Say you’ve dated someone for about 6 months. You have plenty in common, not to mention great sexual chemistry, but something seems a little off.
Maybe they shy away from conversations about emotional experiences, or talk a lot about their life and interests but never ask about your hobbies.
This apparent lack of investment can make you wonder if they even like you.
But your involvement (whether it’s a relationship or something more casual) continues, so you reason they must have feelings for you.
The good news is they probably do. The bad news is they might be emotionally unavailable.
Emotional availability describes the ability to sustain emotional bonds in relationships. Since it’s pretty much impossible to have a healthy relationship without an emotional connection, emotionally unavailable people tend to struggle in relationships, often preferring to date casually and keep some distance.
Recognizing emotional unavailability can be tricky. Many emotionally unavailable people have a knack for making you feel great about yourself and hopeful about the future of your relationship.
But if, after an encouraging start, you never connect more intimately, they might not be able to maintain anything beyond casual involvement at the moment.
The signs below can help you recognize emotional unavailability in a partner.
They don’t like making plans
Emotionally unavailable people often show less inclination to make commitments, whether these commitments are minor or more significant.
Maybe you suggest getting together next week. They agree enthusiastically, so you ask what day works for them.
“Let me check and get back to you,” they say, but you never hear back.
Or maybe they say, “I’ll pencil that in.” But when the time comes, they have a great excuse for why they can’t make it.
They call the shots
When you do see each other, they tend to choose what you do — usually an activity that aligns with their typical routine.
They might put on the latest episode of their favorite Netflix show, even though you’ve never seen it. Or maybe they ask you to help them out around the house.
This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a problem, especially if they seem receptive to your suggestions.
But if they never ask what you’d like to do, or seem irritated when you don’t want to go along with their plan, it may be time to take a closer look at the relationship.
You do all the relationship work
Can’t remember the last time they sent a text that wasn’t a direct reply? Feel a little frustrated they’ve never set up a date or initiated any plans?
If you do all the calling, texting, and planning, there’s a good chance they’re emotionally unavailable. They enjoy spending time with you, certainly, when it works for them. But they don’t want to work for it, so if you don’t make things happen, they probably won’t.
When you aren’t spending time together, you hear from them only rarely. Maybe they take days to reply to messages or ignore some messages entirely, especially meaningful ones.
They might say, “I’d rather talk about important things in person.” Which sounds great, of course — until they don’t follow up.
They avoid the word ‘relationship’
Emotional unavailability can involve commitment and intimacy fears. You might participate in relationship behaviors with someone — go on dates, spend the night together, meet each other’s friends — but they don’t want to talk about having an official relationship.
As long as you keep dating casually, things go pretty well. But when you try to build a deeper commitment, they draw back.
Use caution if someone you’re seeing:
- says they want to keep things casual
- talks a lot about a recent ex
- talks about unrequited feelings for a friend
- says they have a fear of commitment
It’s always possible you caught them at a time when they feel ready to work toward change. Usually, though, someone who says these things means them.
You never seem to grow closer
In the beginning of the relationship, they openly share vulnerabilities or say how much they enjoy spending time together. But things never get serious.
It’s tempting to try to make things work with someone who seems distant. You might believe they just need to find the right person. If you can reach them when no one else can, your relationship has the potential to last, right? You just have to try a little harder.
This is how emotional unavailability can trap you.
Unless they do some work themselves, you’ll continue investing energy into the relationship with the goal of someday getting closer. Meanwhile, they’ll keep avoiding reciprocation, so you’ll drain yourself until you’re too emotionally exhausted to continue.
They reflect your feelings instead of offering their own
Pay attention to how someone responds when you share emotions.
Do they express their feelings uniquely? Or do they mirror back what you say with, “I feel the same way”?
Not everyone likes to talk about emotions all the time, but in a relationship, it’s important to connect on an emotional level.
If your partner can’t open up, even when you initiate a conversation and ask direct questions, they may be emotionally unavailable.
They show up late or blow off plans
Not keeping commitments or consistently showing up late is a subtle way to keep someone at a distance.
Your partner might still care and even apologize with sincerity.
But they may care more about what they want and have trouble restructuring their life to fit you into it. In other words, they’re not ready to prioritize relationship needs over their own needs.
Maybe some of the above signs resonated with you as traits you’ve noticed in yourself, or things past partners have pointed out to you.
Emotional unavailability doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. You may not fully realize how it shows up in your relationships.
Here are some signs to keep in mind.
When commitments approach, you want to back out
Last week, you made plans for a date tomorrow. You felt excited then, but now giving up your free time is the last thing you want to do.
It’s important to take enough time for yourself. If you end up canceling plans with your partner more often than not, however, ask yourself why you feel the need to avoid spending too much time together.
You operate by keeping your options open
If you want a committed relationship, at some point you’ll need to focus on one partner (or, in a nonmonogamous relationship, your primary partner).
But instead of having a discussion with your current partner about relationship goals like long-term commitment or exclusivity, you continue swiping, going on dates, and generally keeping your eyes open for greener pastures.
You might not want to settle for someone who isn’t exactly right. But this mindset can limit your ability to dedicate time and energy to someone you already care for. It’s not always possible to find a “perfect” match, but you can still have a great relationship with someone who falls a little short of complete perfection.
You worry about losing yourself in a relationship
If you’re fiercely independent, you might worry getting close to a romantic partner will involve losing that independence. Maybe you like to do things your way, on your schedule, and don’t want to change your life to fit someone else’s.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can make you less available. In a healthy relationship, partners balance individual needs with their romantic commitment. It may take some time and exploration to learn how to do this in a way that feels right for you.
Trust doesn’t come easily to you
If someone betrayed your trust in the past, you might avoid exposing your vulnerabilities to anyone else. You might prefer to keep your emotions and thoughts locked down so no one can use them against you.
When a partner urges you to open up and talk about how you’re feeling, you respond by shutting down or changing the subject.
You keep ending up with emotionally unavailable people
If you have a pattern of relationships with emotionally distant partners, consider whether you’re getting back what you’re putting out.
At first, it might seem easy and fun to date people who don’t ask a lot of you emotionally. But if, deep down, you really want more from a relationship, these flings won’t fulfill you for long.
A number of factors can contribute to emotional unavailability. It’s not uncommon to find more than one cause at the heart of this issue.
Childhood attachment to primary caregivers can
If your caregivers didn’t show interest in your feelings or offer much affection and support, you may have absorbed this as a relationship model.
Emotional unavailability can also happen temporarily. Many people living with mental health conditions, like depression, may have a hard time sustaining an emotional connection with their loved ones during a flare-up.
Others might want to focus on their career, a friend having difficulties, or something else unexpected.
Experiencing relationship pain can make it tough to become vulnerable with a new partner.
This is especially true if you’re recovering from:
Emotional unavailability doesn’t have to be permanent. It’s a complex issue, though, and some underlying causes may be harder to overcome than others.
Change only happens when someone is willing to work at creating it, so you can’t make an emotionally unavailable partner more available.
What you can do is bring up concerning behaviors and point out, compassionately, how they affect your relationship.
Encourage them to talk to a therapist, or offer to go to couples counseling together. In the meantime, offer encouragement and support when they do open up.
If you’re trying to become more emotionally available yourself, the following tips can help.
Identify the cause
Exploring the root issues can give you insight on how to deal with emotional unavailability.
If you’ve gone through a nasty breakup, for example, you may just need some more time before trying to get close to someone again.
But if something more serious, like childhood neglect, affects your ability to get close to others, it’s wise to talk to a therapist. Coping with the effects of trauma or abuse generally requires professional support.
Practice opening up
It’s often helpful to get more comfortable expressing emotions on your own before trying to share them with a romantic partner.
To do this, consider these ideas:
- Keep a journal of your feelings.
- Use art or music to practice emotional expression.
- Talk to trusted people, like close friends or family members, about emotions.
- Share emotional issues or vulnerabilities via text first.
Take it slow
Once you realize you’ve been emotionally distant, you might want to begin changing that immediately.
Overnight improvement isn’t realistic, though. True vulnerability takes time. Pushing yourself to open up before you’re ready can sometimes trigger distress or discomfort.
Work on small changes instead. It’s good to push yourself to step out of your comfort zone, but you don’t need to leave it completely in the dust.
Involve your partner
As you explore factors contributing to emotional unavailability and work on becoming more available, communicate with your partner about what you learn.
If they understand why you pull away, you may have an easier time enlisting their support.
Explore helpful strategies together, such as:
- sharing emotions by leaving notes for each other
- staying connected via text when you need physical space
Spend time with people in healthy relationships
When emotional unavailability stems from attachment issues or unhealthy relationship patterns, it can help to learn more about what healthy relationships look like.
One way to study healthy relationships involves time in the field. Think of friends or family members in strong, long-term relationships, ideally people you spend a good amount of time with. Pay attention to how they interact with their partners.
This won’t give you a full picture, but it can provide some insight.
Talk to a therapist
Emotional unavailability isn’t always something you can work through alone, and that’s OK.
If you continue having trouble with emotional vulnerability and feel distressed about the difficulties it causes in your relationships, a therapist can offer guidance and support.
In therapy, you can work to identify potential causes and take steps to break unhelpful relationship patterns.
If you’re already in a relationship, couples counseling can also bring a lot of benefit.
Emotional unavailability, on either side, can cause a lot of frustration and distress. But it doesn’t mean you have to give up on your relationship.
Talking to your partner, or taking a closer look at your own behaviors, can help you start identifying possible issues and working through them productively.
Patience, communication, and support from a therapist can help, especially if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere on your own.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.