Have you ever felt unworthy, unimportant, or undeserving? Does your partner make you feel small, perhaps by constantly being on his or her phone, even when you’re trying to engage with them?
Do they turn arguments back onto you? Or do they engage in certain behaviors without being able to explain why? Does your relationship feel, for lack of a better word, robotic?
If you answered yes to any or a combo of these, your partner might be emotionally unavailable. And while it might feel like a relief to finally be able to put a reason to why you’re feeling trapped in your own head, it doesn’t do much good in terms of freeing your feelings.
“A person is emotionally unavailable [if] they withdraw when someone with whom they have some relationship begins to rely, need, and expect them to consistently be physically, psychologically, and spiritually present for them,” says Sari Cooper, LCSW, founder and director of Center for Love and Sex, and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist. “Emotionally unavailable people have trouble staying attached when a partner, friend, or relative expresses a variety of emotional states like joy, sadness, anxiety, and fear.”
That said, there are ways to help the situation.
Signs Your Partner is Emotionally Unavailable
Each human is different and manifests feelings in unique ways. However, there are a few tell-tale signs of emotional unavailability.
You might experience that your partner is disconnected from you in ways that seem basic and fundamental to you. For example, when you come down with a head cold, they go about their daily schedule without asking how you’re feeling, or offering to do anything that might soothe your condition. They might even spend less time with you to avoid seeing you ill.
Another example might be that whenever you try to take the relationship to the next level, they change course or walk away. Sex can feel prescriptive and lack intimacy, as well.
If you try to address your feelings, your partner might blame you for causing the problem. They might be incapable of listening to your worries or challenges, and may dismiss them and say you’re being too sensitive. This is perhaps the most frustrating example of all, and the one that leads people to feel the most trapped within their own heads, which is an awful way to feel in a relationship.
“Emotional unavailability happens when someone doesn’t have access to their feelings and they lack an emotional connection to themselves,” says Dr. Joe Fort, Ph.D., relationship therapist, and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist. “They may not even have an emotional vocabulary so that if they do have a feeling they don’t have the connection to what the word might be to explain it.”
What This Is Doing to You, the Partner
In a relationship where one person is emotionally unavailable and the other isn’t, the one who has a ‘normal’ relationship to their feelings might put a lot of the burden on themselves, trying to figure out what is going on with their partner and if it is anything within their own control.
This is incredibly frustrating, isolating, and ultimately unfair to the person who is in touch with their feelings. “When you’re with someone who is emotionally unavailable, you can be left feeling lonely most of the time despite spending physical time with them,” says Cooper. “Your relationship feels more like a business connection.”
What happens next? Maybe you stop wanting to have sex, which is understandable. If you’re not connecting with the person you are in a relationship with, having sex might be the last thing you want to do.
“The person who is emotionally available feels very alone and isolated,” says Dr. Kort. “They feel like everything is always about them in a negative way because they are the ones themselves always bringing the negative issues up, while the emotionally disconnected and unavailable partner does not.”
How Do You Address Emotional Unavailability?
If your partner can’t connect with emotions, and if every time you address the negative issues they get flipped back onto you, what can you do to make this situation better, short of having to leave the relationship?
Communication is always key. That should be the first step with any relationship issue. Ask your partner if he or she feels numb or shut down, and offer the option to work on the relationship together.
“You can tell them that you grew up in home in which you expected those that love you to comfort you, and ask them if they got those lessons. Then ask them if they have an interest in learning how to give that to you,” says Cooper.
Dr. Kort suggests telling your partner that you often feel blamed and it’s because of the language that they are using. “Tell your partner that often the way they talk to you feels often like an overreaction, and that you need to be able to have a ‘time out,’ and that your partner needs to be willing to find different ways to express him or herself,” he says.
Are There Steps to Fixing Emotional Unavailability?
In a word? Yes. But with anything personality-based, it’s not easy, and requires commitment from the person who is emotionally unavailable. We can’t make people change; in order to fix emotional unavailability, your partner has to want to fix it.
“Part of my model is to help clients question the beliefs they were brought up to embrace that keep them avoidant of emotional attachment,” says Cooper. For example, if someone had a parent that relied on them to be more of a confidant or a caretaker, it may have caused them to barricade themselves from all people who want to emotionally engage. Essentially, they were overwhelmed before and are desperate to avoid being an emotional dumping ground again – so much so that any type of emotional connection is too much.
“Then I encourage them to begin identifying exceptions to the rule of moments when they DO feel connected and emotionally intimate, however brief,” Cooper adds. For some people this may be during sex, playing with their kids, listening to music, etc. “I use that moment and help them to expand that feeling through exercises with their partner involving touch, eye gazing, or improvisational games.”
How Do You Know When to Walk Away?
Sometimes loving someone isn’t enough. No matter how much of yourself you throw into a relationship, if your partner isn’t giving what you need – or willing to try – you have to remember to take care of yourself first. Walking away sometimes is the hardest decision, but the best one for you.
“If you have invested your time and presence for several months in this type of work and your partner either avoids or sabotages the assignments, the message might be that they are not yet ready to open up,” says Cooper. “No one can tell someone when they should end a relationship. It’s more if you can no longer sustain hope for any intimacy.”