Icelandic black shoreline, a metaphor for the cold feeling of having an emotionally unavailable partner.
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Do You Have an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
12/7/2021
Last updated:
5/8/2022
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Date published:
12/7/2021
Last updated:
5/8/2022

TLDR;

  • If you’re finding it hard to connect on a deeper level with your long-term partner, it could be because they are emotionally unavailable.
  • Emotional unavailability can stem from poor parenting, childhood trauma, depression or anxiety, or a lack of trust due to previous relationship issues.
  • Emotional unavailability can be permanent or temporary in nature and can be difficult to resolve depending on the underlying cause.
  • It often requires outside help or support, such as therapy, to support a couple in overcoming emotional issues such as this.

 

Do your relationship dynamics just seem way off? Do you feel you’re in a one-sided relationship that never seems to get any deeper? Are you desperate for more emotional intimacy but feeling your partner is moving further away?

Perhaps your partner is emotionally unavailable.

Allow us to explain.

What do we mean by emotional unavailability?

If someone is emotionally unavailable they may find it hard to be fully present in an intimate relationship. They may be hard to read or appear to be blowing hot and cold.

If your current partner is emotionally unavailable, you'll notice that they shy away from discussing deep emotions. It may be hard work to build a personal connection on any kind of deeper level. And without that emotional and sexual intimacy, it can make it extremely difficult to build a healthy and fulfilling relationship.

As the partner of someone who is emotionally unavailable, it’s not uncommon to end up questioning the relationship. You may feel you are putting an awful lot of effort in and receiving very little in return. The relationship might feel shallow or one-sided. In the worst case, you may worry whether your partner even likes you at all.

The trouble is, once you’re invested in the relationship you want to fight for it, you want it to work. Perhaps you feel you have the power within you to help your partner behave differently. And you’re not ready to give up on it yet.

What makes someone emotionally unavailable?

In adult relationships we might expect a certain level of emotional maturity. Open conversation, honesty and an ability to empathise and rationalize behavior. In reality, though, this is rarely the case. We are all a product of our background and childhood experiences. And we all have different beliefs about relationships. In short, everyone is different.

We’ve talked in depth before about childhood attachment styles and how they can impact relationships throughout your life. Emotional unavailability is closely linked to the avoidant attachment style. A child who suffers trauma, or who is looked after in early life by someone who doesn’t offer much in the way of support or affection, can end up with intimacy issues in later life.

Trust can be a big factor, too. If someone has been betrayed in the past it becomes much more difficult to open up to someone else in the future. This can lead to a fear of intimacy, in case a new partner proves themselves to be untrustworthy as well. Or perhaps it is just that your emotion avoiding partner is simply not ready to prioritise you over their own needs.

The hopeful news is that emotional unavailability is often a temporary state. When our minds are full of anxiety, stress and day to day fires to fight, it can be hard to find the time and headspace to open up and let someone else in. Depression, in particular, can have a huge impact on emotional withdrawal from a partner.

So how can you spot it?

It can be difficult to recognize emotional unavailability, particularly if it’s a new term or something you’re not familiar with. Here are a few signs to look out for:

  • Your partner finds it difficult to commit to (and stick to) plans
  • They are not communicating consistently with you
  • You feel your partner is not 100% invested in the relationship
  • No matter how hard you try, you feel you never get closer
  • You struggle to get your partner to open up about opinions, thoughts or feelings
  • You feel like you’re always the one chasing for action or seeking reassurance

Of course, if you’re trying to get your partner to share their sexual fantasies you might find they’re not willing to open up. That’s not necessarily a red flag. But if you’re simply trying to build emotional connections and develop intimacy, and they’re still not open to it, this might be a sign. Test the waters with these sex questions designed to help build confidence and connection.  

Are emotionally unavailable partners a lost cause?

In a word, no. Emotional unavailability doesn’t have to be permanent. It is a complex issue, though, and it will depend on what the cause is as to how easy it is to overcome. But as long as you’re both willing to work at it there is always hope.

Our advice is to first explore where the issue has come from. Has this always been your partner’s outlook on life or has there been a shift? Has there been something going on at home or at work that is causing particular stress or anxiety? This could be causing them to retreat.

Next, what’s the extent of their emotional unavailability? Have they checked out of sex? Are they engaged with the kids but not with you? Or, worst case, are they checked out across the board?

And what is their window of tolerance for discussing these issues? Can you chat about it openly? Do you need to approach it more gently, i.e., “I’m noticing that lately you seem a bit different, are you OK? How can I help?”. Or is it a total no go area? It’s important to start where your partner is. Have the conversations you need to have while respecting their current window of tolerance. And as the intimacy grows gradually, so will that window.

And finally think about yourself in all of this. If your partner’s emotional availability goes across the board; if it is potentially just the type of person they are, is that enough for you? Is the relationship good enough? Do you feel underneath it all that you deserve more? How many times are you willing to express your needs before you recognize that things are not going to change?

Sometimes it’s important, for our own mental health and that of our loved ones, to stop pretending. Where emotional availability is concerned, sometimes a person is simply not capable of giving you what you need right now. And maybe you can’t fix that. Only you can decide if you can live with it.

Could you be the emotionally unavailable one?

If this article has rung a bell with you and you believe you recognize a part of yourself in its words, maybe you are the one who is emotionally unavailable. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong. Perhaps it’s just something you’ve not picked up on before. The good news is there’s plenty you can do to rectify the situation, as long as you’re prepared to put the effort in. Although it’s not realistic to expect it to happen instantly.

The best and first thing you can do is let your partner know that you recognize there’s a problem and you’re willing to work on it. And let them see you taking steps towards doing that. This alone might be enough to begin building and strengthening those important connections

Try to work out the cause - this is not something that’s easy to do alone. You may find talking to a therapist or counsellor can help unlock deeply buried feelings. It may be something recent and obvious, or it could be rooted in treatment you received as a child.

Think about how emotional unavailability is showing up in your relationship. Do you find yourself making commitments and then dreading them as they approach, and wanting to back out? Or are you worried about losing your independence? This is quite common and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with it, but your partner could feel as though you are not prioritizing them. In a healthy relationship, partners should balance one another’s needs with their commitment to each other. This will look different in every relationship. Hence it may take some time as well as teamwork to establish how to do this in a way that feels right for both of you.

Being emotionally unavailable does not make you a bad person. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’re incapable of loving your partner. But it may mean you have some work, or maybe we should call it personal development, to do if you want to overcome the emotional distance and build an authentic connection with your partner.

Learning to open up about your thoughts and feelings can be terrifying. Particularly if you’ve never really done it before. It’s usually better to start slowly and try to get your thoughts out before you begin to share them. Perhaps try writing in a journal - just 5 minutes a day as a start point, and don’t be afraid to open up a little to a trusted friend.

And begin to take notice of the healthy relationships that go on around you. You can learn a lot simply by taking note.

Whether you’re the ‘unavailable person’ or the romantic partner, long-term relationships built on emotional unavailability can feel challenging and even unfulfilling. You might feel like you’re in a broken relationship. One that is failing. Be reassured though, it is possible to rebuild that meaningful connection, as long as both partners are willing to put in the work. This probably isn’t something you can work through alone though, and that’s OK.

If you are struggling with emotional vulnerability and feel it’s leading to distress or mental health issues, please do make sure you seek support. Couples counselling or a relationship coach or marriage therapist should be able to help you understand more about your behavior in relationships and encourage you to find a little more comfort with vulnerability. The Blueheart app also provides communication exercises, but that might be better suited for a point in time where there's already been a bit of progress in your communication through other therapy. If you feel like you're ready, give it a go.

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