Have you ever been in a relationship that you thought was on a good trajectory, but seemingly out of nowhere, it goes off the rails? Communication becomes inconsistent, availability scarce and there’s no mention of feelings. Instead of soft launching your new beau, you’re Googling, “why do I keep attracting emotionally unavailable men?”
It’s not your fault that you always seem to gravitate towards people who fear commitment, lack emotional sensitivity or seem emotionally withdrawn. Yes, your love life might be a bit chaotic, and you’re always the first to share horror Tinder stories. But it’s endearing, like the main character in a rom-com. You’re just a hopeless romantic constantly falling for the “wrong” people.
Or are you?
It’s easier to say, “no one wants to commit,” than it is to admit that you might be unintentionally self-sabotaging your love life. Some of us like to stay stagnant in a situationship we know is leading nowhere. Others are happy collecting friends with benefits to play with until the “right” person comes along.
Me? I do both. And I was pretty content doing so. But when the guy I had been dating for six months blew me off for the third week in a row, I realised something. It was too easy for me to blame him for wasting my time. Despite all the red flags in our relationship, I continued to make myself available to him whenever he called. I avoided all conflict by never bringing up my real feelings and we never spoke about labels. Which suited me just fine, because it meant I could still see other people and not feel guilty about it.
In putting all the blame on him, I never had to take accountability for my own actions and admit the truth….that there is a very real possibility that it is me who is emotionally unavailable. Here’s how to know if you are too.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
The term “emotionally unavailable” can sometimes feel like a nice way to say, “it’s not you, it’s me,” to someone you don’t really like. But it is a valid reason for having difficulty in developing relationships, according to clinical psychologist and Headspace’s mental health expert, Mary Spillane.
“Emotional unavailability is an umbrella term that describes a number of difficulties a person could experience,” says Spillane. “This could include difficulties developing close relationships, being affectionate towards others, committing to relationships and discussing emotions.”
Saying you are “emotionally unavailable” can sound like a phony modern dating term, but it is a real concept that's been extensively explored by psychologists. “Psychologists often think about emotional availability in terms of attachment theory,” says Spillane. “They [psychologists] look to better understand why a person was having attachment difficulties rather than use definitive labels.”
Although Hollywood often portrays emotional unavailability as a person trying to hold it together, it’s ultimately about maintaining control. In my case, by avoiding the “where is this going conversation,” I successfully kept control of my dormant fear of abandonment. He couldn’t reject me if I didn’t give him the option to.
How does an emotionally unavailable person act?
Most people struggle with confronting their real emotions. But for someone who is emotionally unavailable, the feelings are often too overwhelming to even acknowledge. They will do whatever is necessary to avoid being vulnerable, and in turn, avoid creating real connections.
If you think you or the person you are dating is emotionally unavailable, here are some signs that Spillane recommends looking out for.
4 Signs you might be dating someone who is emotionally unavailable
- They have difficulty talking about emotions or shy away from conversations about the relationship.
- They appear distant at times.
- They’re inconsistent in how they communicate with you or behave towards you.
- They like the relationship to be on their terms. For example, spending time together when it suits them.
4 Signs you’re emotionally unavailable
- You avoid expressing how you feel about the person and the relationship.
- Emotional intimacy and connection make you feel uncomfortable.
- You have difficulty committing fully to a relationship.
- You avoid conflict.
Why can’t I connect?
Ok, so you resonate with some of the above signs. Where does it all come from, and how does it explain your attraction to people who are emotionally unavailable?
“There are many reasons we might find ourselves attracted to certain types of people, and a lot of the time this is a subconscious process, meaning we are not fully aware of it,” says Spillane.
“If you’re emotionally unavailable, you may be drawn to others who are similar as it feels familiar. Likewise, if you grew up in an environment where emotions weren’t often expressed you may find you’re attracted to partners who replicate the environment you grew up in.”
The causes for emotionally unavailability vary per person because everyone experiences things differently. But for guidance, below are some examples of why you might be struggling to connect.
Reasons you might be unable to connect
- Being unsure of how to connect with others on a deeper level.
- Difficulty experiencing and expressing emotions.
- Experiencing a bad break-up in the past.
If you are struggling with your mental health, don’t be afraid to communicate with those closest to you or seek help from a mental health professional.
Is it bad to be emotionally unavailable?
When I came to the realisation that maybe I was just as emotionally unavailable as the person I was dating, I figured it didn’t matter. We could just be emotionally unavailable together. However, in doing this, I avoided the real issues looming in the background and prevented myself from breaking unhealthy relationship patterns.
“People who are emotionally unavailable are often that way for a reason, and experience great discomfort around emotions and relationships,” says Spillane. “They may have had an unpleasant experience in the past or perhaps they haven’t learnt how to best manage their emotions. This makes it difficult to form close bonds, which can be challenging.”
How to recognise unhealthy relationship patterns
Identifying unhealthy relationship patterns is a task and a half. The more walls you put up, the harder it is to take them down. Setting boundaries in a relationship is extremely important, but take time to understand why you have those boundaries in the first place.
“In order to break unhealthy relationship patterns, you need to understand them first,” says Spillane. “A health professional can help you better understand and make sense of the pattern, creating opportunities for change.”
If you start laying bricks just for the hell of it, no one will be able to get in or out. Which, for the truly emotionally unattached, maybe doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But what you’re really doing is imprisoning yourself in that loop you’re stuck in.
Closing the loop
The more I complained about attracting emotionally unavailable men, the more I forced it into fruition. I settled for less than what I deserved because it was easier than being alone. But in doing this, I neglected to respect my own boundaries.
Accepting personal responsibility isn’t a walk in the park, but it is the answer to unlocking the limiting beliefs about yourself and the relationships you can have. By believing this was the only kind of relationship I could attract, I closed myself off from the most important love of all — love for myself.
And in the wise words of RuPaul, “if you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
If you feel like you’re stuck in a cycle of bad relationships, taking time to explore your own behaviours can help identify possible issues. Remember you don’t have to do it alone. Seek support from a mental health professional.