That charming guy who sweeps into your life, showers you with compliments and take you out to incredible places – but then suddenly evaporates into thin air a few weeks later. Or the girl who exudes that sexy, hard-to-get aloof vibe but who you later realise you can’t get close to.
If you keep finding yourself drawn to emotionally unavailable people, then you don’t need reminding of how exasperating and utterly lonely it is not being able to connect with the person you care about.
Before we start, let’s get clear on one thing: emotional unavailability is not gender-specific. There’s been a mountain written about emotionally unavailable men – but it can be the other way round too.
Emotional availability has nothing to do with getting in touch with your “feminine side”. It swings both ways. It’s about knowing that your partner will show up for you emotionally; that they have your back. Gender does not have a bearing on whether someone is emotionally available or not.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
Being emotionally unavailable is essentially about building up a barrier that prevents people from getting close to you. This might present itself as someone appearing very evasive or aloof, avoiding difficult conversations that relate to feelings or the relationship, or maybe even dropping a relationship completely at the first sign of emotional intimacy.
Being emotionally available is not about oversharing or being “intense”. It is simply about having the capacity to create an authentic connection – one where both partners feel supported and cared for. For someone who is emotionally unavailable, this state of being can feel very foreign, driving them to retract.
It’s also important to note that being emotionally unavailable does not necessarily mean that someone does not want a relationship. And it is not about lacking the capacity to love. Emotional unavailability is a conditioning – or coping mechanism – someone has learnt (often at a very early age) as a form of protection. This might have happened for a number of different reasons.
Signs someone is emotionally unavailable
Sometimes it’s very obvious that someone is emotionally unavailable. Maybe they recently got divorced or they live in a different country to you. In these cases, alarm bells should start to ring.
Other times, someone’s emotional unavailability doesn’t become apparent until further along in the relationship. You might find yourself already in a relationship with someone before it becomes clear that they are unable to connect emotionally with you in the way that you need.
The following should be taken as clear red flags:
1. They tell you – this might seem obvious, but sometimes when we really like someone we block out the things we don’t want to hear. Often from the outset someone who is emotionally unavailable will warn us in so many words. Maybe they talk about a string of failed relationships or casually throw in that they’re not much of a “relationship person”. Take what they say at face value. If someone tells you that they’re not emotionally available, believe them.
2. A cocky persona – it takes a quiet confidence to cultivate intimacy and truly commit to someone. Arrogance and cockiness are usually a cover for low self-esteem and should serve as a major red flag.
3. They struggle with being affectionate – someone who is emotionally unavailable is going to find it difficult to be affectionate – or to accept affection from you. If your partner stiffens up or becomes awkward when you get physically close, it’s likely they’re not living fully in their emotions.
4. Changing the subject when conflict arises – many of us struggle with conflict, but someone who is emotionally unavailable is going to be especially conflict averse. They might shut down, try to change the subject or call you ‘too dramatic’ when you try bringing up your emotions.
5. You see flashes of anger – someone who is constantly pushing down their emotions is going to have a lot of pent-up anger. Perhaps they’re charming to you but they snap at the waiter when the food is late or they badmouth the taxi driver on the way home. When we’re not able to access or express our emotions, frustration is going to come out elsewhere.
6. You don’t feel held or supported in the relationship – in order to show up for someone else, we need to first be able to show up for ourselves. Someone who is emotionally unavailable can’t commit to anyone until that happens. Because of this, you might find that when you try to talk about something important, they disengage. This could be apparent in their friendships too – either they have very few, or lots of surface-level friends that don’t carry much depth.
7. They move too quickly – often people who are emotionally unavailable are very good at the first stage of a relationship. They might talk very intensely at the beginning and say all the right things, wanting to jump into the sexual side of the relationship fast. Be wary of this. A true connection takes time, and developing a relationship has a natural rhythm. You want to look for someone who takes things at a healthy, steady pace.
Emotionally unavailable people: what causes someone to become emotionally unavailable?
It’s important to point out that emotionally unavailable people rarely realise that what they’re doing is harmful. When you have never truly connected to someone emotionally, you can’t understand the depth of pain this vacuum is going to cause your partner.
Emotionally unavailable people are frequently highly intelligent. In fact, it is typical amongst high-achievers who naturally feel more comfortable living and communicating from their intellect rather than their feelings.
One key commonality with all emotionally unavailable people is this: lurking somewhere underneath it all is fear. A fear of things not working out, of being exposed or being vulnerable to abandonment.
We are all born with the drive to connect. Connection is a basic human need – and the emotionally unavailable person is no different. For this reason, normally something has happened in their past that has caused them to reject this aspect of themselves.
This can happen for any of the following reasons:
Something in their childhood – at the extreme end, abuse (physical or emotional) and trauma can cause someone to become emotionally unavailable. Also growing up in a chaotic household where emotions were acted out aggressively or in an uncontrollable way might cause someone to shut down as a means of protection. On the flip side, growing up in an environment where emotions were stuffed down or seen to be a sign of ‘weakness’ can cause someone to start associating intimacy as something inherently negative – resulting in a complete rejection of it.
Afraid of falling in love – maybe they’ve been badly hurt in relationships in the past or witnessed an unhealthy relationship dynamic growing up which caused them to shut down as a form of protection.
Simply not ready – and sometimes we just meet people at the wrong time. If someone’s only very recently out of a long-term relationship for example, they’re probably going to need some alone time before committing fully to someone new.
Why do I choose emotionally unavailable partners?
We don’t purposefully go around choosing partners we know can’t show up for us… Or do we?
The truth is that the way we interact with relationships today is closely intertwined with our past.
Did you have a warm, loving household growing up? What kind of relationship did you have with your parents?
As we grow up we develop subconscious belief systems about what love looks like based on our experiences. In other words, we create relationship dynamics that feel like the ones we had growing up. That’s good news is we grew up in a loving, supportive household – less so if that wasn’t the case.
If you find yourself constantly choosing emotionally unavailable partners, when you dig into your past you might find that this dynamic is actually a familiar one. Perhaps one or both of your parents were physically or emotionally absent when you were growing up, and your emotional needs went unmet. Some people make the discovery that they are actually emotionally unavailable themselves. And as much as they feel like they crave emotional intimacy, they cut and run before any real depth of connection has been formed.
The important thing is this: whatever your pattern is, you can change it. Identifying where it stems from is the first important step in breaking the cycle.
Breaking patterns in relationships
Relationships serve as a mirror to what is going on inside of us. In order to break deeply ingrained patterns like this, we usually have to face up to the pains of our past. To move beyond old wounds, we need to first acknowledge and then release them. Usually this requires tracing back these experiences and looking them straight in the eye, and feelings all the feelings that they bring up for us. Once we have acknowledged and released a pattern, we free ourselves from the compulsion to keep acting it out. We can form a healthier, more supportive view of love. And when this happens, we are better equipped to identify these qualities in a potential partner.
We can only ever truly change ourselves. If you’re in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, this means that they will need to make these realisations in their own time. They will first need to get in touch with their own feelings before they can connect emotionally with you. Therapy is a great place to work on this as the therapeutic relationship illustrates how beautiful it is to fully trust another person and to feel emotionally present. And when we know how good it feels to sit comfortably and present in our feelings, that’s something we will never want to let go of.