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Attachment

16 Signs That a Partner Is Emotionally Unavailable

Overanalyzing, rejecting help, preferring work to intimacy, and more.

Key points

  • While narcissists are often avoidantly attached, not all avoidantly attached people are “narcissists.”
  • Because of trust issues, communication may suffer with a partner who has an avoidant attachment style.
  • An avoidantly attached person has a high probability of withdrawing when feeling emotionally vulnerable.
Source: mpopovic/Unsplash
Source: mpopovic/Unsplash

Our romantic relationships require us to be emotionally present and to be able to balance interdependence with autonomy. If we are more securely attached, we tend to display a healthy balance between time spent with ourselves and time spent with our partner.

However, for a more avoidant partner, there is an imbalance that tilts more toward extreme independence. Many who have a partner with a more avoidant attachment style often report feeling as though their partner is aloof, distant, dismissive, or callous.

Avoidant attachment is an attachment style that develops in very early childhood, often before the age of 3, as a result of an emotionally dismissive or unavailable parent who is unresponsive or shaming to a child’s attempts at bonding. Many children who develop an avoidant attachment style have caregivers who routinely ignore or minimize the child’s needs to feel wanted, seen, or heard, and ultimately end up learning to rely on themselves for their needs.

In adulthood, having an avoidant attachment style (which may not align perfectly with someone's childhood attachment style) may be confused as being a “narcissist” because they are often guarded, emotionally distant, and self-sufficient. However, the two are not synonymous. While narcissists are avoidantly attached, not all avoidantly attached people are “narcissists.”

Patterns that may initially look similar such as pushing away or increasing physical or emotional distance between themselves and others can be separated by the motivation—or the function—of their behavior. For example, someone with an avoidant attachment often pushes away to protect themselves from feeling overwhelmed or getting hurt, whereas someone with narcissistic personality disorder will push away from another out of a sense of entitlement, or to punish that person for threatening their ego.

Avoidant Attachment and Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships can be challenging for a couple when one partner has an avoidant attachment style. They may struggle with letting people in, and often push away when emotional vulnerability is on the line. Many may become "workaholics" or "busyaholics" as a way of limiting intimacy and connection with others, which can take a negative toll on their romantic relationships.

Because of trust issues, communication often suffers, especially with a partner who has an avoidant attachment style. For example, a study by McNelis & Segrin (2019) found that both anxious and avoidant partners have higher risks for divorce and relational dissatisfaction as well as higher incidences of using unhealthy communication patterns in their relationship (stonewalling, criticism, contempt, and defensiveness) versus more securely attached partners.

Common signs of an avoidant attachment style can include the following:

  • High probability of withdrawing when feeling emotionally vulnerable or overwhelmed
  • Valuing independence over interdependence
  • Suppressing vulnerable emotions
  • May prefer casual sex or superficial relationships
  • Having no problem being alone or without a romantic partner
  • High levels of self-reliance, often appearing isolated
  • Trust issues
  • Being self-protective; may shut down or push away when feeling vulnerable
  • May come across as aloof, distant, or dismissive
  • Positive feelings associated with self (reliance) and negative feelings of others (as unreliable)
  • May prefer work or hobbies to intimate relationships
  • May be “stuck in their head” and struggle with relating to others’ needs
  • Tendency to overanalyze and “overthink” things
  • Minimizing a need for support or help
  • Deep fears of intimacy or getting “trapped” in a relationship
  • Keeping others at arms-distance

Healing the Pattern

Healing requires more than mindful intention or the desire to change. While these are solid first steps, healing also requires behavioral changes that should be implemented as part of changing patterned beliefs and expectations, as well as creating healthy new skills.

If you recognize that you or your partner may have an avoidant attachment style, there is support available. It is recommended that you speak to a trauma-informed clinician who specializes in relationships and implements a behavioral approach as part of their intervention. However, there are also a few things you (or your partner) can choose to do:

  • Become aware of where (and how) an avoidant attachment may have started for you or your partner.
  • Learn to recognize the “patterned” defenses that happen in your relationship.
  • Practice using words such as “we” or “us” instead of “me” or “I.”
  • Build healthy communication skills that include reflecting, pausing, and providing “I feel” statements.
  • Practice sharing your needs with each other, which may include a need for time to yourselves to process things.
  • Find a trauma-informed clinician with specialization in attachment and childhood trauma.

Facebook image: worradirek/Shutterstock

References

McNelis, M., & Segrin, C. (2019). Insecure attachment predicts history of divorce, marriage, and current relationship status. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, DOI: 10.1080/10502556.2018.1558856

Set, Z. (2021). Mediating role of narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, and self-compassion in the relationship between attachment dimensions and psychopathology. Alpha Psychiatry, 22(3), 147–152.

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