Relationships are hard, but they can be even more difficult to navigate when someone is emotionally unavailable. Being emotionally unavailable means a person is unable to connect with their feelings or their partner's feelings.
According to licensed psychotherapist Antranique Neblett, LCSW, emotionally unavailable people often find ways to avoid serious or emotional conversations, which then creates an intimacy barrier (not just physically) and never truly allows the relationship to mature to its fullest.
Should you find yourself in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person, here's what to do:
Recognize the signs
There are some telltale signs of an emotionally unavailable person. It's not always clear-cut, but here are a few main ones to look out for:
- Discomfort talking about feelings. This can be due to a fear of intimacy or conflict, adds relationship therapist Jelisha Gatling, LMFT.
- Minimizing the other person's feelings.
- Being defensive. If their dominant response is defensiveness when any sort of conflict arises rather than being able to talk about it or acknowledging their part, Gatling warns it's a sign of emotional unavailability.
- Inconsistency in communication. Gatling says, "Disappearing and being vague about it and coming back without any explanation" can be a clear sign.
- Insecurity. According to Neblett, insecure people may sabotage relationships in order to avoid closeness.
Be aware of the causes
There are different types of emotional unavailability, and it's important to be aware of what's behind your partner or potential partner's behavior.
Sometimes emotional unavailability is temporary: "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," explains Neblett. Some examples include the death of a loved one, work obligations, or healing from an injury.
Similarly, trauma can greatly affect a person's psyche and may cause someone to keep their guard up to protect themselves against getting hurt. Trauma can oftentimes be traced to someone's childhood or previous relationships where they learned suppressing their emotions could help them survive a situation, Gatling explains. If a person's emotional unavailability is a trauma response, it can usually be worked through and healed over time.
While being emotionally unavailable is usually a choice, sometimes a mental health issue can also "prevent someone from being able to recognize their own feelings, let alone those of people who care about them," adds Neblett.
Pay attention to whether your partner acknowledges their emotional unavailability
For someone to work through their emotional unavailability, they have to acknowledge it's a problem. Has your partner described themselves as emotionally unavailable, or is it something you're noticing about them?
Confronting someone about this can be a double-edged sword, says Neblett. "Pointing out someone's flaws who may not believe they have any can backfire," she warns. "The person may begin to turn things around on their partner and potentially sabotage the relationship."
It's important to remember that fixing someone else's problem is a difficult task and is not encouraged. You can voice your observations or concern, but you can't demand change or try to change someone yourself. That's something they'll have to do on their own.
Focus on your own feelings
Both Neblett and Gatling agree that if you address someone's emotional unavailability, express how it's affecting you and lead with "I" statements. It's also important to have clear examples of why you think they're emotionally unavailable so that they don't feel ambushed, Neblett emphasizes. If your partner seems receptive after you express your feelings, then you can try to help them identify how their emotional unavailability is affecting them—but only if they're open to it, Gatling says.
Reflect on how someone's emotional unavailability affects your mental and emotional health
It can be exceptionally draining to remain in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, especially when you yourself are very emotionally available and secure. This situation usually leads to feelings of rejection and unimportance, and it can be very upsetting when you recognize the energy you've put into a relationship outweighs your partner's contributions.
Over time, a person can begin to internalize their emotionally unavailable partner's behaviors and become depressed. "Sometimes a wall may go up for the partner, and now you have two emotionally unavailable people in a relationship," explains Neblett. "Commonly, the partner conforms to the behaviors and carries on in the relationship."
If you feel your behavior or character shifting in a way you don't like because of the relationship dynamic you're in, it's worth considering whether this is the right relationship for you at this time. (More on that later.)
Don't try to manage your partner's feelings
"We cannot be responsible for our partner's emotional climates. It's up to us individually," Gatling says. That means if your partner shuts down because they're upset, don't pressure them into talking or try to fix it, because it's not your "responsibility to manage your partner's emotional well-being and happiness, as far as expressing those emotions."
You will notice a change when you take a step back and release the responsibility.
Individual and/or couples therapy can be extremely beneficial to a relationship. Needing to talk to someone to process your emotions is nothing to be ashamed of. So, decide whether bringing in an unbiased third party to help navigate tough discussions is the right step for you, advises Neblett. Not only does it help shed new light on a situation, but it can also help identify harmful patterns within a relationship, adds Gatling.
Give your partner space to step up
"You have to step back, in support of them hopefully stepping up," Gatling explains. It's important to be clear with your partner about what you want from the relationship and how you would like them to show up for you.
Then, you must stop expending so much of your own energy and give them the space to show up. It can't be an ultimatum, says Gatling, and if that's the place you're in, it's a sign you've already stayed too long.
Ask yourself if you're enabling this behavior
Someone's emotional unavailability is not your fault, nor is it your responsibility to fix, but it is important to think about how you might be enabling this behavior. Gatling says this can come "from a lack of boundaries and not being clear about what you need, want, or deserve." Unpacking this might take some self-work, and while you can't do that for someone else, you can do it for yourself.
Ask yourself: Are you emotionally unavailable too?
It takes more work to reflect on your own faults than to point out someone else's. So, when considering whether the person you're with is emotionally unavailable, make sure to "check-in with yourself to determine if you are emotionally unavailable and being receptive to your partner's expression of emotions," suggests Neblett. If you notice that you have a habit of dating emotionally unavailable people over and over again, there's definitely something to be learned, Gatling points out. Noticing these patterns within yourself and possibly working through them with a therapist can expose some "aha" moments.
Know when it's time to walk away
Saying goodbye to a relationship you've worked hard to build isn't easy. It takes strength, a good sense of self, and a willingness to acknowledge your needs are not being consistently met. "You really have to see that conscious effort happening on the other person's end," says Gatling. "It can't just be you working and waiting for things to change."
Sometimes you have to ask yourself whether you would be happy if your partner's behavior were to continue after a certain amount of time. In exploring that question, you will find your answer. If you're on the fence, here are signs it's time to end a relationship.
As Neblett explains, it's time to remove yourself from a relationship when:
- Your partner hasn't attempted to change after several conversations.
- You feel as though you've done all you can.
- You're ready to leave. Permission is not needed.
Amari D. Pollard is a writer and audience development strategist. She is currently a Roy H. Park Fellow at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and previously worked as the Head of Audience Development at The Week. Her writing focuses on politics, culture, relationships, and health, and she has been published at Bustle, PopSugar, Reader's Digest, and more. She has a degree in communications and creative writing from Le Moyne College.