Do you often alone even when you are with your partner? Perhaps you frequently feel frustrated hurt or angry because they get defensive or dismissive you when you are trying to express your feelings? Maybe you feel like you are unable to develop a real emotional intimacy with them? Or you feel they don’t put the same emotional effort into the relationship or you are not a priority in your partner’s life. These might all be signs that you are in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner.
Emotional unavailability is the inability or unwillingness to deeply connect with others in an emotional way. It is characterised by inconsistent communication, avoiding deep or serious conversations, not showing affection and acting selfishly, amongst other things. You won’t necessarily find the term ‘emotionally unavailable” as a formally recognised psychological term but it has become popularised over the last decade.
The behaviours of an emotionally unavailable person have similarities with narcissistic traits or an avoidant/dismissive attachment style. One person struggling with intimacy (not just physical) within a relationship is a common reason for couples seeking online couple counselling.
The emotionally unavailable partner
Our professional relationship therapists recognise that even the healthiest of relationships face challenges. However, this can be made all the more difficult when one partner is emotionally unavailable.
Being in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable can be both frustrating and painful. The partner of an emotionally unavailable person, often finds they in conflict with their partner because they feel unseen, unheard, unappreciated, unwanted and unloved.
A healthy intimate relationship, by its very nature, requires emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy requires emotional connection. Emotional connection requires a partner to attune to the emotions of their partner.
Recognising emotional unavailability
An emotionally unavailable person rarely recognises the pain and confusion they cause their partner. That’s because they tend to be incapable of introspection so are unable to tap into their emotions. As a result, they cannot empathise with their partner and often see their emotions as negative or unnecessary. When this happens, it becomes impossible for them to understand or empathise with what their partner is feeling, hence they are ‘emotionally unavailable’
An emotionally unavailable person often appears incapable of tuning in the subtext and subtleties which surround us all. They cannot identify with, much less validate, the feelings of others. They can also be unwilling to share their own feelings and emotions through the fear of disclosing might lead to them feeling vulnerable or judged.
When they deem a conversation to be too serious or uncomfortable, they may use humour, anger, avoidance, arrogance and control to emotionally distance themselves from their partner. Outwardly, emotionally unavailable partners can appear to be self-sufficient, strong, stable and confident.
Emotionally unavailable people can experience bouts of anxiety and/or depression. However, they are usually unaware because of being less able/willing to recognise their own feelings. Anxiety is about fear and fear is one of the root causes of an emotionally unavailability. The fear of intimacy, the fear of being overwhelmed, the fear of being hurt and/or the fear of being judged.
Identifying the root of the problem
More often than not, when we look deeper into the emotionally unavailable person, they will have almost always experienced feelings of shame. Or feelings of not being good enough, feelings of inadequacy or simply feelings of being bad.
Regardless of gender, we are all born with a full range of emotions; meaning none of us are emotionally unavailable. The vast majority of parents/caregivers (who are emotionally available) are able to guide their offspring into regulating their emotions. Unfortunately, some parents/caregivers are unable to provide something that most consider primal.
They do not necessarily neglect the child, they are present, but they tend to avoid displays of emotion and intimacy and are often not tuned in to the child’s emotional needs. Alternatively, children who grow up in chaotic homes or homes where they regularly experience emotions acted out as conflict, can repress their emotions or shut down completely. On the other hand, children who grow up in homes where expressing emotions is unacceptable or viewed as a sign of weakness can equally disconnect from or repress their natural emotions.
It can be common for emotionally unavailable person to send mixed signals. While they may express a desire or need to be close to their partner, their actions are contradictory. Even when closeness is experienced they may pull away or shut down, creating distance once more. Shutting down emotionally is usually a defence mechanism. But this frequently leaves their partner experiencing self-doubt, anxiety, a feeling of rejection or abandonment.
Signs of being emotionally unavailable
Lack of compromise
The behaviours of an emotionally unavailable person have comparisons with narcissistic traits or an avoidant/dismissive attachment style. In that they are often unaware of the feelings of others and can be unwilling to compromise. They tend to want the relationship to revolve around them, can be selfish and lack the emotional depth to understand that relationships are a two-way street.
They misunderstand you
An emotionally unavailable person can make a partner with healthy views of intimacy/closeness, feel bad about their needs. Often saying they are ‘too much’ or too ‘intense’ and struggle to show empathy. They may not realise they’re doing it but being on the receiving end can leave the other person feeling hurt, misunderstood or dismissed. This can feel like rejection, not to mention being extremely frustrating, especially when you are trying to word things diplomatically.
They are defensive
Considering an emotionally unavailable partner seemingly cannot express how they really, they automatically go on the defence when serious relationship conversations take place – often concluding that they are being criticised. They tend to blame their partner rather than recognising and taking responsibility for their actions and the emotional fallout.
When trying to explain to your partner how you feel, they pull further and further away. Emotionally unavailable people feel the push for closeness uncomfortable or scary. Hence, they may withdraw, stay silent or stonewall.
They don’t think they have a problem. Therefore, emotionally unavailable people don’t necessarily think that they need to say sorry or own up to something that might have offended or hurt them. Instead, they tend to play the victim.
They are unclear about what they want from you.
If you are thinking about what and how you say things or can’t get a clear answer on what your partner wants or needs from a relationship. It can lead to a feeling of “walking on eggshells” Worrying, if you put a foot wrong will lead to your partner blaming you or shutting you out. When people are available, they allow themselves to tell their partner what they want, even though it can be scary to open up. They will also be prepared to listen to what you need.
Can an emotionally unavailable person change?
Although it is a complex issue which can be difficult to overcome, emotional unavailability doesn’t have to be permanent. However, real change can only happen when someone recognises the issue and are willing to work hard to change it. No one can ‘make’ an emotionally unavailable partner more available, however hard they try.
What you can do is bring up concerning behaviours and point out (kindly) how they affect your relationship. Encourage them to talk to a therapist or offer to go to couples counselling together.
Talk to a therapist
Emotional unavailability isn’t always something you can work through alone. If you are having trouble with emotional vulnerability and feel distressed about the difficulties it causes in your relationships, a therapist can offer guidance and support.. They you can help you identify the potential causes and provide the tools for you to break unhelpful relationship patterns.
If you’re already in a relationship, couples counselling can also be of benefit. Emotional unavailabilit, can cause a lot of distress but it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your relationship.
A relationship therapist can help you start identifying the issues and will help you work through them together.
Relationship counselling is only effective if both parties really want to attend and will take responsibility for the role they play within the relationship and the problems it is encountering.
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