The phrase "emotionally unavailable" can sound like a dismissive excuse for not wanting to be in a relationship. Like a slightly elevated way of saying, "It's not you, it's me," or "I'm bad at relationships." But, while it's somewhat vague, emotional unavailability can be a valid reason for some people to fear commitment and lack vulnerability in relationships.
Being emotionally unavailable basically means keeping one's guard up, out of fear for what will happen after becoming intimate and vulnerable with someone, explains Jeremy Ortman, LMHC, adjunct faculty member in the counselling psychology department at Columbia University and a therapist in New York City. "From the outside, the threat might seem minimal, but for those who are emotionally unavailable, the message inside them is signalling danger," Ortman says. "The prospect of getting close to someone is like standing at the edge of a dark abyss: Your body is feeling cautious, and you question whether it is worth it to take the leap."
So, where does this fear come from? Growing up, we learn from our families whether or not our emotional needs will be met from the people around us, Ortman says. But if you're someone whose family constantly told you that your thoughts and feelings aren't important or valid, or if you were ignored or criticised, it can "lead you to become wary of being emotionally available as an adult," he says. The people around you might not have modelled emotional expressions or intimacy, so relationships can feel awkward or even terrifying. Or if you had a negative experience with an ex who didn't honour your emotions, that can lead to emotional unavailability, he says.
People who struggle with emotional availability tend to ghost when there is a conflict or the interaction begins to feel too intense.
Jeremy Ortman, LMHC
There are a few clear signs that someone is emotionally unavailable, according to Ortman. For example, someone might be personable and engaged when they first start dating, but then pull back when the prospect of a deeper relationship comes up, he says. "The mixed signals that come with this are not always conscious, but they have consequences in that they confuse [their] partner."
Other people might just be afraid to talk about feelings, whether they're good or bad, Ortman says. It can be scary to say, "I love you," or even just call someone their partner. "People who struggle with emotional availability tend to ghost when there is a conflict or the interaction begins to feel too intense," he says. "It is a form of self-regulation; withdrawing is an indirect expression of a boundary without asking specifically for space."
In certain cases, people who are emotionally unavailable might rely on alcohol, drugs, or sex to keep their emotions at bay, Ortman says. "If you use substances as self-medication to numb feelings or if your feelings only get expressed when you are drunk, this can interfere with a flow of clear and honest communication between you and others," he says. Or someone's words and actions just won't line up: "You say that you care, but then act in unloving ways," he says. "Sometimes shame underlies this tendency, because you are afraid of looking awkward, and so you check out."
The good news is that it is possible for someone to become more "emotionally available," but it requires making an active choice to try new ways of behaving, Ortman says. For starters, it can be helpful to notice your tendencies to shut down or avoid emotional openness, and evaluate whether or not they're helping or hurting your relationships. "Sometimes we need to thank our defenses for how they have previously served us, but then ask them to take seat," he says.
You should be able to clearly identify and name the range of emotions you feel, which can be a challenge for many people, Ortman says. "The building blocks of becoming more emotionally available is to develop an awareness of your feelings, first by noticing how they arise in the body, and then trying to identify and accurately name the emotion." He recommends journaling, talking, or meditating as ways to make sense of your own feelings. Emotions provide us with vital information about our needs, so once you recognize yours, you can make them clear to your partner.
It can be frustrating to be with a partner who says they're emotionally unavailable, but if they genuinely don't want to be in a relationship, that's a valid choice that you should respect, Ortman says. "It’s the instances when someone’s intentions and actions are not lining up that are worth taking a second look at," he says. For example, if someone says they want to be in a relationship, but they won't pursue it because they're emotionally unavailable, it's worth it to ask them whether that's something they would like to change.
"Many of us desire deep and emotionally intimate relationships, but for some people, these types of relationships are fraught with the fear of being hurt or rejected," Ortman says. Reminding your partner that they have a safe space to express their emotions is a step in the right direction toward having lasting, emotionally intimate relationships, he says. After all, wouldn't you want the same openness and security from them?