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Verified by Psychology Today

3 Kinds of Emotionally Unavailable Partners

1. The Jester, who just doesn't want you to bring them down.

Key points

  • It is often difficult to spot whether someone is emotionally unavailable. You may feel dissatisfied without knowing why.
  • There are three types of emotionally unavailable partners: The Jester, The Counselor, and The Fixer.
  • Without attacking or adopting a demanding stance, communicate your needs and wants to your partner.

It is often difficult to spot whether someone is emotionally unavailable, especially in the early stages of a relationship. They can be charming engaging, and make you feel like they are committed. But as time goes by and the relationship deepens, you may feel lonely and dissatisfied and unsure why.

How Do You Know You Have an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?

  • They hardly share how they feel with you. Whenever you ask them how they are, they always say they are "fine" or "OK," even when they are not.
  • They turn everything into a joke, especially when you show emotions or if the subject is difficult for them.
  • When you bring up a disagreement or raise a potential conflict, they may distance themselves, withdraw, or counter-attack rather than connect with you to resolve the conflict.
  • When you talk about something intimate or express a deep feeling, they do not give a personal response but a quote from a theory, a book, or a famous saying from someone else.
  • They may try to make you feel guilty for wanting more emotional connection than they are willing or able to give.
  • When you share something in more depth, they seem to checkout or have to distract themselves.
  • They try to compensate for the lack of emotional intimacy by showering you with physical attention (elaborate dates, expensive gifts, etc.). When you express feeling emotionally alone, they may blame you for being demanding or ungrateful.
  • They make jokes about how "crazy" or "too sensitive" you are.
  • They avoid talking about their childhood or act defensively if you ask about it. They may insist it was good or say they cannot remember anything.

Three Types of Emotionally Unavailable Partners

The Jester. An emotionally unavailable partner tends to see themselves as being humorous and optimistic. You may notice that whenever you show emotions that they cannot handle, they turn what you say into a joke or trivialize the subject matter.

They likely defend themselves by claiming that they're a "positive" person who is "trying to cheer you up."

If they can't calmly and effectively cope with the fact that you have strong emotions, they may stop contacting you, or they act passively aggressive. For example, giving you the cold shoulder, not responding to your messages, stonewalling. They may even blame you for bringing them down and making them depressed.

The Fixer. Another sign that shows a person is emotionally unavailable is that they always try to step in and fix your problems. This is usually because they are afraid of their emotions, are keen to stay in control, or think the responsibility lies upon them to ensure that others are happy. If they were or are in a codependent relationship with their parents, they may feel on some level that you being upset means they have failed.

When you are upset, instead of listening to what you have to say, they go right in with their suggestions. In a way, it can feel like your partner is always trying to make you into someone more easygoing, leisurely, and simple. It can feel like their only goal is to make life easier and more enjoyable for them, rather than listening to what you have to say.

It may be apparent that their abusive or overbearing parents impact them. However, when you express your concerns, your partner may get angry and tell you that it's not your business and avoid the conversation altogether. Frustrating as it is, it's important to remember that your partner has spent most of their life learning how to interact with people in ways that allow them to protect themselves.

This topic is best addressed not by direct confrontation but by a slow and collaborative process.

The Counselor. Contrary to common misconception, not all emotionally inaccessible partners come across as rational and aloof. Some can appear warm, kind, and generous but still distant. They may be relatively patient, but when you try to take the closeness to another level, you hit a wall.

Your partner may think of themselves as a mature, advanced person when what they do is shove a big part of their psyche into the unconscious. Their darker sides inevitably come out in destructive ways, such as a demeaning and condescending manner.

If you tell them something is upsetting, they may retort with high-level, incomprehensible concepts, rationalizations, or self-help wisdom. They hardly ever share their viewpoints or have a spontaneous, congruent reaction.

For example, they may justify grievances with truism such as that’s life, or, changes are the only constant, but there is no true empathy. This can make you feel that your natural, human, and even healthy reactions such as anger, grief, and sadness are wrong.

It can be difficult to put your finger on what is happening because they seem so nice on the surface, but there is a deep disconnect inside. You may find it hard to explain to friends and family that this "very good person" somehow does not feel enough nor meet your emotional needs.

What Can You Do if You Have an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?

Reflect on Your Patterns. Have you unconsciously attracted/drawn toward those who have avoidant attachment patterns, are emotionally closed off, and are extremely reserved? Does your partner respond to you in a way that reminds you of your parents? This is called "repetition compulsion." Gaining self-understanding means you can have a more balanced view of the relationship. It also allows you to take responsibility for your contribution in any dysfunctional dynamics, which sets a strong foundation for improving the relationship moving forward.

Summon Compassion. Even an emotionally unavailable partner could hurt us deeply. They're not intentionally doing so. They're mostly afraid of their feelings. Building a wall between themselves and you is the only means they know to protect themselves from being overwhelmed. This is a dysfunctional and unproductive approach, but they don't know how to venture beyond it. It can be hard to have compassion for someone who doesn't seem to want to connect with you. However, it's important not to take their reactions personally.

Explore Options. Just because someone is emotionally unavailable does not mean you need to end the relationship. Couple’s counseling, open communication, or specific skills such as non-violent communication (NVC) can be some good starting points to improving the relationship. If you can go into the conversation with an attacking stance and make it clear that your main intention is not to complain, accuse or make demands, your partner may be more receptive to hearing what you need.

Although you may be reluctant, in the beginning, it can be useful to give them very specific directions on what to say or do. Although it may feel unnatural at first, they will be relieved to know what they can do when you have emotions. As they feel safer, they will be more ready to open up.

Love Languages. Instead of words of support, offering practical support, being available, and making time for you may be their favourite way of showing love. As much you can, try to hear and see their expression of love and appreciate it rather than twist their ways of showing love into something you'd like them to be.

If you are in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner, there are things you can do to help your relationship. Be compassionate toward yourself and them. Remember that it is no one’s fault. Be honest with yourself about what you need and want. Then, without attacking or adopting a demanding stance, communicate your needs and wants to your partner.

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