If you’ve ever found yourself dating a partner who’s emotionally unavailable, you know how confusing and frustrating it can be to take the relationship to a deeper level. It doesn’t matter how much fun you two seem to have together—somehow he or she still struggles to share their true feelings, commit to plans, or develop emotional intimacy with you. What’s going on?
“It’s like a roller coaster. You might think, ‘We’re in love, the sex is amazing,’ but then your partner just pulls back. He or she may desperately want that deeper connection with you, but for whatever reason lacks the tools to interact in that way,” explains Shirani Pathak, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the Center for Soulful Relationships.
Emotional unavailability is a real thing—not just some vague way to dismiss a relationship that’s not working out. But just because your crush is emotionally distant doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed to fail.
A little understanding of the psychology of attachment (plus some strategic communication techniques) can go a long way toward healthy romance.
What’s the deal with being emotionally unavailable?
So you’ve found yourself with someone who just can’t commit: They ghost in the middle of texting, they pull back every time things seem to be moving in the right direction, and they get evasive when you ask too many personal details about their life. What’s the deal?
They might be emotionally unavailable.
This level of availability (and stagnancy!) directly relates to attachment style. Most of the population has a secure attachment style, which means they don’t fear intimacy and connection, says Pathak. These people tend to form healthy, fulfilling relationships.
The remaining 50 percent of people fall primarily into two other attachment style categories: anxious and avoidant. Clingy people who grip a little too tightly on relationships have an anxious attachment style. On the other end of the spectrum is the avoidant attachment style. This is where you tend to find emotionally unavailable men and women.
“People with avoidant attachment style do not want anything to do with intimacy. They’ll date frequently and have a lot of one-night stands and break a lot of hearts. They just always have that wall up,” says Pathak.
They’re opposites, but people with avoidant attachment styles tend to attract those with the anxious version, adds Pathak. A relationship between these two amplifies the weakness of both styles.
“One’s trying to flee the relationship while the other’s trying hard to hold on to it. It really can trigger each other’s buttons,” she says.
If they’re emotionally unavailable, why do they keep coming back?
The most confusing part of finding yourself with an emotionally unavailable person is that every time you accept that the relationship isn’t working out, he or she somehow comes back into the picture. This time it will work, right? You hope, but often you find yourself back at square one just a couple weeks later.
If they’re not emotionally available, why do they keep coming back?
They’re not doing it to torture you (even though that might be the effect). The fact is that the very things that make a relationship amazing—connecting on a deep level, making plans for the future, integrating your lives in a more holistic way—scare emotionally unavailable people.
“The circuitry in the brain of a person that deals with the avoidant attachment style causes a big red alert when they start to come close to intimacy,” says Pathak. “They pull back but then start to miss their partner, so they might come back again when they start to feel lonely.”
Hence why you might wake up to that 2 a.m. text from that guy with whom you swore it was over, asking if you’re up. Your invitation for him to be a date to your friend’s wedding a couple weeks ago totally freaked him out, but now that the thing that triggered his “fight or flight” response is in the past, he’s ready to give it another try. But is that the right move for you?
What are your options when dating someone who’s emotionally unavailable?
The success of any relationship is dependent on patience and meeting your partner where they are. But is it possible for a relationship to ever grow into a long and fruitful partnership if the person you’re seeing is emotionally unavailable?
“Well, it really depends on where you get your fulfillment from,” explains Pathak. “If you’re in a relationship with an emotionally distant person, you have to realize that you’re trying to get everything from someone who doesn’t have everything to give.”
A strong support network outside of your romantic life is essential if you want to make things work with someone who’s emotionally unavailable. You’ll need to find ways to get more of your needs met outside of the relationship in order to give your partner the comfortable space he or she needs.
“Can you be okay with that? There are many people out there who are fine with that, and they actually like having more time to hang with their friends. But others really want to be with someone who’s more present,” says Pathak.
While attachment styles can change over time, it’s dangerous to build a relationship on the assumption that your partner will evolve past their emotional distance. Don’t try to force it. Instead, create conditions that gently nudge your sweetheart to open up.
“Research shows that it can be helpful to engage in other activities, like hiking, golfing, or ice skating, when you’re trying to access that emotional side. The physical activity helps distract the person from the fact that they typically want to stay away, allowing them to potentially connect,” says Pathak.
It’s not unreasonable for you to expect your partner to be available when you really need them, though. Open and direct communication about what you need—and when—can clue your emotionally distant partner into the fact that they need to step it up at critical moments.
“It can be hard to ask and state your needs. But if you need comfort and an embrace, you need to express that. If your partner is able to do those things and that works for you, great! But if not, it’s time to re-evaluate if this is the right relationship for you,” advises Pathak.
People can eventually overcome emotional unavailability. It’s a matter of whether it’s worth the patience and effort required and if your partner is able to meet your basic needs in the meantime. If you need to step away from the relationship, that’s perfectly understandable—take an honest look at your life and what makes sense for you right now.
What are the red flags that signal someone is emotionally unavailable?
Dating is hard enough as it is. The last thing we need is to end up with people who are emotionally unavailable, over and over again. It might be time for you to throw in the towel on trying to connect with people who can’t be intimate. Watch out for the biggest red flags that someone is emotionally unavailable.
“They tend to play those games, like waiting three days to call someone back or suggesting you’re needy if you call them back right away. Game-playing is indicative of someone who’s emotionally unavailable,” says Pathak.
As you’re getting to know someone you’re dating, pay attention to how they talk about themselves: Does he or she seem to open up? Do they talk about personal details of their lives, their hopes, their dreams? Or do they give cursory answers and move on to less intimate topics? Evasiveness is one of the biggest signs of emotionally unavailable men and women.
Similarly, if they seem cold or uninterested in learning about what makes you tick, they might not be in a place where they can relate to others on an intimate level right now. Qualities that demonstrate that someone you’re dating has big walls up all indicate emotional unavailability—and signs that it might be time to move on ASAP.
Why do you keep dating emotionally unavailable people?
Everyone has that one friend who always seems to find herself with someone who’s emotionally unavailable. Maybe that person is you. Why does this keep happening?
“If you find yourself constantly attracting emotionally unavailable partners, it’s probably because you are emotionally unavailable. We attract what we give out,” says Pathak.
You don’t have to be forever alone, though. Start by learning about attachment styles and how they fit together. Pathak recommends picking up a copy of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, which does a deep dive into the psychology of attachment.
“When I started studying adult attachment styles, it was really life changing. It was the missing puzzle piece and all of a sudden, life made more sense,” says Pathak.
A psychologist or a therapist can also help you get to the bottom of why you’ve built walls around your heart and offer personalized strategies to tear them down.
But most of all, the best way to open yourself up to a deeply intimate relationship with someone else is by being really loving, gentle, and kind with yourself, says Pathak.
“That self-compassion piece is one of the most important aspects of dealing with being emotionally unavailable,” she says. “It’s about the fact that you just haven’t cultivated the right skillset yet—it’s not something to beat yourself up over. Have compassion and forgiveness for yourself for choosing relationships that don’t make sense, then go from there.”