It'd be nice if the term was just a throwaway label to help you deal with people who just aren't interested in committing to you. But sadly, the breed does in fact exist. If they didn't, it's safe to say that no one would have watched all six seasons of Sex and the City—without all the emotionally unavailable men (**cough, Mr. Big**), how else could you relate to Carrie and her closet of Manolos?
And as anyone with a pulse knows, feelings can be scary. But that goes tenfold for the emotionally unavailable, who use excuses and aloofness to hide from authentic connection. As if dating today weren't hard enough, plucking out the emotionally unavailable from an already shrinking pool of available partners is just one more thing you have to deal with. Can't a sister catch a break?
Hear hear! But what does being “emotionally unavailable” actually mean?
Feelings are overwhelming as is, but for the emotionally unavailable, it’s a task and a half to even acknowledge what’s happening in their heads. They shrink away from vulnerable moments that would otherwise create a real connection.
“Someone who is emotionally unavailable has a hard time receiving love and other deep emotions from others,” says therapist Alyson Cohen, LCSW. It’s tough to understand “the feelings of others because they can hardly understand their own.” They’re not self-aware about how their aversion to intimacy affects the other person, either.
“Oftentimes, they can appear quite socially advanced, but more complex emotions that go beyond niceties are often lacking,” Cohen says. It’s easy for them to push people away who tiptoe toward their emotional boundaries—which, btw, can be extreme. Meanwhile, on your side, it feels like something in the relationship is off, and you can’t quite find your footing.
Great. So anyone who's timid in dating is emotionally unavailable?
Nope! There's a distinct difference between someone who is emotionally unavailable and someone who is slow to open up, Cohen notes. So if you hear "Let's take things slow," that's not necessarily a relationship death wish.
No surprise here, but what it comes down to is communication. The person who’s a little more guarded will be “considerate of the fact that their behaviour might make someone else feel anxious,” she says. This person will talk to you about it, whereas the emotionally unavailable person, in short, won’t.
Why can’t everyone just share their feelings?
There are a few reasons someone might be emotionally unavailable, some of which are bigger red flags than others. Maybe they’re just not that into you, says Marni Feuerman, MSW, PsyD, marriage therapist and author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart About Healthy Relationships. Or they’re going through a dramatic life transition (a recent breakup, career change) and their emotions are hard to pin down.
However—and this is a big however—“if you find you are with someone who is willing to be in a relationship but constantly puts up barriers to intimacy, then the cause may run deeper than a temporary situation,” Feuerman says. Being emotionally unavailable can be rooted in the person’s childhood. As a kid, they learned to quiet their emotions and unattach themselves from other people (they have what's called an avoidant attachment style). Unaddressed childhood wounds and beliefs no doubt bleed into their adult relationships (as do yours, btw).
For the emotionally unavailable, “the unconscious idea here is that if you can block feelings, you can also block out your pain,” Cohen says. Too real? Try being on the other end of it, too. Neither side is fun.
So, what are signs of an emotionally unavailable partner?
Great question—and now I'll answer it, since I know that's what brought you here. The emotionally unavailable type might manifest in various ways, but these are common signs, per experts, that you're dealing with one:
1. They haven’t been in serious relationships.
No, relationship history isn’t everything, but it can give a hint or two about what the future could look like. If a person hasn’t been in a long-term, meaningful relationship, they might be incapable of it. “These partners will exit relationships before they are able to get more serious,” Cohen says.
2. They don’t like talking about real sh*t.
As in, less “Let’s talk about Temptation Island" and more “Let’s talk about the work crisis ruining my life.” An emotionally unavailable partner won’t seem engaged during these chats, even when you want their ear the most. If you can’t bond over the real conflict in your life, it’s a barrier to close connection.
3. They’re not affectionate (at least not consistently).
If your partner is emotionally evasive, your intimate life might be getting more mild by the day. Touch, compliments, and (duh) sex are all means to intimacy, which the emotionally unavailable avoids.
On your side, “the partner yearning for emotional closeness may get turned off sexually if that effort isn’t made,” Feuerman says. The result? “The relationship can feel more like a friendship or roommate situation.” Not exactly romantic.
P.S. This applies for the little sweet gestures, too. Say you pick up his favourite Sweetgreen salad on your way home, to show him you're thinking of him and want to make him happy. He’ll eat the salad alright, but he won’t understand or fully appreciate the sentiment behind it.
4. They’re unavailable...literally.
Let’s go back to that text you sent seven hours ago. Still nada? Someone who is emotionally unavailable can be hard to get in contact with, and communication even via text can be spotty. It's intentional.
“Your partner is putting physical distance between the two of you, which can also mask their emotional distance,” Cohen says. And if they say they’re busy all the time? Don’t even get me started on that excuse. It's 2019...who isn't busy?
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5. They don’t respect your time.
A rain check for a dinner date once in a while is totally acceptable—even you have those days when you’d rather wrap up in a blanket solo—but someone who is emotionally unavailable tends to cancel All. The. Time. Not only are your plans botched, but it’s a way to cut down on quality time spent together.
6. They think emotions are weak.
For the emotionally unavailable, people who wear their heart on their sleeves are easy to criticize and judge. This goes back to their avoidant attachment style, which is why they associate emotional needs with negativity. Uncomfortable with being serious, they might poke fun of you or lighten the mood when you start real talk (cue: "You're so sensitive"). “They’re showing that vulnerability is a turnoff,” Cohen says.
7. They misunderstand you.
“The emotionally unavailable partner can make someone with very healthy views of intimacy and closeness feel bad about their needs,” Feuerman says. They may not even realize they're doing it (again, they're not good at reading emotions). Regardless, feeling misunderstood or dismissed can feel like a harsh rejection, not to mention extremely frustrating, especially when you're trying to handle things diplomatically. That’s the opposite of what you should feel in a relationship.
8. They call you “intense.”
Say it with me: “My feelings are valid.” Closed-off people can see those who express their emotions as really intense or overdramatic—and often will call you out on it so you second-guess what you’re actually feeling. Really, they struggle hardcore to be empathetic.
Relationship therapist and owner of Modern Love Counselling Alysha Jeney, MA, LMFT, says this type of partner “deals with your feelings the same way they deal with theirs.” Read: shutting them down.
9. They’re defensive, okay?!
Considering an emotionally unavailable partner cannot, for the life of them, say how they truly feel, they automatically go on the defence when they’re exposed. They often blame others rather than recognizing and confronting the emotional fallout.
10. They pull away.
While you’re over here speaking your truth, your partner is over there running farther and farther away. The more you try to connect, Feuerman says, the more they pull away. “The push for closeness may feel uncomfortable or scary,” she explains. Hence, emotionally unavailable people withdraw and say (or silently convey, rather) “no comment” when talk of conflict or your future together comes up.
11. They don’t put the same effort into the relationship.
Equal partnership, who? The emotionally unavailable partner just can’t seem to get to the same place as you. “They anticipate being let down, so they don’t make the effort," Feuerman says. She notes when that person stops putting energy into the relationship, the end is nigh.
Sooo...what if you really, really like this person?
Here’s where it gets personal. It comes down to you to decide if it’s worth pursuing a relationship with someone who shows signs of being emotionally unavailable. Whatever your choice, proceed with caution.
“It was Maya Angelou who said, ‘When people show you who they are, believe them,’” Cohen says. “And in this scenario, I totally agree with that quote.” She says staying with someone who is emotionally unavailable could be a disaster—not quite the green light you might be looking for.
For the sake of your mental health, it’s important to remember that it’s not up to you to change this person’s ways. Again, while emotional unavailability could be a temporary result of one's current circumstances, many times, it goes way back to long before they met you.
A one-sided relationship with someone who can’t support or love you in the way you deserve is exhausting, not to mention could toe the line of a specific type of emotional abuse, called gaslighting. If the person shows no signs of changing their habits, think of moving on as an act of self-care. I know it sucks to give up on someone you want, but it will be a lot less painful if you part ways early.
Now, on the flip side, if your heart of hearts believes that “your partner is struggling with opening up or being responsive to your emotions," then "they may just need help learning how to tolerate and understand feelings,” Jeney says. There’s room to ask them questions that will help give you clarity on their hesitations, or learn what affection means to them. Just remember to be gentle and patient, and try not to get all heated up.
Partnered with this talk and a concerted, mutual (keyword here) effort to progress—bonus points if your partner goes to therapy!—it’s possible to have a future together. “A person might be able to break down the walls of someone who has some willingness to slowly take out the bricks,” Feuerman says. “It is ultimately up to them to become more emotionally accessible, present, and engaged.”
If Mr. Big could do it, there's hope.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.