“I like them, but they are just so emotionally unavailable,” might be a phrase you’ve said yourself or heard another person say about a relationship or partner. It can be hard dating an emotionally unavailable partner, especially if you feel you are putting more into the relationship in terms of vulnerability, emotional connection, and emotional labor.
In this episode of the Modern Intimacy Podcast, Dr. Kate Balestrieri and Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick discuss what emotional unavailability looks like and how to deal with it if you notice signs in your relationship.
What Does it Mean to be Emotionally Unavailable?
Emotional unavailability isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but it is a relationship dynamic that many couples struggle with. In general, emotional unavailability usually describes a person who struggle to express emotions and sometimes even have a fear of intimacy or building emotional closeness with a romantic partner.
Healthy relationships typically require a sense of emotional safety in which each partner is validated, respected, and free to share their emotions and feelings without shame or judgement. Someone who is emotionally unavailable will likely shut down emotionally when they sense that a relationship is getting too serious as that means more is going to be required of them emotionally and that can be anxiety inducing.
Why are Some People Emotionally Unavailable?
There are some experiences that can contribute to someone struggling with emotional availability. People who are emotionally unavailable might have come from a home environment where emotions were not validated or emotional connections might have been extremely shallow or surface level. Without proper modeling that it is safe to be emotionally vulnerable and connect emotionally with others, it can feel unnatural to practice those skills in casual or long term relationships.
Certain attachment styles might point to someone being more likely to have a hard time being emotionally available. For instance, those with an avoidant attachment style tend to put up walls when emotional availability is expected from them. They can sometimes see emotional connection as something that is suffocating (i.e. if they had a parent who demanded a lot of their time or attention or was enmeshed). This type of attachment style can also develop if a parent is cold or unresponsive during childhood towards a child’s emotions and needs.
Dealing with an Emotionally Unavailable Partner
Meet your partner with curiosity instead of blame
Blame and guilting others into change seldom works and often pushes a person further into the behavior others want them to avoid. Instead, can you get curious with your partner and ask them questions about their emotional experience. Depending on how emotionally closed off someone is, you might not get much from them, but it can open the lines of communication and let your partner know that you care about their emotions.
Seek support from others
While your partner is working on their emotional unavailability, are there others in your life that you can emotionally connect with in the meantime? This can be friends, family, or anyone else you feel safe to share emotions with. The internet can also be a great resource for those who want to connect with other people who have an emotionally unavailable partner; it can allow you to build a community with others who understand what you’re going through.
Individual or couples therapy
It can be helpful for couples to have a neutral third party via couples therapy to help them navigate emotional unavailability within a relationship and teach tools to connect more closely with each other. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, either as an individual or a couple. The partner who is emotionally unavailable might want to do some individual work so they can understand the root of their behavior and have support in becoming more comfortable with their emotions.
It can be painful to not have the emotional connection you need in your relationship. The good news it, emotional unavailability isn’t a life sentence. Many people who have struggled with emotional availability have worked through their fears and when that happens, relationships can improve.
Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick is a Relationship & Intimacy Coach and specializes in emotional and physical intimacy, relationship barriers, communication skills, and helping her clients to break the “toxic cycle” & address dysfunctional relational behaviors.
Dr. Fedrick also specializes in working with depression, anxiety, trauma, attachment, intimacy, grief and loss, life transitions, and personal improvement (including motivation & self-esteem). She is part of Evolve Counseling in Arizona.
Her new book Relatable: From Relationship Trauma to Finding Your Truth is out in May.
Dr. Fedrick seeks to provide her clients with relatable and nonjudgmental coaching that helps to normalize the struggles they are facing, while simultaneously assisting them to obtain the tools needed to address these issues and improve their relational functioning with self and others.
In addition to providing coaching services, Dr. Fedrick is a professor at Grand Canyon University, where she teaches behavioral health and psychology courses. She also hosts a relationship-based podcast: Relatable| Relationships Unfiltered and a mental health podcast: Calm, Cool, & Connected.
Dr. Fedrick presents mental health talks & media interviews both in-person and virtually (Good Day LA, Us Weekly, various podcasts), as well as contributes to mental health articles for various media outlets (as seen in, Oprah Daily, Self Magazine, Cosmopolitan, HuffPost, and more.
Dr. Kate and Dr. Liz talk about emotionally unavailable people and the signs to spot one, but they also talk about signs to check if you are emotionally unavailable yourself.
They talk about some traits: Guarded, easily distracted, work a lot, too busy for conversations, combative, isolates in hard conversations, and more specifics to be aware of.