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What is an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?
Emotionally unavailable partners can be difficult to spot, especially in the early stages of the relationship. They can be charming, engaging, and make you feel like they are committed. They may even be physically available at all times. But as time goes by and as the relationship deepens, something in you feels lonely, dissatisfied, and you are not sure why. Being with an emotionally unavailable partner can make you doubt yourself.
When a highly sensitive person is in a long-term relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner, they can be subtly or explicitly made to feel ‘crazy’, like they are somehow ‘too dramatic’, ‘immature’, ‘needy’, or ‘too much.’ If not managed with enough care and awareness, being with an emotionally unavailable partner can be damaging, and it leads not only to feelings of loneliness and isolation but can even erode your self-esteem.
Therefore, as much as possible, we should learn how to notice when a partner is emotionally unavailable. In this essay, we will discuss what that looks like, different types of emotionally unavailable husbands, wives boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, and what we can do about it.
“A real relationship is two-way.”
Emotionally Unavailable Partner Quiz
How Do You Know You Have an Emotionally Unavailable Partner? (It is not always obvious)
It can be hard to tell whether your partner is emotionally distant. You might feel like you’re imagining things, and you wonder why you’re the only one who notices how little closeness there is in your relationship. The following statements may resonate if your partner is emotionally unavailable, distant or avoidant.
When you go through this list, the most important thing is to trust your gut, and not doubt yourself too much. It is not ‘wrong’ to feel upset, angry or resentful. Being honest with how you feel is the first step to making any positive changes. If you have an emotionally unavailable, emotionally distant or avoidant partner, you might be aware of it in the following ways:
- They hardly share how they feel with you. Whenever you ask them how they are, they always say they are ‘fine’, or ‘okay’, even when they are not.
- It takes a long time to get to know them, their feelings, and their past stories, especially their childhood experience.
- They turn everything into a joke, especially when you are showing emotions or if the subject is difficult for them.
- No one likes to argue, but being conflict-avoidant can be a sign of emotional distancing. When you bring up a disagreement or raise a potential conflict, an emotionally unavailable partner may distance themselves, withdraw, or counter-attack, rather than connect with you to resolve the conflict.
- They make jokes about how “crazy” or “too sensitive” you are. They may even suggest you should seek professional help for being ‘too emotional.’
- An emotionally unavailable partner may intellectualise a lot. When you talk about something intimate or express a deep feeling, they do not give a personal response but a quote from a theory, a book, or a famous saying from someone else.
- They may try to make you feel guilty for wanting more emotional connection than they are willing or able to give.
- They are passive and withdrawn. When you seek more reactions, such as asking them how they feel about what you had said, they withdraw further and refuse to communicate any further.
- When you share something in more depth, they seem to checkout or have to distract themselves. You have to ask yourself: are they there with you, or are they waiting for you to finish?
- They try to make up for the lack of emotional intimacy by showering you with physical attention (e.g., elaborate dates, expensive gifts, etc.). When you express feeling emotionally alone, they may blame you for being demanding or ungrateful.
- Instead of joining with or matching your emotional intensity and excitement, they try to tone it down. For example, they may ask you to ‘chill out’ when you are sad or anxious, or ask you to ‘calm down’ when you are excited.
- They hardly ever respond enthusiastically to your ideas and ventures. When you bring a new idea to them, they act as a critic, albeit a well-meaning one, rather than an equal who joins your enthusiasm as a partner.
- They avoid talking about their childhood or act defensively if you ask about it. They may insist it was good or say they cannot remember anything.
“I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live – if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.”
Types of Emotionally Unavailable Partners
The following archetypes describe in more detail what an emotionally unavailable partner may look or feel like to be with. It is not that your partner must fall into one or the other category; this is simply a framework to organise information. The reality is, of course, always much more complex.
The Emotionally Unavailable Jester— They Turn Your Emotions Into a Joke
An emotionally unavailable partner that acts as a ‘jester’ tends to see themselves as being humorous and optimistic. You might notice that whenever you show emotions that they cannot handle, they would turn what you say into a joke, or make light of the subject. When you confront them, they may defend themselves by insisting that they are a ‘positive person and are ‘trying to cheer you up.’ If you continue to show emotions that goes beyond what they can tolerate, they may drop off communicating, or act passive-aggressively (Such as giving you a cold shoulder, not responding to your messages, stonewalling). They may even blame you for ‘bringing them down’ and making them ‘depressed’ with your emotions.
An emotionally unavailable partner may avoid any topic that is relational, and keep the conversation on topics that are on the surface level— like how great the football game is, how fun the party was, or issues in the wider world such as politics.
When you ask them questions about deeper feelings, they give a vague response or avoid it altogether. They cannot tell you how they feel about themselves or the relationship when it is appropriate. They may feel that if they were to do so, it would make them appear more sensitive than they want to appear, which runs contrary to their self-image of being strong and stoic at all times. As an intuitive person, you cannot help but pick up some of their feelings such as anger and frustration, but at the same time, they are not able to face it themselves or to engage in a healthy discussion. Your sharp intuition may even be too threatening for them, leading them to reject your input even when they most need it.
The Emotionally Unavailable Fixer— They Always try to Solve Your Problem
Another telling sign that someone might be emotionally unavailable is that they always try to jump in and solve your problem. This comes from a discomfort with their own emotions, the need to control and to stay in control, or the unconscious expectation on themselves to make everyone around happy. If they had been parentified, were or are in a codependent relationship with their parents, they may feel on some level that you being upset means they have failed.
When you are upset in big and small ways, even when it has nothing to do with them or something as minor as complaining about a dish in a restaurant, they may feel offended. Then, to make their discomfort go away, they are quick to shut down your emotions or expressions.
When you are upset, instead of listening to what you have to say; they just go right in with their suggestions. In a way it can feel like your partner is always trying to change you into someone else— someone more ‘easy going’, more ‘chill out’, more ‘simple.’ It can feel sometimes like their only interest is in making your life more comfortable and less stressful for them, not in the growth or development of you as an individual with a unique personality and needs.
It may be obvious how their abusive or overbearing parents have an impact on them. However, when you try to show your concerns, your partner might get angry and tell you that it isn’t any of your business that goes on between them and their parents, or they might stay quiet and avoid the conversation altogether. They may even try to convince you that those childhood experiences were actually wonderful and there’s no reason for them to change the way they act now. Frustrating as it is, it’s important to remember that your partner has spent most of their life learning how to interact with people in ways that allow them to protect themselves. This is a topic best addressed not by direct confrontation but by a slow and collaborative process.
The Emotionally Unavailable Counsellor— They are Spiritually Bypassing
Contrary to common beliefs, not all emotionally unavailable partners come across as rational and cold. Some people can appear very warm, kind and generous, but are actually distant. They may be the ‘helper’ amongst family and friends, and the one everyone considers to be patient and generous, but when you actually try to take the closeness to another level with them, you hit a wall.
This may be because they have engaged in something called ‘spiritual bypassing.’ Spiritual bypassing is a defence mechanism that stops people from looking at themselves. It occurs when someone evades uncomfortable feelings such as anger and shame, and the darker sides of themselves through adopting spiritual beliefs and practices, without actually embodying wisdom. It is an emotional Band-Aid: We put on spiritual platitudes to make ourselves feel better about our lives, so we don’t have to deal with the deeper issues underneath.
Your partner might have used spirituality as a way of suppressing their shadows (More on Shadows here). They may deny the fact that they, too, have the human capacity to be angry, violent, jealous or destructive. They see themselves as having special knowledge that others don’t have, when in fact they have not gone through the necessary process to digest painful memories that affect them. They think of themselves as a mature, advanced person when what they do is shove a big part of their psyche into the unconscious. Their darker sides do inevitably come out in destructive ways, such as passive-aggressive behaviours, a demeaning manner, or other subtle ways that hurt themselves and others without them realising.
Your partner may see themselves as being kind and considerate. Thus, they are not likely to explicitly invalidate you, and perhaps they do listen to you and are there when you need to speak with them. Their friends love their company and always go to them when they have a problem. But as someone who is the closest to them, who is the most intimate with them, you feel on some level something is missing. On the deepest, deepest level, you do not feel they are really ‘there’ with you.
Although they do not admit it on the surface, deep down they think of themselves as being superior to others. You may only feel a sense of being talked down to very subtly, but your sense of self is eroded as time passes.
When you go to them with something that upsets you, they may respond with some kind of high level, esoteric concepts, rationalisation, or some kind of ‘self-help’ wisdom. Really, however, they do not express what they think or how they feel.
It may also be that their reaction is incongruent with what the situation calls for. For example, you may tell them about a sad and disturbing incident, and instead of having a natural, organic and spontaneous aversive reaction, they justify away grievances with truism such as ‘that’s life,’ or, ‘changes is the only constant.’ This can make you feel that your natural, human and even healthy reactions such as anger, grief and sadness are ‘wrong.’
It can be difficult to put your finger on what is happening because they seem so ‘nice’ on the surface, but there is a deep disconnect inside. You may find it hard to explain to your friends and family that this ‘very good person’ somehow does not feel enough and does not meet your emotional needs. Even in settings such as couples’ counselling, you may find it difficult to get your perspective heard.
The Emotionally Unavailable Teacher— They Lack Energy and Excitement
Some emotionally unavailable partners are excellent at offering practical support. They are good at providing relevant information, being available, and by any quantifiable metric, supportive. But to the highly sensitive person, practical support is often not enough.
What can be hurtful for an intense person in particular, and is seldom discussed, is an emotionally unavailable partner’s lack of naturally expressed exuberance. “Teacher” type emotionally unavailable partners do not mean to hurt or invalidate you, but something in them is so blocked off that they are not able to offer what you need even if they try their hardest. They are cut off from their own essential life source, or energy. In the language of psychoanalysis, they have lost touch with their own libido. This does not only mean physical, sexual desire, although it may be a part of it. It refers more to their lack of energy, drive, and the ability to be enthusiastic about anything. It can also mean that they have lost touch with their own inner child. The child-like sense of awe, wonder ad curiosity are no longer available to them.
Because these partners have cut off access to their own joy, inspirations, passion, visibility, even when you bring something new and exciting, funny and extraordinary to them, they are not able to celebrate it with you. They may say ‘good job’, they may offer ‘constructive criticisms’, they may even offer to help you make your project better, but that is not what you want from them. The part of you that wants to be met with intellectual excitement, genuine curiosity, and excitement is not met. Perhaps you feel like you are talking to a judge, someone impartial and distant, but not a ’true friend’ or someone intimate with you and are ready to go on a venture with you.
Your partner may also be feeling stagnated and stuck in their lives. So when you show them your creative ventures, they feel exposed. It is too painful to see you thriving when deep down they know they are oppressing their own. If they are not ready to face their own denial, they would not have the ability to wholeheartedly support you.
Eventually, you may become afraid or ashamed of showing them your ideas or your creative work. You worry that you would walk away from an interaction feeling you are somehow being silly, childish and unrealistic. If you were an excitable, curious and intense child, this could echo your childhood experience, where when you brought unconventional and creative ideas to your parents, you were met with a blank stare or a reaction that shames you and made you feel like you have been too arrogant, too much, too unrealistic.
“I want to be in a relationship where you telling me you love me is just a ceremonious validation of what you already show me.”
What Can You Do If You Have An Emotionally Unavailable Partner?
If you’re struggling to cope with an emotionally unavailable husband, wife, or partner, here are a few things to think about.
Reflect on your own patterns of attraction
Reflect on whether or not you have unconsciously attracted/ are attracted to an emotionally unavailable husband or wife who is emotionally shut down, distant and have an avoidant attachment pattern. It may sound strange, but our unconscious often does very strange things in its attempt to heal or to figure things out.
Your partner may be nothing like your parents on the surface, but the emotional reactions you get from them are strikingly similar. To assess, you ought to pay attention to the subtle dynamic between you, and what is happening on an energetic level, rather than what appears on the surface.
In psychology, being unconsciously attracted to the dysfunctional or unhealthy patterns we had in our family of origin is called ‘repetition compulsion’, a psychological defence mechanism. It is the urge to repeat an experience or situation, over and over again, in order to try and resolve or understand it. This can be seen as a way to gain some sense of control over an event or situation that was previously out of our control. In other words, it is your psyche’s attempt to understand things, work through things and try to get a different result.
Just because you have engaged in repetition compulsion does not mean your entire relationship is unhealthy. You might have been attracted to your partner for healthy reasons — an intellectual meeting of the minds, shared values, their caring nature. But unconsciously, you have also chosen someone who responds to your emotional sensitivity and intensity in ways that are strikingly familiar— just like how your parents once did. Ironically, getting the kind of emotional reactions that would satisfy your needs or heal your wounds is the least likely when you are with someone who is afraid of their own, let alone other people’s emotions.
Reflecting on your own attraction patterns and the possibility that you have engaged in repetition compulsion does not mean the relationship has to end or that you blame yourself. Gaining self-understanding means you can have a more balanced view of the relationship. It also allows you to take responsibility for your contribution in any dysfunctional dynamics, which sets a strong foundation for improving the relationship moving forward.
See Their Vulnerability and Summon Compassion
You probably know this already, but even emotionally unavailable husbands, wives or partners can hurt us deeply, they are not doing it maliciously. They may love you with all that they have, but what they have do not meet your need as a highly sensitive, empathic and emotionally intense person.
They are emotionally afraid, mostly of their own feelings. Building a wall between themselves and you is the only way they know to protect themselves from being overwhelmed. Although this is often unproductive and dysfunctional, they do not know any better and as it stands now, they do not have the strength to step outside of their comfort zone.
It could be because they once had a controlling parent who engulfed them.
It could also be that they grew up in an emotionally shut down family so they never got to learn how to express true empathy and ‘be with’ another person without distancing or intellectualising.
It could be that they have been hurt or betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.
Maybe like you, they were also intellectually curious and emotionally excitable, but they were shamed so much as a child and teenager that they have done everything they can to deny that part of themselves. Instead, they wear a ‘stoic’ suit to feel safe and concealed in the world.
They may also be on the autistic spectrum but that was never investigated or understood.
It can be hard to have compassion for someone who doesn’t seem to want to connect with you. However, it’s important to not take their reactions to you personally. An emotionally distant partner is someone who does not have access to their own emotions, and therefore cannot share them with you. In other words, they are not trying to hide things from you, but they cannot give what they don’t have. They may feel empty on the inside, or they worry about saying the wrong things so would rather be quiet and avoidant.
If they have experienced a lot of people— friends, partners and family members— attacking them for being emotionally shut down but are not able to do anything about it, they may become sensitised to people’s criticism of their avoidance. This results in a bad cycle in which whenever you express your needs, they feel like you are attacking them or putting pressure on them. In order to regain a sense of control, they then shut down even more or counter-attack you for being needy, which results in you feeling furthermore unloved and hurt. If you’re each on opposite ends of the emotional expression spectrum, then it’s likely you’re pushing the other person further in the direction that hurts you most. If possible, reflect on whether or not your coping strategy of pushing for emotional connection is actually pushing them away.
If you’re willing to go first in breaking this gridlock, you might tell them that you can see how your push for emotional closeness is overwhelming to them and that it must be difficult and overwhelming to have you respond in this way. You can ask them what it’s like for them. You can see if you can learn more about their responses. Although this does not mean the push-and-pull will stop happening, open communication is a great start to finding a rhythm that suits both of you.
It may also help if you are able to see through their stoic facade, and into their inner child. Despite appearing strong and unemotional, there is an inner child in them that is hurting. Then, you may wish to connect to them from that perspective. If you can see their childhood wounds, and their fragility, you may be more able to summon compassion for them. Whatever it is that they have led you to feel— lonely, rejected, self-doubting— are likely what they are feeling, or had been made to feel at some point in their lives. They could not help but make other people feel what they had once felt, but they did not mean to hurt you. Although it is difficult to summon compassion for someone who seems to be rejecting you, at least remembering that they did not mean to do that and that they feel as lonely, if not more lonely than you do, may help you harness sympathy, empathy and compassion for them.
As a highly sensitive person, it is particularly difficult to be consistently hitting a wall when you want intimacy, or being treated with passivity and defensiveness when all that you want is to connect. You may feel lonely, emotionally deprived in the relationship, to the point of having thoughts of ending it. That is understandable. However, just because someone is currently emotionally unavailable does not mean you need to end the relationship. If there are many other redeeming qualities to the relationship, such as the fact that you know you love each other, a long shared history, or common interests, you may owe yourself and the other person the efforts to try and work on the relationship. Couple’s counselling, open communication, or specific skills such as ‘Non-violent communication’ (NVC) can be some good starting points. If you can go into the conversation not with an attacking stance, and make it clear that your main intention is not to complain, accuse or make demands, your partner may be more receptive to hearing what your needs are in this relationship.
Although you may be reluctant to, at the beginning it can be useful to give them *very specific* directions on what to say or do. Although it may feel unnatural at first, they would be relieved to know what they can do when you have emotions, and be less defensive. As they feel safer and exert less energy in defending or protecting themselves, they will be more ready to open up.
Learning each others’ love language can also be useful. According to Dr Gary Chapman, the five love languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. But you can expand on this or find your own way of phrasing how you and your partner give and receive love. Instead of words of support or a romantic gesture, offering practical support, being available and making time for you may be their way of showing love. As much as you can, learn to hear and see your partner’s love language and appreciate them for what they are, rather than trying to twist their love languages into what you want.
Clearly, however, changes on a relationship level require the efforts and commitment of two people. There is little you can do if they insist that there is nothing they can or need to do. If they continue to refuse to see this as a ‘relational’ issue but instead scapegoat you for being the problematic one, you may need to re-evaluate if it is possible to stay in this relationship without losing your sense of self and confidence.
“Intimacy requires courage because risk is inescapable. We cannot know at the outset how the relationship will affect us. Like a chemical mixture, if one of us is changed, both of us will be. Will we grow in self-actualization, or will it destroy us? The one thing we can be certain of is that if we let ourselves fully into the relationship for good or evil, we will not come out unaffected.”
Being emotionally sensitive means you have a need for deep connection. Having meaningful and emotional conversations might be your primary love language. Therefore, being with someone emotionally unavailable can be frustrating and wounding. It can even erode your sense of self and self-confidence. Therefore, it is important to be mindful of the signs that your partner may be emotionally unavailable. If you do find yourself in a relationship with someone who is not able to give you the love and support you need, take care of yourself and remember that you are worthy of love and deserve to be with someone who can meet your needs.
Equally, you may be able to work on the relationship with an emotionally unavailable husband, wife or partner. Approach your partner with compassion to learn to see their vulnerabilities and needs. Remember that it’s nobody’s fault. Try to be honest about your own needs and desires, without imposing unrealistic standards and expectations. Then, tell your partner what you need and want in a calm way, without attacking or adopting an attacking stance.
There are no clear-cut answers to whether or not or how much you should invest into a relationship with someone who is struggling with being emotionally available. But as long as you bring in your fullest integrity, and the intention to find a path that is the best for the both of you, answers and the best next step forward will naturally emerge.
I wish you well on your journey to find love, connection, and growth.
If you find value in this article, you may also benefit from the article on Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning Partners and Common Challenges for the Gifted Person in Relationship.