Home Health & Fitness What Does Emotionally Unavailable Mean? An Expert Weighs In

What Does Emotionally Unavailable Mean? An Expert Weighs In

What Does Emotionally Unavailable Mean? An Expert Weighs In


Imagine dating someone who shuts down anytime you disagree or talk about your feelings. Perhaps their messages are mostly replies because you’re usually the one who texts first. When you try to make plans with them, they take forever to respond or make excuses about why they can’t spend time with you. Sound familiar? These could be signs of emotional unavailability.

But what does emotionally unavailable mean, exactly? The pop psychology term typically applies to people not ready or able to participate fully in a relationship. An individual may be emotionally unavailable “by choice or because they have some work to do to connect with you on a level that you’re asking them to,” says Daryl Appleton, EdD, wellness consultant and Fortune 500 executive coach.

You might begin to question if they actually want to be in a relationship or have another reason for stringing you along. Before you keep agonizing about why your love interest seems distant, read on for expert advice on recognizing the signs of an emotionally unavailable partner and what you can do about it.

Signs of an Emotionally Unavailable Partner

At the beginning of a relationship, it’s perfectly normal to not be emotionally invested right away. “There’s a buildup,” Dr. Appleton says. “We need to get through levels like, do I trust this person? Are we compatible? Can I be vulnerable and allow them into my world?”

An emotionally unavailable person tends to avoid getting into deep conversations about relationships or long-term plans, like spending the holidays together or starting a family. They’re not fully present and may resort to telling you what you want to hear, Dr. Appleton adds. For example, they may agree to be your date to a friend’s wedding and then cancel at the last minute because of a concert or work function they can’t miss.

While you’re pouring your heart into a conversation, the other person may not be listening or asking follow-up questions. They might be coming over for sex but not wanting to go on dates or share in your interests or hobbies. “At some point, you’re going to have doubts about this person or have people in your life questioning your relationship,” Dr. Appleton says.

When someone is emotionally unavailable, it’s unlikely that they’ll introduce you to their friends and family. If they meet your loved ones, they won’t ask questions or try to get to know the people who are important to you. Dr. Appleton explains that context matters. It may just be that your partner is shy around new people but if they act like a social butterfly except when meeting your family, this could point to them being emotionally unavailable.

Another sign of emotional unavailability is someone who “avoids having difficult conversations or healthy arguments with you,” Dr. Appleton says. “They may not be willing to put effort and energy into finding a resolution.” Instead, they’ll walk away, give you the silent treatment, placate you, or do anything to avoid dealing with conflict.

Recognizing Emotional Unavailability in Ourselves

It’s easy to point the finger at other people but sometimes our own actions may signal that we’re emotionally unavailable.

Let’s say you recently went through a breakup, for example, and then quickly jumped into a rebound relationship. Dating someone to avoid being alone could be a sign of emotional unavailability. “Wanting to date and being ready to date are two totally different things,” Dr. Appleton says. Another sign is jumping into a relationship because of the “thrill of somebody liking and having interest in you but you’re not willing to open up and be vulnerable in a way that allows you to have a deeper connection,” she adds.

One of the reasons we get into relationships, despite being emotionally unavailable, is that “intimacy feels good,” Dr. Appleton says. When we’re physically or emotionally intimate with someone, our bodies release oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. Essentially, we can enjoy these feel-good hormones without having to invest time, energy, or resources into a relationship.

Another reason we recoil at the idea of becoming emotionally invested is to avoid getting hurt. If you’ve been abandoned by a caregiver or partner, you may go into a relationship expecting it to fail. Your focus may be on finding someone to fulfill a short-term need, like sex or companionship, rather than doing the work it takes to heal and become a supportive partner to another person.

How to Navigate a Relationship With Someone Who Is Emotionally Unavailable

Be Honest about Your Needs

“We tend to find what we’re seeking, consciously or subconsciously,” Dr. Appleton says. In other words, if you’ve had a history of dating emotionally unavailable people, you may carry these experiences into future relationships. One example is misleading the other person about what you’re looking for in a relationship.

You might say upfront that you just want to have fun and keep things casual “but deep down, you’re thinking that you can change their mind,” Dr. Appleton says. Perhaps you tell yourself that they just need more time to move in together or make a serious commitment. Since this isn’t fair to either of you, it’s important to be honest with yourself and your partner about your needs and expectations.

Have a Conversation with Your Partner

Try sitting down with your partner and discussing what emotional availability looks like to each of you. It might include talking about your feelings, showing affection, or honoring commitments. If you’re not on the same page, “you might have a compatibility issue, not an emotional availability issue,” Dr. Appleton says. “Even if you were both 100 percent emotionally available, you may be better off as friends rather than a couple.”

In having this conversation, you may discover that they have been reluctant to meet your family because they struggle with social anxiety or don’t feel confident about their job. A disclosure like this takes vulnerability and shows they are emotionally invested.

For a relationship to grow, you need to meet your partner where they are at. If you want to introduce your partner to your family, avoid saying, “It’s not a big deal. I’ll be there. They’ll love you.” Instead, try saying, “What do you need for us to get to that point? How can I help you? I want to support you.”

Consider Going to Counseling

Dr. Appleton suggests working through these issues in couples therapy. The idea is to give the other person space to discuss their needs and validate each other for being vulnerable. If your partner is open to it, you can suggest how they can be more present or supportive without judging or blaming them.

You also don’t necessarily need to be in the room together. “It certainly helps to have both parties present, but you could do this on your own,” Dr. Appleton explains. What’s critical is doing some self-inquiry by asking yourself, “Why did this happen and what was my part in that?” Increasing self-awareness can help you work toward healing and building a fulfilling relationship.

Nandini Maharaj, PhD, is a trained therapist with a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in public health. Her writing on health, wellness, relationships, and dogs has been featured by PS, Self, Well+Good, Business Insider, Apartment Therapy, American Kennel Club, and more.


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