We throw the term “emotionally unavailable” around pretty casually, but joking about someone being commitment-phobic, seemingly loveless, or allergic to feelings is only scratching the surface of what the term really means—and what it implies for the person in a one-sided relationship, dating someone who is, in fact, emotionally unavailable.
“It suggests that a person consciously or subconsciously creates a wall that prevents them from being intimate with another person,” explains Jill Sylvester, a mental health counselor and author of Trust Your Intuition: 100 Ways to Transform Anxiety and Depression for Stronger Mental Health.
Basically, someone who’s emotionally unavailable isn’t willing or able to be vulnerable or hurt in any way, adds California-based marriage and family therapist Tess Bingham. “They can't show up for you in the way in which you want a potential partner to show up,” she says.
Where does that leave you? “The person on the other end of the relationship is often left feeling rejected and unloved,” says Sylvester. “You probably feel like something is missing, as if there’s a barrier to getting to know this person,” says Bingham.
Since that’s not ideal for many people, it’s important to be aware of the red flags an emotionally unavailable person exhibits. Here’s what to look for:
They’re, like, literally not available.
Call it what you will—ghosting, benching, breadcrumbing, zombie-ing—if you’re not sure whether you’re going to hear back from someone that day, a day later, a week later, or at all, that’s actually communicating a pretty clear message, says Bingham. “We're all busy, but someone who wants to be in a relationship with you will prioritize spending time together and will always get back to you, even if it's to say, ‘At work. Will text tonight or tomorrow,’” she explains. “If they can't be bothered to give you a heads up or be considerate enough to recognize you also have a busy life, they're not emotionally invested enough.”
Your feelings are invalidated.
“People who aren't in touch with their emotions are often doing a great deal of unconscious work to push aside big and difficult feelings,” explains Anna Hiatt Nicholaides, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, PA. So when someone they’re in a relationship with has an emotional reaction, they don’t handle it well.
“Frequently, partners of emotionally unavailable people are told they’re ‘too sensitive’ or ‘being dramatic,’” she adds. “This can create a vicious cycle in the relationship where one person is pegged as the overly emotional one and the other is the rational and stable one—because, in reality, the ‘overly emotional' person is holding all the painful feelings for both partners.”
They play games.
The whole point of being in a relationship is leaving dating “games”—not texting right away, making vague plans—behind. But someone who’s emotionally unavailable keeps the games going continuously through the first months of dating or a relationship, says Katie Krimer, a licensed clinical social worker in New York, NY. “Playing games involves not being straight-forward in the beginning of getting to know someone,” she explains. “When you meet someone who isn't emotionally available, you may notice that their communication behaviors are inconsistent, they pick and choose when they answer you or don't, wait stretches of time before they text you back, hoping to keep you on the line—and all of these are red flags.”
And avoid conflict.
Conflict is a part of any healthy relationship: It’s totally necessary to work through disagreements and issues to grow. But “a person who is emotionally unavailable avoids any friction,” says Babita Spinelli, a psychotherapist in New York, NY. “This can manifest in a few ways: They may shy away from addressing issues, try to make light of everything, deflect by saying nothing is wrong, or act as if nothing even happened.” And that kind of emotional wall hinders establishing a meaningful connection.
Defensive is their middle name.
“People who are emotionally unavailable can be defensive and blame others for their problems,” says Meredith Prescott, a licensed clinical social worker in New York, NY. “It's easier for them to accuse you than to work together to solve the problem—they can't tolerate being vulnerable. Be wary of people who can't own their part in a conflict, because it may be a sign that they aren't willing to really connect with you.”
Be mindful of their body language.
This seems so obvious, but many people tend to overlook what’s right in front of them. “Tune in to body language,” says Lindsey Jernigan, Ph.D. licensed clinical psychologist in South Burlington, VT. “People unconsciously express our comfort or discomfort with connection through our posture, touch, and eye contact.
When you’re sharing feelings or personal stories, does your partner face you and look at you? Do they reflect your facial expressions back to you? Do they spontaneously reach out to touch you in comforting ways, or in ways that express feelings of love and desire?” These skills come naturally to someone who’s comfortable with intimacy, but not to those who are emotionally unavailable.
They don’t respect your time.
One of the most critical ways to develop a relationship is through quality time spent together. So if someone isn’t making time for you, they probably don’t want to invest or aren’t capable of investing in a relationship. (And we're not just talking about a partner who likes to set healthy personal boundaries.) “This is someone who makes plans with you, but cancels last-minute because they either got another offer to do something, or claim they're too tired to spend time with you,” says Bingham. And even when you do meet, they’re uninterested in your stories, says Sylvester—chances are, they seem checked out, dismissive, distracted, or distant.
And they make you do the work.
Relationships are meant to be an equal partnership, with give and take and a lot of compromise. Someone who’s emotionally unavailable, though, doesn’t put you in the same slot on the priority list that you put them, says Sylvester. “How do you know this? You try too hard. You work too hard at the relationship, constantly making excuses as to why they're not giving to you what you give to them,” she says. “Trust your gut. If you don't feel like a priority, you might not be to this person.”
They seem selfish.
When you’re in a relationship with someone who’s emotionally unavailable, the relationship 100 percent revolves around them. “They don't consider your feelings, ask about your day, or wonder about your thoughts and dreams,” says Sylvester. “They brood on their own situations, expecting you to cater to their demands. Then, when they feel better they often move forward without asking you what you might need in return.” And you know what could happen while they do this? “You run the risk of discounting your own needs because you’re too busy tending to theirs,” she says.
Things are kept at a surface level.
At some point, a relationship has to go beyond the exchange of minutiae regarding how your day was, what’s on Netflix, and where to get dinner or drinks. But someone who’s emotionally available never gets too deep with you. “You ask about work and they tell you ‘it's fine’ or you ask about family and they say, ‘my parents are nice,’” says Bingham. “This isn't someone who’s looking for a meaningful connection; they want to keep everything very surface level so they, and you, don't get too attached.” One topic that’s totally avoided? The future.
So, what do you do if you’re dating someone who’s emotionally unavailable?
Unless you’re okay with being in a relationship with someone who isn’t fully there for you (and maybe you are! Sometimes, it’s nice to be with someone without commitment), then you might want to consider ending things.
If you’ve noticed any of these red flags in your partner, it’s time for a serious soul-searching. Sylvester says you should ask yourself:
- How long are you willing to deny yourself what you want and need?
- How long are you willing to let go of energy that is better served somewhere else?
- Why don't you think you are worth more than that? And if you do think you are worth more than that, then what are you waiting for?”
You might end up wondering if there’s some way you can change this person, if they can become more emotionally available. “It’s certainly worth having a conversation,” says Sylvester. “This gives an emotionally unavailable person the choice to do something different, if they're capable, and to become aware of the wall they are putting up, if it is a subconscious process, and to take the wall down if they choose.”
But, remember, you can’t make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. “If someone is emotionally unavailable it's all on them to figure out what's going on and if they wish to change their behavior,” says Bingham.
And if they don’t or aren’t willing to change, you’re way better off putting your energy someplace else, or with someone else.
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Ashley Mateo is a writer, editor, and UESCA- and RRCA-certified running coach who has contributed to Runner’s World, Bicycling, Women's Health, Health, Shape, Self, and more. She’ll go anywhere in the world once—even if it’s just for a good story. Also into: good pizza, good beer, and good photos.