How to Cope With Someone Who's Emotionally Unavailable
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been the victim of “ghosting."
Or spent a lot of time with someone who in the end said this “just wasn’t what they were looking for.”
Or have a friend, family member, or significant other who is often cold, distant, and unwilling to open up.
I’ve experienced each of these scenarios. And, more often than not, it’s those of us who pour our hearts out that are on the receiving end of someone who’s “emotionally unavailable.”
Dr. Melissa Robinson-Brown, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and speaker, tells Shine that being emotionally unavailable means “not having the capacity to share or express emotions with another person as well as hold emotional space for someone.”
And, as I've learned firsthand, it can be tough to connect with someone who's emotionally unavailable.
Causes of Emotional Unavailability
Although vulnerability has its rewards, when you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t reciprocate these feelings, it can seem like a losing game.
“It can leave the emotionally available person feeling quite lonely, invalidated, and even rejected,” Robinson-Brown says. “Moreover, it can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and emotional exhaustion.”
That can, in turn, leave us feeling resentful, either of ourselves or the person we’re interacting with.
It’s important to keep in mind that despite what your inner critic may be saying, another person's emotional unavailability isn’t your fault.
There are numerous other factors that cause a person to withdraw and become emotionally unavailable.
Robinson-Brown shares that a few of the most common are:
●︎ It wasn’t taught: Emotionally unavailable individuals often grow up in homes where emotions aren’t expressed or shared. Home is the foundation for much of what we learn to do as children and as adults. If caregivers are not modeling emotional expression, it’s highly unlikely that someone will understand and trust themselves to do this.
●︎ It was shamed/judged: When our emotional expression is shamed or judged by caregivers, other family members, peers, etc., it makes it very difficult for someone to trust that it’s OK to be emotionally vulnerable with others.
●︎ Fear from past relationships: People sometimes shut down if a previous relationship caused significant pain or hurt. Fear can keep an individual from opening up again.
●︎ Mental health difficulties: There are several mental health difficulties—including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and personality disorders—that make it difficult to be emotionally available to others.
●︎ Trauma: A history of trauma can bring on symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. When someone is managing these symptoms, it can make it very difficult to open up and make themselves vulnerable again. This is especially true if there is a fear that the other person may not be able to “handle” the trauma, or a fear of being judged for that trauma.
Signs of Someone Who Is Emotionally Unavailable
Pinpointing the exact signs that you’re interacting with someone who is emotionally unavailable may or may not always be so obvious.
We all have our moments, but it’s important to decipher the cues of someone who is inherently preventing a connection. Robinson-Brown suggests looking at these red flags:
●︎ There’s no sharing of experiences, emotions, or thoughts from the other person.
●︎ It’s all about you! While this may feel great initially, if you find that the other person never wants to talk about themselves and would rather listen to you, then it’s possible they are not trying to really connect with you.
●︎ The person often makes excuses to avoid getting together, connecting, or catching up.
●︎ The person is dismissive, doesn't listen to what you have to say, or doesn’t express an interest in who you are or what you’re doing.
●︎ A long history of failed past relationships.
●︎ The person tells you outright that they struggle to connect with others or they are not ready for a serious relationship.
So, What Do You Do?
Taking a moment to acknowledge that their behavior has to do with something outside of your relationship is an important step. And, once you’ve recognized that this person is indeed emotionally unavailable, it’s up to you to decide how to move forward—if at all.
Not every situation is cut and dry, especially when it comes to friends and loved ones, but do keep in mind that you are allowed to protect your energy, so don’t feel obligated to just deal with it.
Robinson-Brown recommends these steps for addressing and coping with emotionally unavailable people:
1. Do a Self-Check First
Are you emotionally unavailable? Are you ready to be in a relationship with someone where you also show up authentically and with emotional vulnerability?
2. Start a Convo
If you can honestly say you are ready to be in emotionally intimate relationships with someone else, start with a conversation.
Does the other individual realize that they struggle to share emotions and hold emotional space for others, including you?
3. Create Space For Change
Give the other person an opportunity to show up differently with you, but don’t expect perfection.
Decide whether or not this is the best relationship for you. If after the conversation, the other person is not willing to make changes or take steps to make themselves more available, then consider if it is worth you continuing to pour your energy into that person.
People can change, but not everyone is willing to do so. Nurture your inner peace and emotional wellbeing by being mindful of your needs before deciding how to move forward in this relationship—you’ll thank yourself in the long run.
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