So, you texted that person you’ve been seeing for a couple months, and 10 hours later, still no response *sigh*. You’re trying not to be clingy and double text (let’s be real, quadruple text), but you can’t even get this person to commit to getting drinks in the next two weeks. They keep blowing you off, and they don’t even care how you’re feeling or checking in with you.
You don't know what you did wrong—and you don’t even think you did something wrong. If this is you, chances are you might be seeing someone who is "emotionally unavailable." It'd be nice if the term was just a throwaway label to help you deal with people who just aren't interested in committing to you. But sadly, this breed of dater does, in fact, exist.
Meet the experts:Alyson Cohen
, LCSW, is a therapist for teenagers, young adults, and couples based in New York City.Marni Feuerman
, PsyD, is a marriage therapist and author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart About Healthy Relationships.Darlene Lancer
, LMFT, is the author of Codependency for Dummies and Dealing with a Narcissist.
Alysha Jeney, LMFT, is a relationship therapist and owner of
As anyone with a pulse knows, feelings can be scary. But that goes tenfold for the emotionally unavailable peeps, who use excuses and aloofness to hide from authentic connection. As if dating today weren't hard enough, plucking out the emotionally unavailable from an already shrinking pool of potential partners is just one more thing you have to deal with. Can't you catch a break?
What does being "emotionally unavailable" actually mean?
Feelings are overwhelming as is, but for someone who's emotionally unavailable, it’s a task and a half to even acknowledge what’s happening in their head. They shrink away from vulnerable moments that would otherwise create a real connection.
"An emotionally unavailable person has a hard time receiving love and other deep emotions from others," says New York-based therapist Alyson Cohen, LCSW. It’s tough to understand "the feelings of others, because they can hardly understand their own." They’re not self-aware about how their aversion to intimacy affects a potential partner, either.
"Oftentimes, they can appear quite socially advanced, but more complex emotions that go beyond niceties are often lacking," Cohen says. It’s easy for them to push people away who tiptoe toward their emotional boundaries—which, btw, can be extreme. Meanwhile, on your side, it feels like something in the relationship is off, and you can’t quite find your footing.
But, an aversion to opening up isn’t always a bad sign. So if you hear "Let's take things slow," that's not necessarily a relationship death wish.
As you can imagine, what it comes down to is communication. The person who’s a little more guarded will be "considerate of the fact that their behavior might make someone else feel anxious," Cohen says. This person will talk to you about it, whereas the emotionally unavailable person won’t.
Spotting an emotionally unavailable person isn’t as easy as it sounds, but experts have rounded up some potential warning signs that your person might not be ready for all that a committed relationship entails:
1. They haven’t been in serious relationships.
No, relationship history isn’t everything, but it can give a hint or two about what the future may look like. If a person has been in a lot of situationships or flings that burn out fast—as opposed to relationships that are meaningful to them—they might not be interested in the latter. "These partners will exit relationships before they are able to get more serious," Cohen says.
2. They don’t like talking about real sh*t.
As in, less talk about their latest Netflix obsession and more "Let’s talk about the work crisis ruining my life." An emotionally unavailable partner won’t seem engaged during these chats, even when you want their ear the most. If you can’t bond over the real conflicts in your life, you won’t be able to form an intimate connection.
3. They’re not affectionate (at least not consistently).
If your partner is emotionally evasive, your intimate life might be getting more mild by the day. Touch, compliments, and sex are all means to intimacy, which the emotionally unavailable person avoids.
On your side, "the partner yearning for emotional closeness may get turned off sexually if that effort isn’t made," says Marni Feuerman, PsyD, marriage therapist and author of Ghosted and Breadcrumbed: Stop Falling for Unavailable Men and Get Smart About Healthy Relationships. The result? "The relationship can feel more like a friendship or roommate situation." Not exactly romantic.
P.S. This applies for the sweet little gestures, too. Say you pick up their favorite Sweetgreen salad on your way home, to show them you're thinking of them and want to make them happy. They’ll eat the salad all right, but they won’t understand or fully appreciate the sentiment behind it.
Dating today is hard—emotionally unavailable people are only one piece of it. Here's some help to navigate the rest:
4. They’re unavailable...literally.
Let’s go back to that text you sent hours ago. Still nada? Someone who is emotionally unavailable can be hard to get in contact with, and communication even via text can be spotty. It's intentional.
"Your partner is putting physical distance between the two of you, which can also mask their emotional distance," Cohen says. And if they say they’re busy all the time? Don’t even get me started on that excuse. Who isn’t busy?
5. They don’t respect your time.
A rain check for a dinner date once in a while is totally acceptable (even you have those days when you’d rather wrap up in a blanket solo), but someone who is emotionally unavailable tends to cancel all. the. time. Not only are your plans botched, but it’s a sneaky way to cut down on quality time spent together.
6. They don’t introduce you to their friends.
If you’ve been seeing the same person for, oh, I don’t know, four months and you haven’t met their friends, it might be a sign that they don’t want to acknowledge the relationship. "They want to compartmentalize, and they’re not willing to make you part of their life," says Darlene Lancer, LMFT, author of Codependency for Dummies and Dealing with a Narcissist.
Now, this doesn’t really apply to familial situations (especially if they have children), Lancer adds. But, this can manifest in other ways, as well. Maybe they don’t invite you to a party or a work social event—throw up the red flag in those situations.
7. They think emotions are weak.
For the emotionally unavailable, people who wear their heart on their sleeves are easy to criticize and judge. This goes back to their avoidant attachment style, which is why they have a negative perspective on sharing emotional needs. Uncomfortable with being serious, they might poke fun at you (cue: "You're so sensitive!") or try to lighten the mood when you start real talk. "They’re showing that vulnerability is a turn-off," says Cohen.
8. They misunderstand you.
"The emotionally unavailable partner can make someone with very healthy views of intimacy and closeness feel bad about their needs," Feuerman says. They may not even realize they're doing it (again, they're not good at reading emotions). Regardless, feeling misunderstood or dismissed can feel like a harsh rejection, not to mention extremely frustrating, especially when you're trying to handle things diplomatically. That’s the opposite of what you should feel in a relationship.
9. They seek perfection in themselves and their partners.
People who are emotionally unavailable will find any excuse to break things off, Lancer says. "They’re looking for an ideal. They’ll find something wrong with you and, a lot of the time, that’s used to create distance," she adds.
They’ll hone in on the smallest flaws and might even say "I like X, Y, and Z about you, but I can’t get over this one thing about you." Whether that’s your job, a friend, or a habit that shouldn’t really matter, they'll find fault, says Lancer.
10. They call you "intense."
Say it with me: "My feelings are valid." Closed-off people can see those who express their emotions as really intense or over dramatic—and often will call you out on it so you second guess what you’re actually feeling. In reality, they struggle hardcore to be sympathetic.
This type of partner "deals with your feelings the same way they deal with theirs," says relationship therapist and owner of Modern Love Counseling, Alysha Jeney, LMFT. Read: by shutting them down.
11. They’re defensive, okay?!
Considering an emotionally unavailable partner cannot, for the life of them, say how they truly feel, they automatically go on the defensive when they’re exposed. They often blame others, rather than recognizing and confronting the emotional fallout.
12. They pull away.
While you’re over here speaking your truth, your partner is over there running farther and farther away. The more you try to connect, the more they pull away, Feuerman says. "The push for closeness may feel uncomfortable or scary," she explains. In response, the emotionally unavailable person withdraws and says (or silently conveys, rather) "no comment" when talk of conflict or your future together comes up.
13. They don’t put the same effort into the relationship.
Equal partnership, who? The emotionally unavailable partner just can’t seem to get to the same place as you. "They anticipate being let down, so they don’t make the effort," Feuerman says. When that person stops putting energy into the relationship, the end is nigh, she adds.
14. They are very specific about how and when they will see you.
If you seem to see this person on more of a set schedule that's the same every week, it could be a sign, Cohen says. Keep an eye out of "there doesn’t seem to be much spontaneity or passion-driven desire to see you" on their part, she says.
15. They aren't in regular contact with their family and friends.
This type of person might appear as a "forever bachelor" or "forever bachelorette," but it's for a reason—they're more comfortably that way. "They tend to find their creature comforts and feel content in their lives with little interpersonal interactions," Cohen says.
16. They abuse or overuse substances.
"Typically emotional unavailability is a result of resistance to deeper emotional pain and wounds," Cohen says. Someone who's emotionally unavailable might gravitate toward alcohol or other drugs to create a sense of numbness that will, in turn, actually make it more difficult for them to excel at dating, work, or in social life.
17. They’ve never been in love.
If you're on the younger side, it's normal to have never felt in love. However, "once you reach a certain age of young adulthood (past 25), your ability to experience deep emotions should have developed," Cohen says. By spending months or years with someone, you should become close and develop those types of deeper feelings. "Love is part of human nature," adds Cohen. "If someone has been in long-term relationships and has not ever said 'I love you' to someone, it may indicate some level of emotional unavailability."
18. They say it.
Okay, this one's obvious, but it's true. If you're dating someone emotionally unavailable, they'll often tell you they aren't ready for anything serious, like a committed relationship.
"It’s common for people who are emotionally unavailable to be able to spend a lot of time with someone and essentially build what looks and feels like a deep and serious relationship, but they may not feel any of that at all," says Cohen.
She advises paying attention to what people say in the early dating stages, their continued effort, and how you feel when you're with them. Afterward, if you question how they feel about you, listen to that instinct, and think back to your conversations early on in the 'ship.
How do I know if I’m emotionally unavailable?
Everyone knows (and rolls their eyes at) the standard "It's not you, it's me" breakup line. But what if it really is you? Here are a few ways to tell if you're emotionally unavailable, according to experts:
- You've dated other emotionally unavailable people. Unfortunately, it may have rubbed off on you, because you could have a higher tolerance to date others who are also emotionally unavailable, Cohen says. "You can easily ignore red flags and other less than desirable features about someone because, on an unconscious level, you yourself are not ready for a deep and committed partnership," she adds.
- You're scared of dating. If you're constantly coming up with reasons to not date (like being "too busy with work" or "focusing on yourself ATM"), you might be emotionally unavailable. "Dating and relationships are supposed to be an added support and level of stability in your life," Cohen says. "If you only see them as hindrances or obstacles or stress-related, it may be because emotions are very difficult for you and thus you stay away from them as much as possible."
- You have anxiety and/or depression, but you haven't done anything about it. Perhaps you've thought about getting some type of help, but never followed through. In order to avoid that emotional pain, you may be emotionally unavailable—and therapy can help. "Facing the pain is the only way to work through this and become more available," Cohen notes.
Regardless of the reason why you might be closed off, just know that emotional unavailability doesn't have to last forever. "The first step in becoming emotionally available is to be there for yourself," says Cohen. "Honoring and stepping into your own feelings is the only way to better understand yourself and thus allows you to understand others." You'll also want to surround yourself with support from a therapist or other close friends and think about the needs in your childhood that weren't met. She suggests journaling, doing research online, or joining a support group like ALANON.
Pain is a completely normal part of the human experience. "Deep feelings can be painful, but they can also be fulfilling and satisfying emotions of love and joy. Without accessing your pain, you won’t be able to fully access your joy," Cohen says.
Why might someone be emotionally unavailable?
There are a few reasons someone might be emotionally unavailable, some of which are bigger red flags than others. Maybe they’re just not that into you, says Feuerman. Or they’re going through a dramatic life transition (recent breakup, career change, etc.) and their emotions are hard to pin down.
However—and this is a big however—"if you find you are with someone who is willing to be in a relationship, but constantly puts up barriers to intimacy, then the cause may run deeper than a temporary situation," Feuerman says. Unaddressed childhood wounds and beliefs can undoubtedly bleed into adult relationships.
If you're emotionally unavailable as an adult, you might have had emotionally unavailable parents, adds Cohen. "Emotionally unavailable parents may be workaholics, personality disordered, mentally ill, substance abusers, and also just self-absorbed," she says. "If our emotional needs were neglected and discouraged, we probably learned to bottle up our feelings." If you experienced trauma during childhood, pain becomes "intolerable," she says, therefore you don't process any of it and lock it away so you can't access those emotions. It's imperative that children be taught the validity of their feelings so they can live their lives openly.
People can also become emotionally unavailable from previous relationships—especially if they had their heart broken. "This could be considered a relationship trauma that scares the person away from developing deep feelings for another person in an effort to avoid the pain from the past," she adds.
For the emotionally unavailable, "the unconscious idea here is that if you can block feelings, you can also block out your pain," Cohen says. Too real? Try being on the other end of it, too. Neither is fun.
So... what are my next steps if I really, really like an emotionally unavailable person?
Here’s where it gets personal. It comes down to you to decide if it’s worth pursuing a relationship with someone who shows signs of being emotionally unavailable. Whatever your choice, proceed with caution.
"It was Maya Angelou who said, 'When people show you who they are, believe them,'" Cohen advises. "And in this scenario, I totally agree with that quote." Staying with someone who is emotionally unavailable could be a disaster—not quite the happily ever after you might be looking for, she says.
For the sake of your mental health, it’s important to remember that it's not up to you to change this person's ways. Again, while emotional unavailability could be a temporary result of one's current circumstances, many times, it can be traced back to long before they met you.
A one-sided relationship with someone who can’t support or love you in the way you deserve is exhausting. Not to mention, it could even toe the line of a specific type of emotional abuse, called gaslighting. If the person shows no signs of changing their habits, think of moving on as an act of self-care. It's tough to give up on someone you want, but it will be a lot less painful if you part ways early.
But, if your heart of hearts believes that your partner is struggling with opening up or being responsive to your emotions, then "they may just need help learning how to tolerate and understand feelings," Jeney says. There’s room to ask them questions that will help give you clarity on their hesitations and/or learn what affection means to them. Just remember to be gentle and patient, and try not to get all heated up.
With a concerted, mutual (keyword here) effort to progress—bonus points if your partner goes to therapy!—it’s possible to have a future together. "A person might be able to break down the walls of someone who is willing to slowly take out the bricks," Feuerman says. "It is ultimately up to them to become more emotionally accessible, present, and engaged."
Addison Aloian (she/her) is an editorial assistant at Women’s Health. When she’s not writing about all things pop culture, health, beauty, and fashion, she loves hitting leg day at the gym, shopping at Trader Joe’s, and watching whichever hockey game is on TV. Her work has also appeared in Allure, StyleCaster, L’Officiel USA, V Magazine, and Modern Luxury Media.