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What it really means to be Emotionally Unavailable & the 5 main signs to look for

November 8, 2022
Shan Merchant

We hear the phrase 'emotionally unavailable' thrown around a lot in the realm of dating and relationships, but what does it even mean, really? Maybe someone has told you that you're emotionally unavailable, or that you keep on dating emotionally unavailable people, and you want to know how to break that pattern.

Or maybe you suspect your steaming hot new partner, fresh from Tinder, might be emotionally unavailable. Well, here's what you need to know about emotional unavailability and how to spot the red flags, from my perspective as a dating coach and Imago couples therapist.

Are you dating, sleeping with or even married to an emotionally unavailable person? Let's find out.

Unhappy couple holding hands but looking in opposite directions.
Image: Andrik Langfield

What is emotional unavailability anyway?

Emotionally unavailable people are the guys and gals who just can’t seem to open up and let themselves get close to someone. They’re the ones who are always “fine,” and who you can never really get to know. They disappear for days or weeks at a time and then come back like nothing happened.

If you’re dating one of these people, you might feel like you’re always chasing after them and that you can never really get them to commit to anything. And the truth is, you’re not the only one. Emotionally unavailable people are everywhere. And the reason it's often so hard to see their flaming reg flags is because a) they don't know that they're emotionally unavailable, and b) you want them not to be emotionally available, so you ignore the red flags until it's no longer possible. You break up, you soothe your broken heart and, eventually, start again.

Most people think that being emotionally unavailable means that person is not interested in a relationship. However, that’s not always the case. There are many reasons why someone might be emotionally unavailable, and it’s important to understand the difference.

Being emotionally unavailable doesn’t mean that person is never interested in a relationship. It could simply mean that person is not ready for a relationship at that time in their lives. They might be going through a tough time in their life and need to focus on themselves, this often happens after a painful breakup. They might be afraid of getting hurt. Or, they might be commitment-phobic and have an insecure attachment style.

If you’re interested in someone who is emotionally unavailable, it’s important to focus on the facts of how they're behaving – to observe their actions rather than their words – and protect your own feelings. They may be unaware that they're hurting you. It's up to you to say 'ouch' and either work through it with them, or move on.

The most important thing is to not make someone's unavailability about your lack of value as a person. This is the most common thing I see in dating. Do not decide you must not be good enough if the person you like does not want you. Not true! It has nothing to do with you. This is about them. Do not link your self value (or lack of it) to someone else's unavailability.

The 5 core signs of an Emotionally Unavailable partner

There are five key signs to look for if you think you may be in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person, and they will reveal themselves early on.

1. They're not physically available

Even though you're supposed to be in a 'couple' with this person, if you reflect on it, you may find yourself alone a lot of the time. Here are some ways this might happen:

They have trouble committing to plans

They tend to want to just "hang out" rather than make concrete plans. Sexy time on their way home from work tonight, sure! But an informal drinks night for your partner to meet your friends or family – he just can't seem to find a suitable date to make this happen. One minute you think you've agreed on a date, but then some work thing comes up. In fact, they're always busy with work, or other friends, or loose acquaintances they just met last night at a bar.

They show up late or blow off plans

They just can't seem to turn up on time – especially when it's a date or a get-together that you've organised. Even if you give them six weeks' notice, they suddenly cancel with two days to go, citing a work commitment that 'I just can't say no' to. You start to expect them to blow off any event you arrange, and start making excuses to your friends or family like: "He works a lot."

2. They're inconsistent with communication

Consistent communication is a hallmark of a healthy, sustainable relationship. You don't find many successful 20-year marriages where they're sending each other mixed messages. Volatility just doesn't work. So here are some of the situations you might find yourself in with an emotionally unavailable person:

They blow hot and cold

Emotionally unavailable people may be affectionate one day, then distant the next. This can feel like having vertigo. One day you're on Cloud 9, but then you take a sharp nose-dive into Disappointmentville. You're actually on their emotional rollercoaster, stopping and starting, careening and loop-the-looping, with huge highs followed by crashing lows. You never quite know where you stand with them. And it can make you feel really sick.

They avoid the word ‘relationship’

Awww, c'mon...why do you have to slap a label on everything?

Labels are a big deal to us human beings because they've allowed us to progress as a species. To categorise things. To develop a common language that we can use to communicate with one another, allowing us to get things done and deepen our relationships and connections.

But here's the kicker: deepening your relationship and connection is precisely what an emotionally unavailable person doesn't want to do. Labelling your relationship would mean acknowledging you've passed a milestone in its progression. And they're not available for progressing it or making it any more ‘real’ than they can handle.  

They are unclear about what they want from you

Because this person you're dating/sleeping with communicates inconsistently, blows hot and cold, sends you mixed messages and avoids labelling your relationship, for you, things are as clear as a Tough Mudder 10K obstacle race. You feel confused, you get butterflies and you tell yourself this is 'chemistry' but it's really a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety.

Silhouettes of unhappy couple, man walking away, woman with head in hands. Ocean sunset.

3. They call the shots

Emotionally unavailable people tend to be naturally self-centred. Because they aren't available for emotions, connection or progressing a relationship, they have to stand like a sentry guard outside any signs that these things may be happening. In other words, they need to have all the control.

They regularly put their own needs above yours.

It might be easy to mistake your partner's emotional unavailability for pure selfishness or to label them as self-absorbed. They often make decisions based on what they want or what will benefit them the most without considering how their actions might affect you. This can make them seem insensitive and uncaring.

They are more interested in other activities or people than they are in you or your relationship.

They may have a packed business schedule that requires lots of travelling, or a whole entourage of close friends to regularly see, but if someone is interested in getting closer to you, they will prioritise you! If someone really wants to see you and spend time with you, you will feel it. They will be at your front door, in your inbox, and messaging you to make plans.

They don't compromise their time

There are few things more closely guarded by an emotionally unavailable person than their time. They may come across as being fiercely independent, or really into spending time with their friends, but what they're actually doing is protecting their time.

If you are a few months into your relationship with this person and you still have to 'get in their diary', then this is a huge red flag. Unless they're a Greek shipping magnate or Elon Musk, having to schedule your time with them means you are not a priority in their life.

You feel like you do all the relationship work

This is a very common situation for women with emotionally unavailable men. Do you find that you're always the one who plans the dates or initiates conversations? Perhaps you're always thinking of little ways to surprise and delight your partner, or places you could go at the weekends, while they happily go along with it, coasting along but never really lifting a finger themselves.

Ask yourself: if you stopped initiating, planning and considering, would there be a relationship at all?

They are unable or unwilling to compromise

The art of compromise is one of the core traits of a successful long-term relationship. Compromise oils the wheels of a relationship, keeping it gliding along the safety rails of life. Without a little compromise on both sides, we get stuck, often.

Because emotionally unavailable people are often self-centred and focused on their own needs, they are unable to compromise on the big and little things life throws at us. They dig their heels in and, all of sudden, the juggernaut of your relationship grinds to a halt. If you find your partner is completely unable to compromise, you won't get far unless you're compromising all the time – hauling the whole relationship along by yourself like a circus strongman.

4. They avoid intimacy

And here we arrive at the No.1 cause of emotional unavailability. Your emotionally unavailable partner was not born emotionally unavailable. Events and circumstances have happened in their life that cause them to avoid risking being intimate and vulnerable. This is usually because, unconsciously, they fear they will be hurt again, or made to feel uncomfortable.

They avoid talking about their feelings or emotional needs

For someone who is emotionally unavailable, talking about or showing their own vulnerability is to be avoided at all costs. You'll find they certainly won't be direct about any negative emotions like sadness or anger. They won't initiate conversations about how they feel about you, or what they need emotionally.

They shut down or withdraw from emotional conversations

You might find when you initiate deeper conversations and talk about your own feelings, that they go silent, or try to change the subject, or become defensive. You will get the message that they don’t want to talk about their feelings, and that they don’t really want to hear about yours.

They don't reciprocate your emotional efforts

Above, we talked about the give-and-take that compromise requires. It's the same with reciprocating emotional 'advances' or confessions. It reminds me of that excitingly tense time in the first several months of my own current relationship, when I wanted to tell my partner 'I love you', but wasn't sure if it would be reciprocated yet. And she was silently feeling the same!

They never want to talk about the future

With an emotionally unavailable person, you may have already confessed your love but got nothing back. Alternatively, you may have asked that loaded question: "So... what are we doing here?" and got... crickets.

So frustrating! This makes it feel like you're always the one chasing them for a decision, while they seem perfectly content just 'treading water'. The hardest thing to realise is that this is because it's true. If it feels like you're banging your head against a wall, and like you're always the one giving and they're always the one taking, they are keeping themselves emotionally distant from you and may never be able to give you what you need.

They seem detached from their own emotions and/or from you.

Speaking of emotional distance, in order to become an emotionally unavailable partner, they have dislocated themselves from their own feelings. They might seem unable to describe how they're feeling at any given moment, because they may have compartmentalised their fear – and most other emotions along with it.

To you, this looks like they're not emotionally responsive to you. They seem distant and uninterested, and you feel like you’re always the one trying to initiate contact or get them to open up. You might feel like you’re being shut out or that your partner is always “one step ahead” of you emotionally.

They reflect your feelings instead of offering their own

A brilliant survival tactic of an emotionally unavailable person is to 'tread water' in the relationship by merely reflecting your feelings instead of declaring their own original, heartfelt ones.

This isn’t to say that an emotionally unavailable person is completely void of feelings; however, their feelings reside deep within themselves and they rarely let anyone in to see them. This can make for a very frustrating relationship because you’re constantly left guessing how they really feel about you.

They will try to avoid conflict with you

An emotionally unavailable person will also avoid any type of conflict like the plague. If you try to have a serious conversation with them about something that’s bothering you, they’ll do everything in their power to change the subject or diffuse the situation. They would rather keep the peace than deal with anything that might rock the boat.

They become defensive surrounding emotional intimacy

If you ask your partner for more intimacy, or for them to tell you how they feel, and they become defensive, you are getting too close for their own comfort.

Again, the No.1 cause of emotional unavailability is a fear of intimacy, of being hurt, and (for men especially) of being rejected. Any sign of emotional vulnerability will be too much for them and they will tend to be closed off, avoidant, and unwilling to express emotions. It might also seem like they have a dismissive or even contemptuous attitude toward emotions.

They make you feel like you're the problem

Human beings are brilliant defensive players. Like Achilles, they will virtually fight to the death to protect their soft spots and vulnerabilities. After an argument over their 'emotional unavailability' and inability to commit, or compromise, or simply act like a person who's in love, you may be left wondering if it's really you that's the problem. Perhaps it's you who are codependent or anxiously attached?

If you have read this article with a rational head and your partner's traits match the ones I've described, it's pretty clear that they are emotionally unavailable. Perhaps they are avoiding their emotions because they are a minefield. Perhaps you will be the one to help them heal. Perhaps you won't. Only you can decide this.

Of course, nobody is perfect. But if you're always left feeling like you are the one who's not good enough, and that you'll never be able to fix whatever it is that's wrong with you, they have twisted the situation to make you feel like you're the one who needs help.

5. You never seem to grow closer

The big question is: How do you feel in this relationship? Is it moving forward with your shared intention? Do you feel like you're moving in the exciting direction of your hopes and dreams? Do you have future plans? Do you feel like you're moving closer to those dreams together?

Or perhaps you feel like you're always the one pushing to move things forward. Pushing to create intimacy. Pulling them towards you. In this case you might start to resent all this pushing and pulling. And you may start to resent your partner. Momentum keeps a relationship alive, so if you’re in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, you’ll likely find yourself feeling frustrated and stagnated.

Unhappy couple glaring at with each other. Image JD Mason.
Image: JD Mason

Is it bad to be emotionally unavailable?

Relationships are all about behaviour patterns. Patterns can be positive or negative for you, or a little bit of both. Being emotionally unavailable in a relationship is somewhat pointless – the relationship isn't going to go anywhere, and the emotionally available one is wasting their time. But because the emotionally unavailable person is often caught up in their own unconscious self-gratification, they're not aware that they're stringing the other person along and wasting their time.  

Where does emotional unavailability come from?

It can stem from a traumatic event in a person's life that has left them feeling disconnected from others, or it can be the result of a personality disorder such as narcissism or avoidant personality disorder. It can also be a learned behavior, something that a person has picked up from their parents or other role models. Whatever the cause, it can be a difficult pattern to break out of.

Attachment issues

People with attachment issues often have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships. They may be emotionally unavailable, distant, and uncommunicative. They may also be prone to anger, jealousy, and insecurity. People with attachment issues may have a history of unstable or abusive relationships. They may also have difficulty trusting others and may be afraid of intimacy.

Temporary circumstances

There are temporary circumstances that may make someone emotionally unavailable, such as being preoccupied with a demanding job, going through a difficult divorce, or experiencing the death of a loved one. In these cases, the person may appear distant and uninterested in pursuing a relationship. However, once the circumstances change, they are often more open to intimacy.

Breakup grief

If you're in a relationship with someone who's getting over an ex, tread carefully. They will not be focused on you as a person to love and appreciate. They are in pain. I advise my clients to be patient and give this person six months to a year. As far as red flags go, this is a big one. If your partner keeps talking about their ex, it probably means that they're still occupying a lot of their mind space. Stay away!

What should I do if I'm in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person?

Well, you have ask yourself why you are in this relationship. Maybe you’re attracted to the challenge they present. Maybe you’re hoping they’ll change.

However, the fact is, you can’t change them. Only they can do that. And they may not even be aware that they’re emotionally unavailable.

So you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is my partner capable of admitting they might be emotionally unavailable?
  • Are they willing to do the work to stretch into a greater level of intimacy with you?
  • Are they capable of showing vulnerability?
  • Are you willing to invest your time and energy to help them through this?

Is it possible to change if you’re emotionally unavailable?

Here’s what you need to know. It can be frustrating and even heartbreaking to be in a relationship with someone who isn’t able to fully commit to you, but it’s important to remember that everyone has their own emotional baggage and it can take time for them to learn to open up. What matters the most is the willingness to try stretching and growing in an area you (or your partner) might find difficult or scary.

Identify the cause of their emotional unavailability

If your partner is interested in changing the relationship dynamic, it’s important to first understand why they are emotionally unavailable. If they’re unwilling to talk about it with you, they may need to talk with a therapist to get to the root of the issue.

Spend time together with people who have healthy relationships

It helps to see healthy relationship traits like compromise, vulnerability and grit modelled by other people. I truly believe in that old saying: "We are the sum of our five closest friends." So spend time with friends who are in healthy long-term relationships.

What to do if you decide to break up with an emotionally unavailable partner

The grief that follows the end of a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner can be deep and all-consuming. This type of grief is often complicated by the fact that the relationship never felt truly fulfilling to begin with. The pain of never having felt truly loved and valued can be overwhelming. The loss of what could have been can be just as devastating as the loss of what was.

However, you made the decision to value yourself and choose a potentially happy future relationship over one that was causing you pain. Time and time again, I am shown by my clients that when they raise their standards like this, life's circumstances rise to meet them.


Can Emotionally Unavailable People Fall In Love?

Yes, but it’s not easy and takes a lot of work from both parties. An emotionally unavailable person is someone who is not open to sharing their feelings or emotions. They may be unable to express their emotions, or they may simply choose not to do so. This can make them seem distant, uninterested, or even cold.

However, just because someone is emotionally unavailable does not mean they cannot fall in love. In fact, many people who are emotionally unavailable are simply afraid of getting hurt. They may have been hurt in the past, or they may be afraid of being vulnerable. If you are interested in someone who is emotionally unavailable, it is important to be patient and understand that it may take them longer to open up to you. It is also important to be honest with them about your feelings and expectations. With time and patience, it is possible for an emotionally unavailable person to fall in love. What's important is having a willingness to try.

How Do Emotionally Unavailable People Show Love?

Some emotionally unavailable people might show love by doing things for their partner that they know will make them happy.

Can Emotionally Unavailable People Miss You?

Yes, emotionally unavailable might say they miss you. But the difference between an emotionally unavailable person and someone who is emotionally available is that the latter actually means it and wants to do something about it. Emotionally unavailable people may say they miss you but their actions indicate otherwise. If they don't make any effort to see you or to make up for lost time, their words are meaningless.

If you're struggling in your dating or relationships, reach out to me for a chat about how I can help.

Or email me here.

Read next: What is Imago Relationship Therapy?

Learn how to communicate, resolve conflict & show more of yourself in relationship.