Emotional unavailability may be fear of vulnerability in disguise

StaceyNHerrera

**This is a work of nonfiction based on actual events as told to me by a close friend, who experienced them firsthand; used with permission.

“He acted like my basic needs were an inconvenience,” she said. “I was only asking for some affection, and he would turn away from me or tell me I was being needy. It made me feel awful about myself.”

My neighbor was describing her marriage, and it sounded eerily familiar.

I related all too well to her feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. I, too, had been in a relationship with someone who couldn’t meet my needs for emotional closeness.

And, like my neighbor, I had blamed myself.

I thought something was wrong with me. I believed that my need for affection was excessive. Surely, I wasn’t normal to need that much love and care.

It wasn’t until later that I realized my partner’s emotional unavailability had nothing to do with me. It was about him and his fears and issues.

According to PsychCentral, “Emotional unavailability refers to someone who doesn’t respond to your emotional needs or cues. An emotionally unavailable man or woman has persistent difficulty expressing or handling emotions and getting emotionally close to other people.”

This can manifest in many ways, including a reluctance to open up about feelings, a lack of empathy, or an avoidance of intimacy.

People who are emotionally unavailable may be afraid of being hurt or feeling the discomfort of vulnerability.

The different faces of emotional unavailability

Emotional unavailability is not one size fits all. There are different degrees of emotional unavailability, which can manifest in various ways.

Some people may be emotionally available sometimes, but not others. And some may only be emotionally available to certain people, like friends or family members, but not romantic partners.

“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.” — Imi Lo, Psychology Today

Here are some of the most common signs of emotional unavailability:

Inappropriate laughter

Humor can be a defense mechanism. When someone feels uncomfortable or vulnerable, they may try to laugh it off. Laughing in the face of serious topics or difficult emotions to avoid addressing them is a sign of emotional unavailability.

Fixating on the past

Emotionally unavailable people may dwell on past hurts or slights, real or imagined. They may have a hard time letting go of grudges or forgiving others. This can prevent them from being present in the here and now and hinder their ability to form new, healthy relationships.

Being a “people pleaser”

People pleasers are always trying to make others happy and avoid conflict at all costs. They may be afraid of being rejected or abandoned, so they go out of their way to keep everyone happy. However, this can prevent them from being honest about their own needs and feelings.

Defensiveness

People who are emotionally unavailable may be quick to anger or become defensive when someone challenges them. They may have difficulty hearing criticism, even if it’s constructive. This can make it difficult to resolve conflict in a healthy way.

Avoiding difficult conversations

Many emotionally unavailable people avoid difficult or emotional conversations. They may shut down or withdraw when things get too heavy. This can make it hard to communicate and connect on a deep level.

Know-it-all

Another common sign of emotional unavailability is a need to be right all the time. Sometimes the drive to be right is a deflection tactic to avoid vulnerability. When someone is fixated on being right, it can make it hard to hear what others say.

The disappearing act

It’s not unusual for an emotionally unavailable person to withdraw or “disappear” when things get tough. They may ghost or vanish for days or weeks without any explanation. This can leave the people in their lives confused, anxious, and rejected.

Hot and cold

Some emotionally unavailable people may alternate between being hot and cold. They may be loving and attentive one minute and then distant and cold the next. This can cause confusion and frustration for those in their lives.

What causes emotional unavailability?

Many different factors can contribute to emotional unavailability.

Trauma is often the catalyst for emotional withdrawal. Someone who’s experienced abuse, abandonment, or rejection may struggle with being emotionally available. They may have trouble trusting others or opening up about their feelings.

Other times, emotional unavailability can be the result of attachment issues. People who didn’t have a secure, healthy attachment to their caregivers in childhood may have trouble forming healthy attachments as adults. They may be afraid of intimacy or closeness.

And sometimes, emotional unavailability is simply a matter of fear. Fear of intimacy, rejection, or abandonment can all contribute to keeping emotions at bay.

“Because they tend to “turn off” emotions and have poor insight, people who are emotionally unavailable might also exhibit low empathy — the inability to understand or share someone else’s feelings.” — Julie Marks and Sandra Silva Casabianca, PsychCentral

Is emotional unavailability a bad thing?

Many people see emotional unavailability as a negative trait. And while it can certainly make life more complicated, it’s important to remember that everyone has a different comfort level regarding intimacy and emotional closeness.

Some people may need more time to open up, and that’s OK. The important thing is that you’re honest about your feelings and comfort with the people in your life.

Is there any hope for the emotionally unavailable?

The good news is that emotional availability is not a permanent state. People can and do change, and it is possible for the emotionally unavailable to open up.

If you’re in a relationship with someone who appears to have an emotional barrier, remember that it’s not about you.

The key is to communicate openly and honestly about your needs and expectations. If your partner is unwilling or unable to meet your needs, take some time to assess what is best for you.

It’s also essential to work on your self-esteem and emotional availability. If you’re not comfortable with yourself, having a healthy, intimate relationship with someone else will be difficult — regardless of how emotionally available they are.

Building self-confidence and learning to love yourself is a journey, but it’s worth taking. When you can be emotionally present for yourself, you’re more likely to find someone who can be emotionally present for you.

Have you ever been in a relationship with someone emotionally unavailable? What was it like for you? Let us know in the comments.

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Intimacy & Relationship coach, writer, and creator of The Sensuality Project. I specialize in Relationship-ing (it's a verb).

Los Angeles County, CA
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