Emotional Unavailability: Definition, Causes, & Signs
By Arasteh Gatchpazian, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate
Do you ever feel like you can’t open up emotionally in relationships? Or perhaps you’ve encountered this in someone else? If so, keep reading to learn more about emotional unavailability.
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Imagine you’ve been dating someone for a while and everything seems to be going great. You have similar values, common interests, and you genuinely enjoy their company. There is one thing that seems off though, but you can’t pinpoint what it is exactly. Although you’ve gotten to know the person, you still feel like you haven’t really connected to them on a *deeper* level.
They shy away from conversations about their emotions, avoid displays of affection, and might even make you feel like you’re in the wrong for being ‘emotional’. They might seem distant or cold, but if they’re dating you, they must have some interest right? Maybe this is something you’ve experienced before or perhaps this is how you tend to act in most of your relationships. If this is the case, you may want to learn more about emotional unavailability. Learn about what it means, the signs, tips to improve, and how you can spot it in your relationships.
What is Emotional Unavailability? A Definition
To define emotional unavailability, it may be useful to first consider what it means to be the opposite -- emotionally available. One of the most important ingredients in a secure and healthy relationship is the ability to ‘show up’ for the other person emotionally (Saunders et al., 2015). Put differently, emotional availability refers to the extent to which partners share a healthy emotional connection.
Researchers define emotional availability as “an individual’s emotional responsiveness and ‘attunement’ to another’s needs and goals; key is the acceptance of a wide range of emotions rather than responsiveness solely to distress” (pp. 80, Emde, 1980). Based on this, emotional availability involves not only negative emotions (e.g., anger) but also positive emotions (e.g., happiness).
This could include:
On the flip side, what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
This describes someone who is unable to connect with their feelings or their partner’s feelings. This person has trouble opening up emotionally, shies away from discussing their feelings, and fears intimacy. As you can tell, emotional unavailability can pose a serious intimacy barrier (i.e., both mental and physical) and may never allow the relationship to reach its fullest potential. Keep reading to find out more signs of emotional unavailability.
How Does Emotional Unavailability Develop?
You may have heard of attachment theory, which is an important foundation to understand emotional (un)availability. This theory proposes that the bond between a mother and her child is based on an emotional connection. The pioneering work that explored infant-mother attachment styles (Ainsworth et al., 1978) identified three attachment styles to describe the behaviors of the child when separated from the mother:
Other research has found a fourth attachment style: disorganized (Main & Solomon, 1990). These infants are confused, disoriented, angry, and detached.
It is proposed that these early formed attachment styles can carry on into relationships we experience in adulthood. There has been a large body of research that has consistently shown that emotional availability and attachment are linked. Based on what you read above, what might you predict?
You might have guessed that securely attached individuals are more emotionally available, which is what the research shows (e.g., Aviezer & Sag-Schwartz, 2008; Biringen et al., 2005). One study looking at a parent and child separation-reunion found that emotional unavailability was linked to attachment disorganization. This attachment style often develops in cases of neglect, abuse, or domestic violence, and is present with children with developmental disabilities (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008).
Signs & Symptoms of Emotional Unavailability
There are a few signs that can help you identify whether you or someone in your life is emotionally unavailable, as outlined by professionals (Mateo, 2019).
Signs that you are emotionally unavailable:
1. You are afraid of commitment -- this seems like more of a job than something that makes you feel a connection to someone
2. You don’t trust people easily -- you question other people’s intentions and are suspicious of others
3. You avoid “deep” conversations -- you withdraw from these conversations and never let yourself be vulnerable in front of the other person
4. You want to keep your options “open” -- you don’t want to be ‘exclusive’ and prefer to have the option of seeing other people. This may be to avoid developing an attachment to one person.
5. You are defensive -- You are reactive to conflict but don’t actually want to talk about it or acknowledge the emotions after the fact
Signs that your partner is emotionally unavailable:
1. They minimize your feelings -- your feelings are often invalidated (e.g., they may try to use humor to waive off your emotions). This may make you feel like an ‘overly emotional’ person, when in reality you may be perfectly reasonable in your reaction.
2. They are uncomfortable talking about anything emotional - conversations are kept at a surface level and don’t get deeper. They especially avoid topics about the future.
3. They get defensive easily -- they may blame you for your problems and can’t own up to their role in conflicts
4. They are inconsistent in their communication -- they play ‘games’ with you, like not texting for days or being vague with plans. They may ghost you for weeks and then pop back into your life.
5. They avoid labeling the relationship -- they may refuse to define the relationship or avoid having the conversation. This makes it unclear what exactly they want from you.
Video: 8 Signs of Emotional Unavailability
How to Overcome Emotional Unavailability in a Relationship
If you have noticed any of the signs of emotional unavailability in your relationship, it may be time to start reflecting on this. Here are a few questions to consider:
Tips for Being More Emotionally Available
Emotional Unavailability Quiz
The term “emotional availability” has been used since the 1970’s, but a measure was only recently validated and developed in the last 20 years. Given that this was first studied in child-parent interactions, the measure focuses on the emotions and behaviors of the adult in this relationship. This Emotional Availability scale consists of six subscales, four that measure the adult’s emotions/behaviors, and two that measure the child’s side of the relationship (Biringen, 2008).
Although this scale focuses on the emotional connection between a child and parent, the authors suggest that this can be applied to many different types of relationships. The word for word items may not seem relevant to your relationship with a romantic partner or friend, but it hints at the different aspects that may be important to consider when gauging whether someone is emotionally unavailable.
After this test is administered, the scores are classified into one of four categories, which correspond to the different attachment types mentioned earlier
Video: The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Love
Articles on Topics Related to Emotional Unavailability
Want to better understand emotions? Here are some more related articles to read.
Books on Emotional Unavailability
Here are a few books that may help you learn more about emotional unavailability.
Being emotionally unavailable doesn’t mean you are incapable of love. You’re not a bad person either. It simply means that you may have to work on deeply rooted thought-patterns and behaviors that are currently serving as a barrier to emotional intimacy. This can be an opportunity to look inward and reflect on your fears and concerns. Growth is possible, even if it takes some time.