You’ve probably heard of the term “emotional unavailability,” or maybe you suspect that you’ve experienced it for yourself in your current or past relationships. But what exactly is it?
Emotional unavailability refers to someone who struggles with expressing, handling, and responding to emotions. Someone who is emotionally unavailable has a difficult time getting close to others and may not form emotional bonds or connections with their partners or other important people in their lives.
As you can imagine, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable because their inability to show or process emotion can send mixed signals and complicate the relationship. Even if you share great chemistry, if your partner can’t be emotionally vulnerable, they’ll likely shy away from commitment and may even push you away. Because of this, you may find it difficult for your relationship to progress beyond something casual.
While emotional unavailability doesn’t necessarily make someone a bad partner, it can bring a set of obstacles to your relationship, so it’s important to recognize the signs of someone who possesses this trait.
So, how do you know if your partner is emotionally unavailable? In our guide below, we’ve listed nine signs that may suggest they struggle with processing their emotions. If these characteristics sound familiar to you, it might be time to breach the topic with your partner.
1. They Won’t Label Your Relationship
If the person you’re dating is unwilling to define your relationship, commit to exclusivity, or even admit that you’re in a relationship together, then this is a sign that they may not be emotionally available.
Those who cannot process their emotions get overwhelmed at the thought of being “tied down” and prefer to reap all the benefits of a relationship without putting in any work. This can create a one-sided relationship, in which you feel like you’re doing everything to keep it going while the other person refuses to exert any effort or show any interest in growing the relationship.
2. They Avoid Making Plans
Another sign is if the person you’re seeing avoids making definite plans with you. For example, they might be vague about their availability or only loosely agree to something without fully committing. Furthermore, when your plans roll around, there’s a good chance they’ll back out or flake at the last minute.
By not committing their time and energy to you, they can avoid getting too emotionally involved, which might make them feel cornered or trapped in the relationship. They do this as a way to protect themselves, but it will no doubt lead to hurt and confusion for you.
3. They Want to Keep Things Casual
Just as they’re unwilling to commit to plans, they might be equally unwilling to take your relationship to the next level. If they want to keep things light and casual, then it could be a sign that they’re not emotionally invested in your relationship.
After all, as healthy relationships progress and get more serious, couples are expected to be open, honest, and vulnerable with one another. Therefore, by refusing to be anything but casual, your partner can protect themselves from emotionally contributing to your relationship and getting themselves too involved.
4. They Send Mixed Signals
Does it feel like you’re constantly second-guessing your relationship and how your partner feels about you? For example, maybe one minute they seem head over heels for you, and then the next, they’re giving you the cold shoulder. Or maybe they seem excited to spend time with you, only to cancel your date or ignore your calls.
Those who are emotionally unavailable often give off mixed signals because they don’t know how to properly express their feelings and may pull back when they feel like they’ve become too vulnerable or emotionally honest. This can make it feel like you’re constantly trying to guess what they’re thinking and feeling because they won’t tell you for themselves.
5. They Only Have Surface-Level Conversations
Have you noticed every time you try to have an important conversation or deep conversation, your partner changes the subject? Or maybe shuts down the discussion completely? This is because those who experience emotional unavailability prefer to keep things from getting too heavy. For instance, you might be able to talk for hours about your favorite TV shows and the baseball game you just attended together, but more important topics and honest discussions are probably off the table.
6. They Don’t Appreciate Affectionate
Another sign of emotional unavailability is if your partner feels overwhelmed or smothered by affection or intimacy. It might make them feel uncomfortable or trapped, and it may even cause them to flee the situation. Of course, this can be unintentionally hurtful (and confusing!) to you when you’re only trying to show your love and appreciation for them.
7. They Push You Away
Does it seem like every time you try to connect on a deeper level, your partner puts walls up? Chances are, it’s not your imagination. If they’re emotionally unavailable, they’ll likely feel uncomfortable and insecure and create distance between you as a way to protect themselves. By pushing you away, they can avoid being vulnerable, having to open up to you, and sharing their feelings. As long as they can keep you at an arm’s distance, they don’t need to worry about the relationship getting too serious for them to handle.
8. They Can’t Relate to Your Feelings
If your partner struggles to be emotionally available, they might not be in tune with your feelings. For some, this could mean they don’t understand why something made you so angry or upset, but for others, it might involve them failing to empathize with you.
Because they have trouble processing and handling their own feelings, it’s nearly impossible for them to process and handle your emotions as well. This might make you feel confused, neglected, or even ignored, which could lead to an unhealthy relationship if you’re not careful.
9. They Have a History of Short-Term Relationships
Those who avoid emotional involvement often have a long list of exes under the belt—all of which were nothing more than flings. When struggling with emotional capacity, it’s easier to hop around from person to person, moving on before anything gets too serious.
If you look at their relationship history, there’s a good chance you won’t see any long-term relationships because they prefer to protect their hearts and avoid emotional intimacy by leaving situations before they even start to develop.
How to Handle Emotional Unavailability
Now, what if you notice some of these signs of emotional unavailability in your own partner? Not all hope is lost. In fact, if your partner is willing to put in the work, there are ways they can practice becoming more emotionally available.
For starters, they can reflect on what might be the root cause of it. For instance, maybe they were exposed to a toxic relationship as a child or developed an unhealthy attachment style. Understanding what triggers their insecurities and fear of emotional intimacy can help them explore ways to interact with those complicated feelings.
Next, you can help encourage your partner to open up and express their emotions through journaling, listening to music, or even discussing their feelings with those they trust.
And finally, meeting with a professional therapist who specializes in emotional unavailability could help them unpack the underlying cause and work through these challenges. As they learn to appropriately handle and respond to their feelings, they may be able to contribute more of themselves to you and your relationship.
That said, if your partner is unwilling to address their emotional vacancy or consider how it’s negatively impacting you, you may need to decide whether this relationship is fulfilling and meeting your own standards and expectations. If it’s a constant battle, it might be time to break up and search for someone who is more emotionally available.