It’s natural to be emotionally unavailable when you have a lot going on or need personal space. But what about people who are persistently so?
You may have felt someone you care about couldn’t be there for you emotionally at some point. Maybe they seemed distant, unaffectionate, or uninterested.
But, what about people who frequently seem this way? How can you recognize an emotionally unavailable person, in general?
Although everyone’s different and there are many reasons why someone may behave emotionally distant, there are a few telltale signs of emotional unavailability.
Learning to recognize them may help you make decisions about your relationships and protect yourself if you feel invested in someone emotionally unavailable.
An emotionally unavailable person has persistent difficulty expressing or handling emotions, or getting emotionally close to other people.
Everyone’s different and may express emotional unavailability in their own way. However, they may seem standoffish in general or find it challenging to talk about their feelings. They may avoid certain topics or situations that involve emotional expressions, for example.
“When we say someone is emotionally unavailable, we mean that they are not comfortable feeling their own emotions, sharing emotions with others, or being present and responsive to someone else’s emotions,” says Dr. Lindsay Jernigan, a licensed clinical psychologist in South Burlington, Vermont.
“Painful emotions, or emotions that make someone feel emotionally vulnerable, are particularly challenging.”
On the other hand, someone who’s emotionally available is comfortable sharing an emotional connection with someone else, and this includes emotional intimacy.
Emotional unavailability can impact all types of relationships, including:
- romantic partnerships
- close friendships and acquaintances
- parent and child relationships
- business associations
While emotional unavailability can affect anyone at any stage of life, certain cultural, familial, and gender influences may come into play.
“Many people, particularly male gender-identified people, receive culturally reinforced messages that emotional vulnerability is ‘weak,’ and in response, they develop patterns of emotional unavailability in an attempt to live up to cultural gender expectations,” says Jernigan.
Still, it’s a misconception that only men develop emotional unavailability or that all men are emotionally unavailable.
There are likely many causes for emotional unavailability. But much of the research on the topic has focused on the attachment theory and the early parent/child relationship.
Childhood attachment to caregivers may play a
Those children who don’t experience adequate responses to their emotional needs may be more likely to develop an avoidant attachment style. This means they’ll tend to be more independent, physically and emotionally, and have a harder time getting intimate with others or relying on them.
Jernigan says that “attachment wounds,” such as a history of being abandoned, neglected, or ridiculed, may also lead to emotional unavailability. These wounds can develop in childhood or later in life.
“Staying emotionally distant serves a self-protective purpose in these cases,” she says. “If I don’t have to feel, then I don’t have to feel pain, and if I don’t feel too close to you, then I’m not particularly vulnerable to having my feelings hurt by you.”
Other factors, such as cultural and gender influences, may play a role in someone’s tendency to be emotionally unavailable.
“This doesn’t mean that emotional availability can’t be developed if it doesn’t come naturally, but some differences along a spectrum of comfort with emotions is most likely part of natural human variability,” says Jernigan.
Emotional unavailability may look different depending on the situation, but the common theme is that dealing with emotions is a challenge.
Here are some signs that tell you someone is emotionally unavailable:
They avoid intimacy
Someone who’s emotionally unavailable may fear intimacy — sharing their innermost feelings and thoughts with you.
“Discomfort with vulnerability leads some people to distance themselves from their own emotional experiences, which makes it almost impossible to engage with others in a way that has emotional intimacy and depth,” says Jernigan.
She adds that a lack of physical affection or eye contact could also be indicators of emotional unavailability, although this isn’t a rule.
When your loved one dodges intimate conversations or situations, it might seem like they don’t trust you. But in most cases, it’s not a personal thing. They’re used to relying on themselves and being self-sufficient.
You may also find you “hit a wall” every time you try to get close to them.
They avoid commitment
Commitment is often difficult for someone who is emotionally unavailable.
For instance, they may put off labeling your romantic relationship or initiating a next step, such as a marriage proposal.
In a friendship, the person may be hesitant to make plans or might cancel often. They might also become uncomfortable if you express love for them or treat them as a confidant.
Their apparent fear of commitment can leave you feeling insecure about your bond with them.
They might prefer having casual relationships with multiple partners or may end relationships if things are getting “too serious.”
They get defensive easily
An emotionally unavailable person tends to respond in a defensive way. Or, they might blame you or someone else for their problems. They find trusting others challenging.
While the emotionally unavailable individual may react to a situation, they usually won’t want to tell you how they really feel about it.
“Someone who is emotionally unavailable rarely initiates conversations that involve discussing relationship dynamics, hurt feelings, or requests for behavioral changes,” says Jernigan.
They aren’t available… period
If you tell them you need them, emotionally unavailable people tend to run the other way. Sometimes, they literally are nowhere to be found when you want to talk.
Or they might stick around, but they’ll tend to minimize your emotional expressions. They could also try to change the subject or just withdraw from an emotional conversation.
Someone who’s emotionally unavailable might persistently want to keep topics “light” even when you tell them you need to vent or need advice.
They might not empathize with your feelings
Because they tend to “turn off” emotions and lack insight, people who are emotionally unavailable might also exhibit low empathy — the inability to understand or share someone else’s feelings.
In other words, an emotionally unavailable person may not be able to relate or consider your feelings.
This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care, but they still act in a certain way that overlooks how you feel.
Since an emotionally unavailable person isn’t comfortable exploring their own emotions, they might not be able to connect with other people’s emotional needs, either.
“A lack of exploration of one’s own emotional landscape leads to a lack of personal insight, and ultimately, limited comfort with and attunement to others’ feelings,” says Jernigan.
While the signs of emotional unavailability and narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may overlap, they aren’t the same thing.
An emotionally unavailable person has difficulties expressing or handling emotions. Someone with narcissistic traits, however, may also have:
- an exaggerated sense of self-importance
- feelings of superiority
- a sense of entitlement
- a persistent need to be powerful, successful, smart, admired, or loved
- persistent low empathy
Relationships can be challenging when one party is emotionally unavailable.
“It’s not something you can fix for them, nor is it something they can quickly and easily change about themselves for you,” Jernigan says. “Engaging in this process with someone takes time, patience, and compassion.”
If you’re in a relationship with someone emotionally unavailable, it’s important to understand that this isn’t something they can turn back on at will.
Emotional unavailability can be managed, but it often requires the person to acknowledge this blockage and seek help.
In that case, a mental health professional may be able to support the self-exploratory process with psychotherapy or counseling. This can take years, though.
It may be a good idea for you to consider if this is the type of bond that fulfills you. If it isn’t, stepping aside may be the only way to go.