Lack of emotional support in a relationship can leave you feeling lonely, rejected, dismissed, and at times invisible. Dealing with emotionally unavailable romantic partnerships can feel like a never ending battle to win your partner’s affection which can leave you feeling emotionally bankrupted.
Understanding the Emotionally Unavailable Relationship Dynamic
Many factors define how we react to love and vulnerability as adults. Often, the answers stem from how we were raised and the attachment style we developed as children.
Attachment wounds are often an for people who are emotionally unavailable. These deeply ingrained subconscious patterns determine to a great extent what you expect in a relationship, how you interpret romantic cues, and how you behave with your date or partner.
When the attachment figures or primary childhood caregiver(s) were emotionally unavailable, insensitive, or hostile towards our need for connection, one of the ways we adapt as children is to disconnect from our awareness and longing for emotional connection.
We disconnect and fortify emotionally and/or physically in order to protect ourselves and develop a more dismissive avoidant attachment style. Having a predominately avoidant attachment style manifests itself in relationships in different ways. Some may include:
- Difficulty asking for help
- Struggles around sharing our vulnerability
- Fear of committing to relationships
- Difficulty acknowledging or identifying emotions and not being attuned to attachment related signals
- Repressing emotions rather than expressing them
- Not placing a lot of value on building deep meaningful connections with others and feeling comfortable interacting on a surface or superficial level
- Valuing space and independence
- passive communication style and conflict avoidant
Due to the difficulty these folks face in expressing emotions and displaying empathy, they may come off as insensitive or callous. Sometimes they may create distance in a long term relationship through workholism or spending an excessive amount of time with friends, hobbies, and not enough time with their significant other.
If you place a lot of value on emotional connection in a relationship, having a partner who consistently turns down your bids for affection and connection can be confusing and disappointing. You may even internalize that as “not being enough or being too much.”
People with an anxious preoccupied attachment style, actively pursue intimacy in their relationship and crave emotional connection. They may make strong efforts to make it abundantly clear that their needs haven’t been met and they want more emotional intimacy.
When one partner is more avoidant in their attachment patterns and the other one is more anxious, sometimes that could create a “Persuer-Distancer” dynamic which can turn in to a reinforcing vicious cycle that can leave both partners feeling chronically dissatisfied with their degree of intimacy.
The Importance of Emotional Intimacy in Relationships
Emotional connection is one the biggest strengths of a healthy relationship. A strong emotional connection fosters feelings of comfort, security, refuge, and mutual support between couples, while a lack of emotional intimacy leads to communication problems, helplessness, and loneliness in a relationship.
A good place to start exploring your challenges around emotional closeness and vulnerability might be reflecting on the messages you received in your family of origin in regards to vulnerability and displaying emotions. Did your parents model vulnerability for you? What were some of the more acceptable and unacceptable emotions in your household? How did those messages impact the way you have shown up in your relationship history?
Roadmap for Dating an Emotionally Unavailable Partner
Seek social support / Be a part of a community or a support group
Doing all the emotional labor in a relationship is not an easy task which can leave you feeling starved for some genuine emotional connection. Remember you don’t have to assign that responsibility to your partner. You can be a part of a support group or a community that is meaningful to you to seek some support.
See an individual and/or couples Therapist
A mental health provider specialized in Emotionally Focused Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy, or IMAGO Therapy can help both partners understand their attachment wounds and needs, and create a way to strengthen a secure functioning bond. If your partner is not open to couples counseling, you might start with your own individual therapy.
Approach the issue with compassion and curiosity. Collaboration instead of blame!
Instead of sourcing the problem in them or you, try to look at it as a shared project that you both contribute to. Empathize with each other’s strategies for warding off anxiety and try to find a compromise that works for both of you.
Letting your guard down and being vulnerable with someone can be scary regardless of your attachment style. As a couple own up to your mutual fear of dependence. Try to shift from individual weakness to collective empowerment.
Identify your needs
Reflect on what comes up for you when your partner doesn’t display emotions. Do you tend to shut down and move away? Do you get more anxious and pursue them more?
Reflect on whether or not this has negatively affected your own personal wellbeing and write down a list of your needs. You can be supportive of your partner while staying attuned to your own needs.
If You’re the Emotionally Unavailable Person
You may have learned to block emotions and skillfully undermined your need for closeness because you did not have positive associations or positive experiences of your emotions being heard, validated, and understood when you were growing up.
Your true self may deeply desire the connection, but your protective parts may be noticing threatening red flags, and actively avoiding emotional closeness which makes you fiercely independent. It’s important to honor your protective parts and not overwhelm your system. Understanding your Window of Tolerance can help you stay emotionally regulated while taking tolerable steps towards secure attachment.
Schedule time for connection
By scheduling time for check-ins with your partner, you take the element of surprise out of the equation which allows you to practice vulnerability in small doses. Try to witness your impulse to flee when someone is sharing a difficult emotion with you and instead practice active listening and responding emphatically.
Examples of Emphatic Listening:
- “I see you are having a hard time with this.”
- “It makes sense that you are feeling some strong emotions around this.”
- “Your pain matters to me, I want to understand how you’re hurting.”
- “I hear that you felt unseen when I didn’t notice you changed your hair style.”
Activities that can slowly stretch the capacity to stay present for yourself and your partner include:
- Orienting which is getting present to the space you are in by noticing objects, colors, and sounds using your 5 senses.
- Gentle co-regulating touch such as hugs, hand holding, body contact, or cuddling with your partner’s consent that can help regulate your nervous system.
Remember this is new territory for you. Be patient with yourself and take tolerable steps towards tuning into your emotions and being more present with your partner while staying mindful of your embodied boundaries.
It’s okay to take breaks when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed. Consider talking to your partner about the idea of a “time-out” when things escalate during an argument.
Negotiate what each of you needs in those moments to feel regulated and address your concerns beforehand.
- “What if one of us is displaying an emotion the other one doesn’t understand?”
- “What if one of us gets dysregulated?”
- “What thoughts and feelings would it help for me to share more often?”
Lastly, as a couple you can actively work on creating a culture within your relationship where you share with your partner when you have been triggered in an anxious or avoidant direction, and come up with an action plan about what to do when that happens.