit yourself around their schedule but won't inconvenience themselves to do the same, chances are they are emotionally unavailable. They want the relationship to revolve around them because they lack the emotional depth to understand that relationships are a two-way street.
Signs that you are emotionally unavailable
You tend to think of relationships as a "job"
If you find yourself looking at commitment as more of a task than as a thing that makes you feel good and connected to someone, you may be emotionally unavailable. "All relationships take some work, but if you start seeing them as a burden, you might not be as available as you thought," Shaffer says.
You withhold personal feelings and thoughts
If you've found yourself unable or unwilling to share your feelings, you're likely emotionally unavailable. Walfish says this includes things like life goals, life regrets, wishes, hopes, and longings. While it may feel like you're just "being careful" with the vulnerable details of your mind, you can't create meaningful connections without taking some risks.
You want to continue seeing other people
While there is an understanding these days that without the "Are We Exclusive?" conversation, you can (and probably should) keep seeing other people, if you're avoiding that conversation in order to keep your options open, you might be emotionally unavailable. By seeing multiple people, you attempt to avoid developing an attachment to one person. This may seem like a smart choice, but it shows the anxiety you have around your own emotions.
You are only attracted to people who are either far away or otherwise unavailable
There is a certain allure of having a "text-only relationship." You have someone there to validate you and make you feel good about yourself, without having to put in any of the work for a relationship. "This is a great way to have fantasy relationships in your head but is a solid clue that you are avoiding having to deal with the work of a relationship in real time," Shaffer explains. Real relationships take real time and real effort. If you're not willing to put those in, you're not ready for a relationship.
You are naturally distrustful
If you feel yourself pulling away from people who try to get close to you or find that you question and distrust the intentions of others, you're emotionally withholding. It's not to say that you should automatically trust everyone you meet, but pulling away without a reason is cause for concern. "It takes time to trust new people, but if you find yourself pushing others away consistently, it's a good 'check engine' light that you may need to get an emotional tune up," Shaffer says.
You conflate drama with intimacy
If you're a person who enjoys being "chased" and sought after by the person you're seeing, Sprowl says you may be creating an illusion of passion in place of any real emotional intimacy. Just because it feels exciting doesn't make it real. Playing games, causing distress to another person, and watching them grovel for your affection can be intoxicating. It's a power trip. It is also a sign of emotional manipulation and evasiveness. If you're in it for the drama, you're not really giving up anything real about yourself. This says a lot about you. It may be time to reevaluate your priorities.
You cut people off at the drop of a hat
Letting go of draining, toxic relationships with friends and partners is a good idea, but emotionally unavailable people tend to do this without proper consideration for the consequences. If you'd rather ghost or block someone than work through a conflict, you may want to look inward. This is often a sign that you have internal work to do on your capacity for the emotional space needed for a truly deep relationship. Cutting someone off protects you from getting close to people, but it also distances you from anything meaningful.
What causes someone to be emotionally unavailable?
There are many reasons why someone might be emotionally unavailable. Sometimes a person may have a fear of intimacy, says Sprowl. That fear of becoming close to someone might stem from anything from an avoidant attachment style, to trust issues due to past relationships, to general commitment issues.
Sometimes being emotionally unavailable may simply be caused by life cirucmstances. "This may be due to a shifting of priorities, where the individual is unable to give time and attention to feelings of their own and their partner," licensed psychotherapist Antranique Neblett, LCSW, previously told mbg, adding that mental health issues may also "prevent someone from being able to recognize their own feelings, let alone those of people who care about them."
Finally, a person might be emotionally unavailable because they simply are not interested in a serious relationship, instead only seeking casual dating or sex at this time in their lives. As such, they actively choose not to engage emotionally with others. However, a refusal to clearly communicate about this is what causes the confusing mixed signals that are often associated with emotional unavailability.
Is it bad to be emotionally unavailable?
Being emotionally unavailable does not make you a bad person or someone incapable of love. It may mean you're just not looking for a serious relationship at this time and need to be clearer about that with the people you're interacting with. Or it may mean, more broadly, that you have some personal development to do in order to be a good partner. As with all things romance and life, it's a learning experience.
"If we don't learn the lessons our unhealthy relationships are revealing to us, our damaging patterns will keep repeating over and over again with the same and different partners," Sprowl says.
While being emotionally unavailable can lead to shallow relationships, those tenuous situations can serve as an opportunity to look inward and expand our emotional depths.
We need to use these emotionally unavailable relationships, whether culprit or victim, to expand our emotional repertoire. Experiences with emotional unavailability are not the problem; they are tools to reveal the true problems you need to work on in your life.
Once we do that, we can begin to grow. As Sprowl explains, using relationships as a way to expand ourselves helps us to "develop a road map for how to change the damaging patterns in our lives and [be] empowered to take ownership of our own healing."
Gigi Engle is a sexologist, certified sex coach, and feminist author. As a sexpert for Womanizer and brand ambassador with Lifestyle Condoms, she promotes and teaches about pleasure-based sex education, masturbation, and safer sex practices. She also serves as a Pleasure Professional with O.school, where she teaches a number of classes centered around pleasure, sexual health, and confidence.
Engle's work has appeared in many publications, including SELF, Elle, Glamour, Women's Health, Refinery29, and many others, and her articles have been shared over 50 million times, with her top posts reaching over 150 million shares. She also writes a popular advice column called Ask Gigi, and her first book, All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life, debuts in January 2020. She has a degree in both English and journalism from Fordham University College at Lincoln Center.