- Being in a relationship with a person who is emotionally unavailable can be painful and lonely.
- Since they are unaware of feelings in general, it is difficult to talk with them about what's wrong.
- Understanding your unavailable partner and removing the blame from the equation, you may have a fruitful talk.
“I can tell when something is bothering her, but when I ask her about it, she denies it.”
“I rarely get him to tell me what he needs or how he feels.”
“I know he loves me, but he doesn't express it.”
These are just a few of the complaints I’ve heard from people in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner. I once told a client that trying to talk with her emotionally walled-off boyfriend about emotions is like asking her grandpa his thoughts about the latest spring fashions for women. Neither will be a productive conversation.
What does it mean to be emotionally unavailable? It happens when a person is unaware, uninterested, or closed off from their own feelings and the feelings of others.
To fully grasp this concept, it really helps to be emotionally available and open to understanding more about emotions and how they work. So, in an ironic twist, the emotionally unavailable are at a clear disadvantage in understanding the problem. That’s why it’s so important for you to equip yourself with this valuable information if you are the one attempting to reach your emotionally unavailable partner.
Below you’ll begin to understand how your partner might have come to be emotionally unavailable. You’ll also learn how to compassionately approach your partner. It’s my hope that by the time you are done reading this article, you find yourself one step closer to the connection you’ve been hoping for.
How Does One Become Emotionally Unavailable?
Many, if not most, people who are emotionally unavailable experienced emotional neglect in their childhoods.
Childhood emotional neglect happens when parents fail to respond to, validate, or acknowledge their children’s emotions enough as they raise them. Emotionally neglectful parents miss the mark when it comes to emotions. They don’t notice when their child is experiencing an emotion. They don’t ask about feelings enough. They don’t make enough space for their child to come to them for emotional support or understanding. They don’t teach their child the importance of emotions.
This is the difficult part: Even if parents tried to meet their child’s emotional needs, that doesn’t mean they were successful. Even the most loving, well-meaning parents can emotionally neglect their children. A child who grows up with their feelings and emotional needs unmet is set on track to become one of many, many adults living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect. And, as an adult, this sets you up to be emotionally unavailable to your partner.
Children learn that their feelings don’t matter as they grow up in an emotion-intolerant environment. Without emotional attention, emotional validation, or emotional response from parents, children intuitively adapt to the environment they’re in. It’s actually quite remarkable…shifting and forming into what best suits their childhood home. Of course, all of this happens outside of everyone’s awareness. Emotionally neglected children end up walling off their emotions so as to not be a burden to their parents, or to themselves.
The impact this has on their adult life is great. The wall they’ve built since childhood grows, and their access to their emotions dwindles. They may find themselves having difficulty forming genuine relationships. They may find it difficult to be vulnerable. They may even want to access their emotions but don’t know how.
If you suspect that your emotionally unavailable partner may have experienced childhood emotional neglect, know that there are answers and solutions. There is hope for recovery. Your partner has the power to change the way they interact with their emotions. Adults with childhood emotional neglect can learn how to get in touch with their feelings, accept them, and use them as they were meant to be used. It does take some work, but it is undoubtedly worth it.
Finding yourself in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable can make you feel helpless, but there are things you can do, too. While you can’t change your partner, you can change your approach.
6 Steps to Reach an Emotionally Unavailable Partner
- Tell your partner you’d like to have an open conversation about how you’ve been feeling lately. Share that this conversation is important to you, and carve out a time that works for both of you with no distractions.
- Start the conversation by expressing your feelings and needs. For example, “I have been noticing disconnection in our relationship, and it sometimes makes me feel distant from you. I’d like to talk about it.”
- Emphasize that they are not to blame. You can share what you’ve learned about childhood emotional neglect and engage in conversations about your partner’s upbringing if they are willing. The more you both understand the impact childhood experiences have had, the more validating and less blaming you both can be.
- Discuss how to go forward and heal. Ask your partner to learn as much as they are willing about childhood emotional neglect to see if it applies to them. Explain that the way to heal is by doing hard work and relating to their own emotions, and yours, in a different way.
- Ask how you can support your partner. Let your partner know how much you care for them and that you want to feel closer in your relationship.
- Remember that the rest is up to your partner. All of the steps above are steps that are in your control. You can’t heal your partner’s childhood emotional neglect for them. What you can do is be knowledgeable, understanding, and patient.
When your partner starts chipping at the wall that stands between them and their emotions, they slowly become more and more emotionally available. Childhood emotional neglect might have been their reality in childhood. But now, with you, their environment doesn’t require them to squelch their emotions. It’s quite the opposite.
There is depth and vibrance inside both you and your partner. Their childhood may have taught them that their feelings and needs don’t matter, but that message is inherently wrong. Their feelings and needs do matter, and they deserve to be noticed, expressed, and taken seriously.
The six steps above can help bridge the emotional gap in your relationship. To feel connected and loved by our partners, emotions must sit at the head of the table. Then, true emotional connection and intimacy can flourish.
© Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock
To determine if you might be living with the effects of childhood emotional neglect, you can take the free Emotional Neglect Questionnaire. You'll find the link in my bio.