You find yourself staring across the table, seeking a connection that seems lost somewhere in the void. An uncomfortable silence now replaces the laughter and warm conversations that once filled your relationship. You reach out, but all you touch is a wall that was not there before, and you feel alone even when they’re in the room.
This hidden loneliness in a relationship is not your imagination; it could be a sign of an emotionally unavailable partner. But just because your partner is like this doesn’t mean it’s the end—it’s just a speed bump, not a stop sign. This article will guide you through recognizing the signs of emotional unavailability in your partner and how you can navigate these choppy emotional waters.
What Is Emotional Unavailability?
Picture this: you’re trying to talk about your day or share your feelings with your partner, and they’re just not there. They don’t open up to you, and it’s like talking to a brick wall. That’s an emotionally unavailable partner.
Emotional unavailability is when your partner seems detached, indifferent, or unresponsive to your emotional needs. It’s like trying to knock on a door that never opens or shouting into a void where your words just echo back at you, unheard.
Emotional unavailability is different from hitting a rough patch in a relationship, which our founder, Dr. Dana McNeil, says is normal. You’ll have moments when you’re distant or preoccupied because you’re busy with your jobs. However, emotional unavailability is a consistent pattern of unresponsiveness, detachment, or even indifference to your emotional needs.
But what causes it? Here are some common triggers of emotional unavailability:
- Past emotional trauma: If your partner has experienced significant emotional pain or trauma, they might have built walls to protect themselves from getting hurt again. As a result, they may struggle to open up and trust others, including you.
- Fear of vulnerability: Some people fear being vulnerable because they associate it with weakness or the possibility of being hurt. This fear can make it challenging to share their emotions or be fully present in the relationship.
- Poor role models: Growing up in an environment where emotional expression was discouraged or not modeled can lead to emotional unavailability. If your partner never learned how to communicate their feelings effectively, they may struggle to do so now.
- Stress and life circumstances: External factors like work pressure, financial stress, or other life challenges can consume your partner’s emotional energy, leaving them with little capacity to invest in the relationship. They may unintentionally shut down or withdraw as a result.
The Value of Emotional Availability
Emotional availability is like the cozy quilt that keeps your relationship warm and snug. It allows you to confide in each other, support one another in times of need, and build that sweet bond everyone craves. Without it, a relationship can feel pretty frosty and isolating.
Remember, emotional availability is a two-way street! It’s not just about what you can get but also what you can give. The trick is to find that balance where both of you can be each other’s rocks without feeling like you’re chipping away at a mountain.
When your partner is emotionally available, they can offer you comfort, understanding, and support during difficult times. When sharing with Fatherly about how to keep a relationship healthy, Dr. Dana McNeil notes that “in a true partnership, you hurt when your partner hurts, and a problem for one of you is a problem for both of you.” This shared sense of empathy and mutual support forms the emotional bedrock of a truly fulfilling relationship.
Emotional availability also fosters intimacy and strengthens the bond between you and your partner. It allows you to explore each other’s inner worlds, cultivating a sense of closeness and connection beyond surface-level interactions. When both partners can openly express their feelings and needs, it becomes easier to address and resolve conflicts in a respectful and constructive manner.
8 Signs Your Partner Is Emotionally Unavailable
Telling when your partner is not emotionally available isn’t always easy. However, experts have identified some warning signs you should look out for:
1. Lack of Empathy
“When a partner decides to be vulnerable and share a ‘problem’ the response they want to receive is support, empathy, compassion, and connection with their emotions,” says Dr. Dana in the Dame’s article in which she was featured. Empathy is the secret ingredient to a thriving relationship. But imagine the opposite.
You’ve had a terrible day, and all you need is a sympathetic ear and a comforting word. But when you turn to your partner, their response falls flat. They might nod and throw in a “that’s tough,” but you don’t feel that comforting understanding, that sense of, “I’m here with you in this.”
This lack of empathy—the inability to understand and share your feelings—is a telltale sign of emotional unavailability. It can make you feel alone in your relationship.
2. Difficulty Sharing Emotions
Imagine a dance where one partner is unwilling to follow the rhythm, always a step behind or frozen in place. That’s what it feels like when your partner has difficulty sharing emotions. They’re in the dance of the relationship but not truly participating, so you’re unable to access the depth and complexity of their feelings.
The richness of sharing emotions—the joys, the fears, and the hopes—forms the heart of a relationship. Without it, your relationship can start feeling like a house with beautiful exteriors but empty rooms, void of warmth and intimacy.
3. Withdrawing During Conflict
Disagreements happen in any relationship. But what happens when your partner pulls away during these tough moments instead of trying to resolve the problem? They might go silent or leave the room.
This behavior, known as withdrawing during conflict, is a sign of emotional unavailability and can make it hard for you and your partner to find solutions to your issues. John Gottman describes it as a failed repair attempt, “an accurate marker of an unhappy future.” Over time, unresolved problems can pile up, increasing tension and resentment in your relationship.
4. Preferring Physical Intimacy Over Emotional Intimacy
An emotionally unavailable partner will be more interested in holding hands, expensive gifts, elaborate dates, and other physical closeness than heart-to-heart talks. They lean toward physical intimacy but shy away from opening up emotionally.
In a balanced relationship, physical and emotional intimacy go hand in hand. When emotional intimacy is lacking, you might feel like something important is lacking, even if you’re close in a physical way. This can lead to feeling lonely or unfulfilled in the relationship, as the deep emotional bond that makes relationships meaningful is not there.
5. Being Uncomfortable with Your Emotions
If your partner is emotionally unavailable, they will become uncomfortable when you express your feelings. Maybe they change the subject, brush off your feelings, or shut down the conversation altogether. An emotionally unavailable partner will do all that and even describe you as too sensitive when you show emotions.
The worst-case scenario is when they suggest you seek professional help because you’re too emotional. Over time, you might start to suppress your emotions, leading to a relationship that lacks true emotional intimacy.
6. Struggling with Commitment
Commitment in a relationship isn’t just about saying “I do.” It also requires a certain level of emotional and mental investment. If your partner struggles with this type of commitment, it could indicate that they are emotionally unavailable.
Maybe they avoid making long-term plans or hesitate to introduce you to their family and friends. This struggle with commitment can make you feel insecure in your relationship. This uncertainty can create stress and strain in your relationship.
7. Rarely Apologizing
Saying “I’m sorry” is a way to mend fences and keep a relationship strong. Apologizing means acknowledging emotions and taking responsibility for one’s actions, and if your partner avoids doing so, it can make you feel disregarded and unvalued. This behavior can wear down trust and create tension and relationship anxiety.
Dr. McNeil explains relationship anxiety as “an ever-present dread that even if things seem like they are going well currently, the relationship could turn bad at any point without warning.” The lack of apologies can build up into bigger issues, making maintaining a happy and healthy relationship difficult.
8. Overly Independent and Always Valuing Space
It’s okay for your partner to ask for space sometime in your relationship. After all, asking for space doesn’t always mean they want to break up with you. They may be trying to reinforce their identity, especially if they’re in a codependent relationship or simply want to be alone for some time.
What isn’t okay is when your partner consistently prefers being alone or takes independence to an extreme, pushing you away more often than not. As Gottman puts it, “Interdependence is what relationships are all about.”
That said, an overly independent partner who avoids relying on you for anything may be protecting themselves from emotional vulnerability. This can make you feel left out. Independence can erode the sense of partnership that’s so essential to a fulfilling relationship.
As a Partner, What Can You Do About It?
Understanding that your partner may be emotionally unavailable isn’t about pointing fingers or blaming them for issues in the relationship. Instead, it’s about gaining insight into their behavior to create a healthier, more emotionally connected partnership. If you recognize some of these signs in your relationship, here are some steps you can take:
Express Your Concerns
Start by initiating a calm, non-judgmental conversation about what you’ve been noticing. Use “I” statements to prevent your partner from feeling attacked. For example, say, “I feel lonely when you don’t share your feelings with me,” rather than, “You never talk about your emotions.”
Choose a calm moment, not in the heat of an argument or a stressful situation. Remember, your goal isn’t to accuse or criticize, but to communicate your feelings.
Encourage Emotional Expression
Encouraging emotional expression is like watering a seed, fostering its growth into a vibrant plant. It’s about making emotions an everyday topic of conversation to assure your partner that their emotions are valid and safe with you. Regularly ask your partner how they’re feeling and listen when they respond.
You can also lead by example. Share your own feelings and thoughts openly, setting a precedent for emotional transparency. It’s crucial to show acceptance and understanding when they express their feelings, regardless of what those feelings are.
Promote a Safe Space
Creating a safe space is about making your relationship a sanctuary where both of you can express your emotions without fear of judgment or ridicule. To build this, you need to cultivate empathy, patience, and understanding. When your partner shares their feelings, listen attentively without interrupting.
Avoid immediate solutions or judgments because sometimes, they just need to be heard. You should also avoid harsh criticism or dismissive behavior, as these can make your partner retreat further.
Establish Healthy Boundaries in Your Relationship
Establishing healthy boundaries in your relationship is like drawing a map that guides how you and your partner navigate the sometimes rocky roads of love. This involves taking a hard look at what you’re cool with and what just doesn’t sit right with you in a relationship, including emotional unavailability.
Once you have a clear picture, it’s time to put on your communication hat and have a heart-to-heart with your partner. These boundaries are grounded in trust and open communication. When you can confide in your partner about your limits, it signals a level of trust that also invites them to confide in you, strengthening emotional availability.
When to Seek Professional Help
When it feels like you’re constantly running into a brick wall with your partner’s emotional unavailability, it’s easy to feel helpless. But remember, it’s not your job to fix them or tear down that wall by yourself. Emotional barriers are often rooted in past experiences, fears, or traumas beyond your or your partner’s control or understanding.
As such, it’s necessary to call in reinforcements. Therapists are trained to navigate these emotional landscapes. And remember, seeking help from professional therapists isn’t a sign of failure.
Instead, it’s a testament to your determination to salvage your relationship. Therapists can provide strategies to navigate these tough waters. They can help both of you understand each other better and provide a safe space to express and understand emotions.
If you need help building a deeper, more meaningful connection with your partner, our certified therapists are ready to help. Contact us, and let’s work together to build a bridge toward the emotional intimacy you deserve in your relationship.