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How to Spot Emotional Unavailability in a Relationship

Understanding the cause must come first.

Key points

  • Emotional unavailability comes in many forms, topographies, and functions.
  • A core symptom of emotional unavailability is a person having a difficult time with attunement, processing, regulation, and expressing emotions.
  • Temporary issues can include a recent breakup, having been cheated on, or an abusive or abrupt “discard” or “ghosting."
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Some of us may have experienced a time when someone we cared about couldn’t emotionally be there for us. Or, we may have pushed someone away that we cared about because we needed time or space to sort things out in our own lives.

Emotional unavailability comes in many forms, topographies, and functions. It is not limited to only “narcissists” or those who identify as males. A core symptom of emotional unavailability is that a person has a difficult time with attunement, processing, regulation, and expression of their own emotions and the emotions of others.

An overarching theme is an inability to sustain vulnerable and lasting emotional bonds within their relationships; the closer they feel to someone, the greater the risk of emotionally shutting down out of self-preservation.

The most commonly talked about red flags include shutting down during the “tough talks,” disengaging from emotional intimacy, moving hard and fast at the outset of a relationship, or distracting themselves with certain behavioral tendencies (porn, gaming, technology/internet, social media, workaholism) as ways of disengaging from emotionally vulnerable experiences.

Causes of Emotional Unavailability: Are They Temporary or More Complex?

There are different types of emotional unavailability and different factors that can contribute to them. We have a tendency to go right to the worst-case scenario when we find ourselves in a relationship with someone who tilts more on the emotionally unavailable side of the spectrum. However, there are key differences between temporary situations versus more complex issues.

Temporary issues can include: a recent breakup, having been cheated on, an abusive or abrupt “discard” or “ghosting,” or having a history of toxic relationships. Suffice it to say, these experiences can leave a person less emotionally available and more in self-preservation mode where their guard is up around new people or new relationships. This may be especially true if they have histories of attracting narcissistic types in their lives.

On the flip side, more complex reasons for emotional unavailability may include attachment trauma or as part of personality. Complex reasons tend to be more longstanding, often originating from childhood core attachment wounds. For example, children who don’t receive consistent or predictable caregiving, or healthy responses to their emotional needs, or who grew up in poverty, abuse, or neglect, are at a higher risk for developing an avoidant attachment style.

Similarly, certain parenting styles such as being overly protective and punitive or neglectful may impact personality development and place a child at risk for later developing a personality disorder.

Emotional unavailability can be further differentiated from personality—specifically narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)—by the following. A person who is emotionally unavailable will have difficulty with emotional closeness and vulnerable feelings and can struggle to understand their own emotions and the emotions of others. Some emotionally unavailable people may be misidentified as “narcissistic” because of their challenges with emotionally connecting to others.

However, behaviors specific to NPD include:

  • Persistent grandiosity.
  • A sense of entitlement.
  • Low empathy.
  • A constant need for external validation.
  • An exaggerated sense of self-importance.

Steps to Healing

It’s important to learn to recognize the cause(s) of emotional unavailability with those in our lives and ourselves. For example, someone who has a history of attracting toxic relationships may need time to sort through their earliest experiences and how these may be coloring or shading their choices in partners, whereas someone who knows they have a history of early abuse and neglect may need time and support in unpacking their core wounds to begin the healing process.

Some tips include:

  • Learn to identify the cause: situational vs. more complex and chronic.
  • Learn to slow down and take things slower when emotions are on the line.
  • Reflect on your patterns and the patterns that replay in your relationships.
  • Increase self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
  • Talk to a therapist who specializes in trauma and relationships to help you unpack core wounds so you can heal.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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Kinley, J. L., & Reyno, S. M. (2019). The price of needing to belong: Neurobiology of working through attachment trauma. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 47(1), 39–51.

Slade, R. (2019). Relationship sabotage in adults with low self-esteem from attachment trauma in childhood. Family Perspective, 1(1) 1-6.

More from Annie Tanasugarn Ph.D., CCTSA
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