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Emotional intelligence

“Am I Emotionally Unavailable?”

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10 min

“Am I Emotionally Unavailable?”

“You’re so emotionally distant! You don’t ever talk about how you feel! It’s so hard to live with an emotionally absent person like you.”

Have you ever heard something like that or said it to someone you cared about? If so, you probably experienced difficulties communicating with others, or you are the one who seems emotionally unavailable in relationships.

But why does it happen? Why do some people understand human emotions in entirely different ways? And, more importantly, why do we showcase our feelings differently?

The essence is how we respond to the emotional needs of people around us. While some may seem engaged, interested, and caring, others might look avoiding and indifferent. 

If you think you may be an emotionally unavailable partner or live with a person who seems quite detached, read further. Breeze will help you discover how it can feel and why some of us find talking about our feelings challenging.

What Does Emotionally Unavailable Mean?

We all experience this state from time to time. You don’t want to share what’s inside and need personal space to think about your feelings. People may consider you unresponsive, but this feeling goes away quite quickly.

Nevertheless, while for most of us, this behavior is temporary, there are also those who permanently fear or avoid commitment. This is what being emotionally unavailable means.

Here are some other typical patterns of such behavior.

  • Emotionally unavailable people don’t feel comfortable with their feelings.
  • They either struggle or don’t like opening up and expressing their thoughts.
  • Emotionally detached people find it challenging to hold space or be empathic to other people’s feelings.
  • They may purposefully avoid situations where it’s necessary to express emotions.

Let’s imagine the scenario: Julia and Ben are sitting in a cafe, and she shares exciting news about a recent promotion. 

Smiling happily, she raises her eyes and delightfully awaits his reaction. But instead, distracted by content on his phone, Ben changes the subject without looking up. Julia feels hurt and rejected. For the umpteenth time, she realizes the distance between them.

Ben’s behavior may speak to a lack of emotional availability — the ability to talk openly about his feelings. As you can understand, this meaning strongly bonds with emotional intelligence (EI) — the ability to recognize, evaluate, and control one’s own emotions and those of others.

People who have low EI for someone around may seem emotionally absent. So, if you find it difficult to identify and understand others’ feelings and show yours, take Breeze’s test to gain personalized insights into your EI.

3 Signs of Emotional Unavailability

While some people ask themselves, “Why am I so emotional?” others may have difficulties with building committed and empathetic relationships. 

But how can we notice this pattern? Are there any signals that other people perceive you as unresponsive and avoidant? Actually, yes.

Below is a checklist to determine if you appear standoffish and detached from others. You can also use it to assess whether you have emotionally distant parents, an unavailable partner, or a friend.

1. Fear of Intimacy

Let’s remember Tony Stark from Marvel movies. “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.” He seemed perfect at first sight. However, Iron Man had an intense fear of intimacy.

Humor and sarcasm were his defense mechanisms for deflecting deep conversations and staying emotionally unavailable. These signs were the most noticeable in the first few films, while later, the character took serious steps toward emotional growth.

In reality, emotionally unavailable people also have difficulties with sharing their feelings and thoughts. They might fear being vulnerable and do everything to keep their distance from others. 

It might feel like hitting a wall whenever you start a serious conversation. Moreover, such people also show little physical affection. They may scroll TikTok or Instagram while you’re pouring your heart out.

Insight. Some people may appear uninterested or distrustful, even when this is not always true. They may be afraid to lose themselves in relationships or have trust issues, making it difficult for them to open their hearts.

Relationships with an emotionally unavailable partner can be pretty challenging. If you currently experience something like this, it might be a good idea to contact a therapist and seek guidance on how to navigate these dynamics effectively for your mental health.

2. Lack of Empathy

What comes to your mind when I ask, “What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?”

Affection, intimacy, and… Empathy!

Imagine that you are crying because of work problems. Emotionally absent partners may be confused by the display of these tears. It might be difficult for them to understand what happened, put themselves in your shoes, and provide enough support.

Why does it happen? In a nutshell, such people often “turn off” their feelings. Because they don’t really understand their own feelings, it’s even more complicated for them to appreciate and satisfy others’ emotional needs.

Insight. Being emotionally unavailable doesn’t always mean a lack of interest. Even if people seem distant, they might care and feel involved. Besides, in many cases, they don’t know how to show this support and attachment.

3. Avoiding Commitment

Emotionally-withdrawn people often avoid labels, prefer polygamous relationships, and keep going on dates not to turn the next “situationship” into something serious. If you’re in a relationship, they delay moving in together or proposing as long as possible.

Sounds like they don’t want to be with anyone, right? However, this isn’t always the case.

“Too serious” relationships often seem scary for them. Emotionally unavailable partners are afraid of getting too close as this way, they try to avoid painful experiences. 

Quite often, this behavior stems from the fact that a person didn’t feel safe, supported, and loved in childhood. As a result, such children experience attachment trauma that might negatively influence their ability to build healthy and committed relationships.

The same is true with friends and parents. They may cancel nights out without reason, not initiate communication, and hesitate to book a trip together.

Insight. Sometimes, toxic relationship signs might seem quite similar to communication with emotionally absent people. 

Thus, if you seek long-term commitment or, in contrast, look for polygamous relationships, it may be better to discuss everything from the spot. This will help you minimize emotional fluctuations and clarify the situation for everyone.

A metaphorical illustration of how emotionally unavailable people may feel

Why Am I Emotionally Unavailable?

You recognize that you resonate with being emotionally unavailable. Several or all signs mentioned above are about you. Moreover, you feel that it’s tough for you to build deep emotional bonds with others.

Or, you may want to discover why your closest person behaves so distantly.

In any case, discovering the root cause can be the first step toward fostering healthier relationships. So, let’s take this step together.

Emotionally Unavailable Parents

Childhood trauma is one of the main reasons why people develop insecure attachment. An emotionally unavailable mother or father who didn’t offer enough affection or offered affection in a misattuned way could become your role model for future relationships.

Neglect, emotional fluctuations, and parentification trauma could also influence your attachment style. 

People who survived adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) might have trouble showing real feelings. This way, they try to avoid experiencing pain.

Now, think about the other situation. Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I like emotionally unavailable guys?” In fact, this may be a result of childhood trauma or unmet developmental needs.

For instance, if a person grew up with an emotionally unavailable dad, she may seek partners who approach her the same way. Although some people don’t carry this model into adulthood, this situation is quite common.

Do you want to discover whether you have a childhood trauma that may influence your current relations? Take a quick test to get personalized insights and tips to start your self-exploration journey.

Painful Breakup Experience

So, you’ve analyzed your childhood and haven’t found any signs of an emotionally unavailable mother or dad. Moreover, you lived with dedicated and supportive parents in a committed family. So, why is it difficult for you to open up?

Emotional baggage from past experiences doesn’t always come from childhood. You may feel scared to become vulnerable and intimate because of a recent breakup, cheating, physical, emotional, or financial abuse, etc.

A good illustration is that 48.4% of all women and 48.8% of all men in the US have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner. So, if you or your loved ones are emotionally absent, it could stem from negative experiences from the past.

Mental Health Conditions

Finally, yet importantly, certain mental health issues can coincide with emotional unavailability. People experiencing their symptoms may find it difficult to show their emotions and respond to others’ emotional needs. Most often, this happens under such conditions:

  • Sociopathy
  • Psychopathy
  • Depression
  • Autism
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • General anxiety disorder
  • Substance use disorders 

There’s also avoidant personality disorder that makes people feel constantly scared of negative feedback and rejection. They may seem emotionally unavailable, but in reality, they deal with a constant anxiety that makes them essentially avoid others.

How to Stop Being Emotionally Unavailable?

Here is a pro tip from Nicole Arzt, LMFT, “Emotional unavailability exists on a large spectrum. It generally comes from a deep fear of rejection or abandonment. If nobody modeled healthy emotional expression, you may not have a working template for executing this skill. That said, with effort, intention, and healthy relationships, you can deepen your self-awareness. This can help you expand your ability to identify, share, and process your emotions.”

It’s essential to note that if you live with an emotionally unavailable partner who isn’t willing to change, it’s better not to force it. However, if you or your loved one want to open up and learn to share their feelings, there are some helpful tips.

  • List what concerns you most. Maybe you feel empty and have difficulties understanding your emotions, or emotional unavailability seriously affects your relationships. Identify the starting point from which you want to move.
  • Start with small steps. It will be helpful to notice your typical behavior and change it gradually. Pace yourself and remember that you don’t need to become a completely new person. Gradual changes will be the best option.
  • Learn to express emotions on your own. Journaling, art, singing, or dancing in front of the mirror — you can choose anything that works for you. And again, take your time. These types of creative expressions can help you get in better touch with your feelings. 
  • Talk to the closest people. When you are ready, it will be great to start sharing your feelings with others. Open up to those you trust and show your emotions in a safe and supportive environment.

The journey toward emotional availability and connection is unique for everyone. So, remember to be patient with yourself and celebrate each step forward. Good luck!

Nicole Arzt, LMFT photo

Reviewed by Nicole Arzt, LMFT

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, and bestselling author. In her practice, she primarily treats co...