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E.B. Johnson

How to Spot An Emotionally Unavailable Person

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E.B. Johnson
E.B. Johnson
 2021-05-13

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by: E.B. Johnson

It isn’t easy when we fall for an emotionally distant or unavailable person. Loving someone, we want them to return that love in-kind. That’s not always possible, though, when our partners are damaged by the past or scared of being vulnerable with us. Does your partner avoid real intimacy? Do they hide their former lives with you? Or avoid deeper connection by keeping things surface deep? The time may have come to admit that when it comes to emotions, your partner is totally unavailable.

How to spot an emotionally unavailable person.

The emotionally unavailable partner is distant, but more than that they are avoidant when it comes to deeper connection. In the most basic of terms, being emotionally unavailable refers to an inability to maintain emotional bonds or relationships. This usually manifests as distance, indifference, avoidance, and lack of commitment, which can become really destructive when it comes to our emotional investment in that person.

Using sex as a distraction

The emotionally unavailable partner doesn’t find it easy to invest emotionally in someone, but that doesn’t keep them from enjoying physical relationships. What happens when you try to get your spouse or loved one to open up? When you try to get emotionally close to them, do they use sexual intimacy as a substitute or a distraction? Instead of having a serious conversation, they rush you to the bedroom and wipe away all concern by getting lost in physical intimacy instead. They focus on the sexual more than true vulnerability.

Perfection as an excuse

Perfection is one of the biggest excuses that the emotionally unavailable person uses in order to keep their walls up around them. They create this idea that every relationship must be magically perfect; that it must solve all their problems and heal all their ills. They invest in this idea as a sign of their “standards,” but these impossible standards are just more defense mechanisms. It provides them with the “eject” button they need. The minute their partner makes a mistake, they are free to walk away.

Totally unavailable

Is your partner always just out of reach? Maybe they use physical distance to keep themselves away from you. They’ll make excuses for dates or serious conversations because they’re “at the office” or “going out of town”. You may also notice that they ghost you. They may stop answering your calls or text messages. If you’re lucky, they do respond, but they take a long time to respond. Another tactic might involve maintains large space between hang-outs so you live in a state of limbo with what your relationship is.

No emotional support

Because distant partners are so at odds with their own emotions, they are also uncomfortable with their partner's emotions. When you get upset or sad, they will discourage you from whatever reaction you have. They can’t support you when you’re having a hard time, both because this requires a closeness they aren’t comfortable with, and because it also requires effort and vulnerability, they don’t know how to provide. If you want someone to support you when times get tough…this isn’t the right person.

Avoiding commitment

The emotionally unavailable person struggles to commit in an authentic way. When things get serious, they might claim they are “overwhelmed” or “smothered” by getting closer to you or committing. They may run hot and cold with you. One minute they seem attached, and then the next minute they pull away. When things get too intimate, they run to protect their own emotions. Inevitably, you end up with patterns of commitment avoidance which hurt many people and destroy a lot of futures.

Putting in no effort

Deep relationships are those in which the partners involved combine their efforts and their desires to create something they both value. To do that, our partners have to see us as we truly are; they have to witness our highs and our lows. The emotionally unavailable person can’t do that. They can’t transcend the surface deep relationship. As you build with them, you’ll notice they don’t put any effort into your relationship. Things go on autopilot, because that’s emotionally easier than really investing in someone and being yourself with them (risking rejection).

Leaving out the past

How much do you know about your partner's past? It’s always a red flag when they don’t tell you anything about their past, or share any experiences that contributed to them meaningfully. We all have events behind us that shaped who we are and how we see relationships and the world. An emotionally distant person doesn’t like to expose their past, because that exposes a part of who they are. Their insecurities and vulnerabilities get put out in the open, and that’s something that they can’t tolerate.

Not opening up

The most common sign of an emotionally unavailable partner centers on their inability to open up to you. There’s no depth there, and there’s no willingness to let you in. These partners are not emotional with you, or emotionally vulnerable; everything is surface deep only. They don’t like to show you their sadness or moments of weakness. Instead, lots of humor is used. Indirect or inconsistent communication (bordering on sarcasm) is a trademark of the emotionally unavailable partner.

What you can do about it.

Is your partner emotionally distant? Do they wall you off when it’s time to open up? Do they keep you at arm’s length so that they don’t have to show you who they really are? There are steps you must take in order to protect your own happiness. It begins with understanding and ends with making the hard choices that align with our ultimate happiness.

1. Understand where it comes from

There’s no denying the power of knowledge and understanding in dealing with relationship issues. The information is out there for dealing with a distant or avoidant partner. Once you dig into that information, you can see your partner in a new light and begin the shift to see your relationship for what it is. We can’t move forward calmly until we understand where we’re going and what we’re dealing with. We have to understand our partners, but also ourselves and the way we’re being affected.

Learn everything you can about emotional distance and where it comes from. More often than not, it’s a coping mechanism; a response to some trauma that taught this person it wasn’t safe to be vulnerable with others. Give yourself a better perspective by arming yourself with understanding. This makes responding with compassion far more realistic.

Understanding allows you to do more than respond with compassion to your partner or love interest, though. It allows you to see their behavior as it really is, and your own too. It’s a great way to protect yourself against the advances of future partners with the same distance. Learning is how we grow. Invest some time in learning more about emotional unavailability. By opening your eyes, you increase your chances of happiness and the degree of success with which you can communicate with your partner.

2. Attend to your own feelings

A lot of the upset that comes from dealing with an emotionally unavailable partner stems from our over-reliance on them. So many put the full weight of their emotional happiness on their partner’s and that’s a massive burden to bear. If they aren’t already avoidant, it can make them pull away emotionally out of fear. Instead of looking to your partner to make you happy or “loved,” you need to spend some time fulfilling your own emotions and taking responsibility for the way you feel in life and relationships.

Nurture your own feelings. When a partner pulls away, it’s hurtful. You need to build up some boundaries around your emotional wellbeing. Do this by establishing emotional independence from your partner. Their inability to be vulnerable cannot become destructive in your own view of self and relationships.

Focus on maintaining your own emotional equilibrium when they pull away. Stop giving them power over the way you feel. If you need to, seek professional help. Talk it out and share what’s going on. A mental health or relationships expert can often help us identify better ways to lean in our self-esteem. This increase in self-confidence helps us separate our sense of self from the behaviors of our partners. Their distance isn’t your fault. Our emotions are our responsibility to attend to.

3. Check your enabling behavior

Along the lines of management mode, we often use enabling behaviors with the emotionally unavailable spouse. On one side of this behavior, we want our partner to love us. We think that giving them room to abuse their avoidance will bring them back around. On the other side of enabling behavior is our own insecurities and misunderstandings. Not realizing that we are to show others how to treat us, we allow ourselves to go on emotionally unfulfilled with partners who can’t give us what we need.

Confront your enabling behaviors. What allowances are you making for your partner? What space are you making for them to push you away? Why are you allowing someone to be so hurtful and distant with you? What experiences in your past have taught you to settle for partnerships that don’t bring you joy?

You need to question the role you’ve played in getting to where you are. You are not responsible for your partner’s behavior. However, your choices have led you to the person you are now invested in. It’s crucial that you question those choices. It’s imperative that you look at your own behavior with an honest and critical eye. We show our partners and spouses how to treat us. What green flags have you given to your partner that their distance and avoidance behaviors are okay? That’s where your personal growth comes in.

Putting it all together…

It’s not easy when we fall for someone who is emotionally unavailable. These spouses and love interests are a real challenge, opting for avoidance and dismissal over genuine connection and vulnerability. It’s important to be honest when we’re dealing with this kind of intimate relationship. We have to protect ourselves with the emotionally unavailable partner and the relationship we’re struggling to find love in.

Understand where emotional unavailability comes from and arm yourself in understanding so you can respond compassionately to your partner or spouse. This shift in perspective helps you identify your needs so that you can nurture your own emotions for a little while. Avoid going into management mode for your loved one. It’s not your responsibility to bring them out of their shell or heal them. Encourage them to be better, but know that you can’t change them. Seek your own healing and self-discovery instead. Confront your enabling behaviors and question what leads you into distanced and avoidant relationships. If things can’t be prepared, be realistic, and have the courage to walk away toward greater happiness.

  • Saunders, H., Kraus, A., Barone, L., & Biringen, Z. (2015). Emotional availability: theory, research, and intervention. Frontiers In Psychology, 6. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01069
  • Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. (2007). Mindful Relating: Exploring Mindfulness and Emotion Repertoires in Intimate Relationships. Journal Of Marital And Family Therapy, 33(4), 464–481. doi: 10.1111/j.1752–0606.2007.00032.x