What being emotionally unavailable means + tips to connect with them

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It’s 10 pm on a Sunday evening and I find myself swiping through countless profiles on my go-to dating app.

Under the heading of ‘what are you looking for?’ a conspicuous amount seem to declare that they are “not sure yet”.

It’s a pattern I’ve noticed. I’m sure you have too if you’ve ever used dating apps—and that’s most of us these days.

The dating world can seem packed with people shopping around but failing to commit. Seeking shallow connection but avoiding real intimacy.

Are these the emotionally unavailable people we hear so much about? But what does being emotionally unavailable really mean?

And how can we get around this culturally rife phenomenon to better connect with people who seemingly run from love?

In a nutshell: what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?

Experts have tried to define emotional availability and all the components that make someone emotionally available or not.

According to one researcher (Emde 1980):

“Emotional availability refers to an individual’s emotional responsiveness and “attunement” to another’s needs and goals; key to the construct is the acceptance of a wide range of emotions rather than responsiveness solely to distress.”

If emotional availability relies on an ability to open up, emotional unavailability is defined by the opposite — being closed off.

In essence, being emotionally unavailable means someone struggles to deal with or express their emotions.

It’s not only their own emotions that they find difficult. It’s other people’s too. And this can make it difficult for them to form close bonds and connect with others on a deeper level.

Is being emotionally unavailable a real thing?

Experts agree that emotional availability really is a thing. But just how common is it in reality?

There aren’t any specific stats on the number of people who may be emotionally unavailable. But it’s estimated that up to 30% of the population could have an avoidant attachment style, making them more prone to emotional unavailability (as we’ll see later).

It could also be the case that you feel like you meet emotionally unavailable men or women more often, simply because they are more likely to be single.

People with secure attachments often tend to feel more satisfied in their relationships and enter into stable and committed connections that go the distance. So, put simply, it could be that emotionally unavailable people are more likely to stay in the dating market.

But what’s tricky is that many of the signs of being emotionally unavailable can overlap with someone being not that into you.

Let’s face it, flaky people can feel a dime a dozen in modern dating, and although some are emotionally unavailable, not all are.

We may quickly label someone as emotionally unavailable when the problems lie elsewhere.

If someone constantly keeps others at a distance and always has a self-protective barrier up that stops people from getting too close, then they are most likely emotionally unavailable.

On the other hand, if someone doesn’t text you back for a few days, makes and breaks plans, or says they’re not looking for a relationship right now they may simply be keeping their options open and are not as interested in you as they should be.

It can be difficult to know if someone is really emotionally unavailable or just a bit of a jerk.

So what are the real signs of someone who is emotionally unavailable?

What are the signs of emotionally unavailable people?

1) They avoid emotional intimacy

Intimacy is all about sharing who you are with someone else.

It requires plenty of vulnerability as you expose your innermost thoughts and feelings to someone else, not always knowing how they will be received.

In the words of vulnerability researcher and author Brene Brown:

“We wake up in the morning. We armor up. We go out into the world with this, ‘Hey, take no prisoners. You’re not going to see me. You’re not going to hurt me. We come home, and we don’t take that armor off.”

This is especially the case for emotionally unavailable people. Their “armor” leads them to distance themselves from emotions — both their own and other people’s. And that makes intimacy tricky.

2) They avoid commitment

People who are emotionally unavailable can be harder to pin down in more ways than one.

For example, they may seem reluctant to make plans, big or small, in advance. Even if they seem quite enthusiastic about meeting, they prefer to arrange the details later and not make firm commitments.

If you find yourself in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable it can seem as though they drag their feet through every relationship milestone. They are hesitant to make it official, move in together, get engaged, etc.

Fear of commitment is a big sign of an emotionally unavailable person.

3) They avoid tough conversations

Because they feel naturally averse to discussing emotions, you’ll often find that direct talks about feelings, problems, or issues with the relationship are avoided.

They’re certainly unlikely to bring these sorts of topics up themselves.

You might also find that they get defensive as a protective barrier to deal with the discomfort.

4) They walk away at the first sign of difficulties

I mentioned earlier that the dating scene can feel awash with emotionally unavailable people at times.

And that can be because emotionally unavailable people are less likely to stick out the difficulties in a relationship.

Instead, as avoidant types, it seems easier to walk away.

So you may find that if someone is emotionally unavailable breaking up is their go-to solution to their relationship problems.

As couples coach Kyle Benson points out in the Huffington Post:

“Our modern world of dating is full of emotionally unavailable partners. The sort of people who are fiercely independent and don’t like closeness often end their relationships first…Therefore, avoidants are in the dating pool more often, and for longer periods of time.”

5) They feel distant

The connection between you have with them just feels vague and removed.

It’s not that you don’t have a good time together or enjoy one another’s company. But it’s almost like you don’t get to see below the surface. You’re always getting the external view.

Despite knowing each other for some time now, you don’t feel like you are growing closer. It’s almost like you hit a wall that you can’t pass, and they keep you at arm’s length.

You don’t feel a growing bond developing, if anything you feel stuck.

6) They appear cold when you share feelings

They don’t react well to you sharing your emotions with them. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about your relationship either.

They may seem uncomfortable hearing about your feelings in general and shy away from deep and meaningful when emotions are involved.

If you try to discuss deeper emotional topics you might find that they change the subject, close down or try to minimize your feelings.

You get a sense that they struggle to find empathy for how you feel.

7) It’s an unbalanced relationship

Everything feels like it’s on their terms.

You are the glue that is keeping it together. You fear that if you didn’t act this way, your relationship would fall apart or the connection would drift away.

It leads to an unbalanced feeling in the amount of emotional and practical effort you make compared to them.

8) Their dating history points to a pattern

Of course, we cannot unfairly judge someone on their past behavior. Everybody has the ability to grow and change. And many of us do things in our younger years that we learn from or simply grow out of.

But red flags in someone’s relationship history could point to an underlying problem.

For example, if you start dating someone in their 50s who confesses they have never been in love and don’t tend to stay in relationships much longer than a few months, it’s bound to set alarm bells ringing.

Rather than just circumstantial or coincidental, strong patterns of avoidance in relationships in the past can suggest emotional unavailability.

9) They don’t like labels

Someone who is emotionally unavailable may shy away from making things official.

It seems safer territory to say that you’re casually dating, or simply “friends” even though your relationship is very clearly a romantic one.

This is a way of creating a mental barrier that feels less confronting to them.

They might avoid defining what the relationship is, or using terms like boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner.

10) You can’t figure out what they want from you

It’s common for someone on the receiving end of an emotionally unavailable person to struggle to understand what they actually want.

They seemingly send mixed messages. There is some kind of miss match.

They may say the right things, but their actions fail to back them up. Or they tell you they want to be with you, but you feel a distance from them that would suggest otherwise.

They’re not direct about how they feel and their emotions in general.

11) They blow hot and cold

There may be inconsistent communication. One day it feels like they really like you, but the next they’ve withdrawn and you can’t figure out what is going on in their mind.

It could feel like things started out well, but the deeper you fall for them, the more they pull back.

What is emotional unavailability caused by?

Emotional unavailability is a learned behavior.

Someone becomes emotionally unavailable when their life experiences teach them to avoid intimacy.

Often, the moments of closeness they have experienced in the past have caused them more pain than pleasure. And this results in coping mechanisms that prevent feeling this kind of exposure in the future.

The exact causes can be complex, and may also involve more than one trigger. Let’s take a look at what they are:

1) Attachment styles and childhood

A lot of research done on emotional unavailability looks at people’s attachment styles.

Our attachment style explains the ways we connect with others and is largely formed in early childhood.

That is why it is heavily influenced and can be entirely dictated by the relationship we have with our primary caregivers.

If you didn’t get your emotional needs met in your formative years, you’re more likely to develop an unhealthy attachment style.

If someone develops an avoidant attachment style, rather than a secure attachment, they may pull back from the closeness of relationships.

2) Personal circumstances

It can depend on what is going on in someone’s life at the time too.

For example, whether they are suffering from any mental health conditions like depression or anxiety that cause them to withdraw.

It could also be that someone is in a stage of their life where they want to purposely avoid committed relationships and so put up the wall of emotional unavailability.

There are times when people are emotionally unavailable and it is only temporary.

3) Cultural pressures and expectations

There are certain gender stereotypes floating around still that can make it harder for men to express themselves and open up emotionally.

Whilst both men and women suffer from emotional unavailability, it can be seen as more common amongst guys.

Research shows that some men still struggle to show their emotions.

One study cited in Mind Body Green found “58% of men feel like they’re expected to be “emotionally strong and to show no weakness,” and 38% of men have avoided talking to others about their feelings to avoid appearing “unmanly.” Over half (53%) of American men between ages 18 and 34 say they feel pressure to be “manly,”.

It could be that societal messages within certain cultures that reinforce the notion that vulnerability makes you weak could contribute to emotional unavailability.

4) Break-ups

You know what they say, ‘once bitten, twice shy’.

The scars of heartbreak can leave their mark and close us off from taking romantic risks again.

If someone experiences a difficult relationship in the past or has recently gone through a painful breakup, they may be emotionally unavailable.

This might be a temporary thing as they heal, or the impact might be more far-reaching if they start to learn emotional unavailability as a coping technique.

As highlighted by Insider, research has shown that whether we feel ready for a commitment right now and our past experiences in love, makes a huge difference to emotional availability:

“A 2018 study found that singles who reported readiness were more likely to have greater interest in a specific individual, behave with intent to start a relationship, and engage in flirting and physical touch. The study also found that people who had negative relationships in the past, such as if they were cheated on, are less likely to be ready for a committed relationship.”

How to deal with someone who is emotionally unavailable

1) Consider the causes

We’ve just looked at some of the potential reasons or contributing factors for emotional unavailability.

Understanding what drives this person’s emotional distance can help you to better understand them.

It may also give you insights into the best way of dealing with things.

For example, whether their emotional unavailability is mild or circumstantial (for example, straight after a break up) or whether they have deeper issues that may need more introspective self-work on their part.

2) Learn their love language

It’s not that emotionally unavailable people are robots incapable of love and affection. But they may feel safer communicating and dealing with their emotions in different ways.

I really recommend getting better acquainted with love languages in general, regardless of whether you think you’re dealing with an emotionally unavailable person.

They can help us to understand the different ways in which we all express our love, and the ways we like to receive expressions of love in return.

Emotionally unavailable people in relationships may not communicate feelings in the same way as you.

For example, they might prefer thoughtful actions over affirming words. They might express feelings in more subtle ways rather than grand gestures too.

Learning to understand how each other communicates love is really useful in helping to avoid misunderstandings.

3) Let them know how it’s impacting you

Sometimes we inadvertently enable someone’s emotional unavailability.

We might bridge the gap of their lack of effort by putting in even more.

We might hold back from expressing our true needs and wants to them, for fear that it will scare them off or rock the boat.

We might let their independence overpower us so that we let them get their own way for the sake of keeping the peace.

But in order to address problems with emotional unavailability, it’s important to highlight when their behavior impacts negatively on you.

For example, saying “I feel really disappointed when you canceled our date last minute” or “I feel like you’re not letting me in, and that makes me kind of sad”.

The only chance to correct unhealthy behaviors is to be aware of them, and you have a right to voice how someone else’s behavior impacts you emotionally in a relationship.

4) Give them space

Patience might be key if you’re dealing with someone who finds emotional connection challenging.

You may need to strive for baby steps when it comes to progression rather than pushing too fast too soon.

How much you are prepared to do this may come down to the strength of your feelings, combined with the progress you see and how receptive they seem to make changes.  

It’s important to let them know what you want from them, but then step back to see if they can deliver.

As I said, emotional unavailability can create very unbalanced connections where one person does all the chasing and puts in the majority of the emotional effort.

As difficult as it is, if that person is you, then you need to stop doing that and see if they step up.

5) Encourage them to help themselves

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and heal someone else’s emotional wounds?

But sadly, we can’t. And that means it’s ultimately the responsibility of the person who is dealing with emotional unavailability to do the work.

You can encourage your partner to take a closer look at emotionally unavailable tendencies though.

You might propose that they seek therapy in order for them to better understand themselves and the causes of their emotional unavailability.

Experts have even suggested that starting a meditation practice can help emotionally unavailable people.

Relationship expert Chantal Heide told Global News that meditation can:

“shrink the amygdala, also known as the fight or flight section of the brain, reducing the capacity to feel stress and anxiety, and increase grey matter in the hippocampus, the brain’s centre of compassion and introspection. This helps increase positive feelings.”

6) Create boundaries to protect yourself

Can you change someone who is emotionally unavailable? No. That is down to them.

What you can do is try to support them and be prepared to try to navigate stumbling blocks that might arise.

But change has to come from within. We cannot externally impose internal change on others.

You might need to create clearer and firmer boundaries in order to protect yourself from emotionally unavailable people.

That means really getting to grips with what you need and want from someone. What your nonnegotiables are and where you are more prepared to be flexible.

There aren’t any hard rules about boundary settings. It’s ultimately about drawing a line, but where that line is might differ from person to person.

But it should always be governed by the firm foundations of healthy self-esteem and self-respect.

The truth is that you may have to walk away from an emotionally unavailable person if you can’t find a middle ground, and they aren’t respecting your boundaries.

To conclude: Can an emotionally unavailable person like you?

Absolutely.

Emotionally unavailable people are not bad people. They’re not incapable of love or affection. They just find it difficult to let themselves get emotionally attached in the same way as someone who is emotionally secure.

Emotional unavailability can also exist on a spectrum. The truth is that emotional availability is often something that many of us need to work on.

Emotionally unavailable people can choose to try to bring down their walls. But only they can make that decision.

If you are with someone who struggles to open up, it might involve time and patience to break those walls down.

But it will only happen if they are willing and able to work on their own issues. It is not something that you can do for them.

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Pearl Nash

Pearl Nash has years of experience writing relationship articles for single females looking for love. After being single for years with no hope of meeting Mr. Right, she finally managed to get married to the love of her life. Now that she’s settled down and happier than she’s ever been in her life, she's passionate about sharing all the wisdom she's learned over the journey. Pearl is also an accredited astrologer and publishes Hack Spirit's daily horoscope.

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