How Emotional Unavailability Can Ruin A Relationship (And What to Do About It)
Do you feel alone even when you are with your partner? Do you feel like after a strong start, you have never been able to develop an emotional closeness to your partner? Do you feel like you do the emotional heavy lifting in the relationship? Do you feel as if you are not a priority in your partner’s life? These are all signs that you are in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner. Emotional unavailability is the inability or unwillingness to connect deeply with others in an emotional way. Emotional unavailability is characterized by inconsistent communication, avoiding deep conversations, avoiding public labels of your relationship, not showing affection, and acting selfishly, among other things.
While these might seem like glaring signs, emotionally challenged individuals might look completely fine from the outside. Your relationship with them might start off promising and even encouraging, but after a while, you will notice that they put up emotional walls that are hard to tear down. These walls can prevent connecting on a deeper level, which can ruin your relationship. One partner’s emotional unavailability can not only take a toll on the relationship, but it can also put their partner in emotional duress. There are ways to slowly address the causes and manifestations of emotional unavailability, but this can take a lot of patience, time and vulnerability. Focusing on communication, commitment and, oftentimes, counseling will help you address emotional unavailability. Here are a few actionable ways that you can address emotional unavailability in your relationship:
Recognizing emotional unavailability
This first step to resolving emotional unavailability is recognizing the signs of it in your relationship. Like we said before, emotionally unavailable people are often good at hiding their unavailability, which means it can be difficult to put your finger on what is wrong in your relationship. If you think that your partner might be emotionally unavailable look out for things like: ghosting (literal unavailability), having your feelings invalidated, conflict avoidance, defensiveness and not being prioritized. Recognizing these things in a partner (or even yourself!), is the first step in addressing the problem. If you aren’t sure whether you or your partner are emotionally unavailable, there are plenty of quizzes you can take online that can help you recognize whether this is holding back your relationship.
It can be difficult to bring up the topic of emotional unavailability to a partner without them feeling attacked, so encouraging them to recognize emotional unavailability in themselves, or kindly, respectfully, bringing up how their emotional unavailability affects you in the relationship can help them come to terms with their unavailability. Recognizing the problem, and acknowledging the problem is often the most difficult part of addressing problems related to emotional availability.
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After recognizing emotional unavailability in a relationship, it’s important to try and prioritize communicating about your emotions. Because emotionally unavailable people can be good at hiding their own unavailability, they often reflect your emotions and sentiments back to you. While this can sound manipulative or disingenuous, it is often used as a sort of defense mechanism for people who are not comfortable sharing their deep emotions. If you share a deep feeling with your partner and they respond with something along the lines of “I feel the same way”, or “I understand what you mean”, but are unable to elaborate more or articulate their feelings in an authentic way, then they are likely relying on mirroring. If you notice your partner doing this, it can be helpful to ask them specific questions about how they are feeling.
Prompting them to share their emotions with you, and proving to them that you care about their feelings by listening to their answer will encourage them to be more vulnerable with you. Intimacy does not come naturally to everyone, so engaging with your partner in emotional ways and prompting them to articulate their feelings can help people learn to open up. Creating a safe space for them to share emotions good and bad, happy and sad without judgement will encourage them to open up more frequently. Creating this space will also help you articulate your feelings, which can serve as a healthy form of communication for you both.
Identifying the root of the problem
If you recognize that you or your partner are emotionally unavailable, it’s important to try and consider the root of the problem. Emotional unavailability often stems from fear. Sometimes people are fearful of sharing their complete self with another person. This can be due to fear of rejection or ridicule. Other times they are fearful of getting hurt in the relationship, and so they keep people at an arm's distance. It can also stem from insecurity. Insecure people tend to put up walls that prevent people from getting close to them or sabotaging relationships to avoid emotional closeness. These insecurities can stem from a lot of different things including past trauma. Traumatic childhood experiences or traumas from a past relationship can often prevent people from being emotionally available.
Additionally, certain mental health issues can also prevent people from being able to express and process their emotions. Though these are all possible causes of emotional unavailability, most of the time unavailability is a choice. This choice is often a temporary one, as either you or your partner are navigating how to prioritize a new relationship or process a new situation while in a relationship (including big life events like job changes/loss, loss of a loved one, etc.) Understanding the cause of the emotional unavailability can help you navigate how to move forward in the relationship. Some causes of emotional unavailability can be addressed and overcome by talking things through, but others causes are a sign that your partner is not prioritizing you and this can be hard to change.
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Focusing on Your Mental Health
Whether you are the emotionally unavailable person in the relationship, or your partner is, it is important to take time to prioritize mental health. Like we said above, insecurities and past traumas are often at the root of emotional unavailability. Resolving these traumas and insecurities is necessary in order to overcome emotional unavailability. Coming to terms with these things, or encouraging your partner to do so can be difficult to do, but reflecting on past relationships, naming your emotions, focusing on being more vulnerable, and creating clear boundaries with your partner can help people learn to be more emotionally available.
Being a partner to an emotionally unavailable person can often be very difficult, especially if you are very in tune with your emotions. Prioritizing your mental health through journaling, exercise, meditation, yoga, mindfulness, therapy, etc. will not only help you cope with an emotionally unavailable partner, but will also allow you to be a better support system for your partner as they work through their availability. Whether it’s you or your partner or both of you that is/are emotionally unavailable, focusing on your mental health, and prioritizing your needs over the needs of your partner every once in a while will help your relationship in the long term. And will help you navigate emotional unavailability in your relationship.
Take Responsibility for Your Emotions
If your partner is emotionally unavailable, it’s important that you own your emotions while they own theirs. It is not your job to fix their emotional unavailability, especially if it is rooted in trauma or deep seeded insecurity. You can of course encourage them to be more emotionally available with you, and you should continue to be emotionally available to them, but it is ultimately their responsibility to overcome their emotional unavailability. In addition to owning your emotions, you should also evaluate how your behavior can potentially enable their emotional unavailability.
Evaluating your boundaries, how you communicate your needs and the expectations you pose to your partner can help you understand if you play a role in their emotional unavailability. Their comfort with vulnerability and connectedness (or lack thereof), is in no way your fault, but there are things that you can do to encourage more emotional vulnerability on their behalf. Taking responsibility for your emotions, and encouraging your partner to do the same can often require you both to take a step back from your relationship. This is not always the case, but taking time apart can often help couples establish better boundaries and give them space to focus on their individual mental health and wellbeing. Focusing energy on taking responsibility for your emotions also gives you the space to let your partner own and work through their feelings. If your partner is emotionally unavailable, you should not pressure them to deal with these things or take certain steps. It can be difficult to completely leave the ball in your partner’s court, but giving them space, and taking space to remove the responsibility of their emotional well being from your plate will benefit you both in the long run.
Evaluate the Relationship
As much as you want the relationship to work, it’s important to evaluate whether it’s worth it to stay in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person. Like we said, having an emotionally unavailable partner can take a huge toll on your mental health. It’s possible to internalize a partner’s emotional unavailability and the draining relationship dynamic and become withdrawn and out of touch with your emotions. Being in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person can prevent your emotional needs from being fulfilled. It can also make you question your normal expectations and emotional processing, because your partner invalidates your emotions, creating a kind of gaslighting scenario. All of which is terrible for your personal emotional well being.
At the end of the day, it’s important to prioritize your emotional well being over a relationship, which means that you might have to end a relationship with an emotionally unavailable person if it is too taxing. Alternatively, if your partner is committed to becoming emotionally available, you can take necessary time apart to both work on your mental health. Being able to honestly evaluate your relationship will either let you both move on to bigger and better things, or it will show a commitment to improving your emotional connectedness and closeness.
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Dealing with emotional unavailability in your relationship whether it’s within yourself or a partner can sometimes be difficult without the help of a trained professional. Seeking out a therapist can help you identify emotional unavailability, find the root causes of the unavailability, and learn to address the emotional unavailability. These kinds of conversations can be very difficult to navigate as partners, so having a therapist help you sort out these things can be beneficial.
Therapists can also provide a safe space for partners to share emotions, and model creating this safe space for future interactions. Relationships cannot survive if one person remains emotionally unavailable, so it’s in the best interest of your relationship to find ways to address this problem. Therapy is often the best solution for couples that are open to sharing their problems with an outsider and can afford the time and money required of therapy.
If you are interested in introducing therapy into your relationship, but are unwilling or unable to afford a therapist, then you and your partner should consider the Relish app. Relish is a coaching and self care app that can help you and your partner identify and address different struggles in your relationship, including emotional unavailability. Relish offers personalized relationship coaching that can help you navigate the tricky territory of emotional unavailability by helping you create and achieve goals that will encourage vulnerability, sharing and connectedness. Relish provides actionable goals that you and your partner can work towards as a team to create an emotionally available together.
Doing the work to overcome emotional unavailability can be really difficult, but leaning on the trained relationship experts at Relish can make this process easier and more successful in the long run. Click here to try our #1 relationship coaching app for free.