What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Unavailable?

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If someone has described you as emotionally unavailable, you may wonder what exactly that means and what you can do about it.

Emotional Unavailability

People who aren’t emotionally available tend to have difficulty with sharing their emotions and being receptive to the emotions of those around them, says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University.

Someone who is emotionally available is able to express emotions in a healthy manner and form emotional attachments with people. On the other hand, someone who is emotionally unavailable may struggle with feeling the extent of their own emotions without shutting down or denying them, Dr. Romanoff explains.

This article explores some of the potential causes and characteristics of emotional unavailability, as well as some coping strategies that may be helpful.

Characteristics of Emotional Unavailability

These are some characteristics of people who are emotionally unavailable, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Distant, cold, or aloof demeanor
  • Difficulty talking about feelings and emotions
  • Lack of closeness and emotional intimacy in relationships
  • Inability to understand and relate to others’ feelings
  • Defensiveness when asked to change or let others in
  • Tendency to shut down or avoid topics that require emotional openness
  • Withdrawal from people or situations that provoke emotional reactions

Emotional unavailability can look different from person to person, Dr. Romanoff explains. “Some people may be emotionally available in some areas of their life but closed off in others.”

Causes of Emotional Unavailability

These are some of the potential causes of emotional unavailability, according to Dr. Romanoff:

  • Cultural and social factors: Some people are taught that overt displays of emotion are a sign of weakness. Instead, they develop strategies and patterns of responding to that emotion by shutting down or repressing overt signals of emotionality.
  • Childhood experiences: Many emotionally unavailable adults were once children who felt that their parents were unable to respond to their needs. These children learned to adapt by suppressing their emotions and minimizing others’ access to their emotional life, therefore denying others the opportunity to invalidate or neglect them again.
  • Traumatic events: There could also be situational causes such as a break-up, divorce, or traumatic experience that can cause people to shut down emotionally in order to maintain everyday functioning, because if they were to feel the extent of their emotions it might be challenging for them to go on living their lives.
  • Past experiences: People may become emotionally unavailable if they have learned in earlier relationships that showing their emotions only leads to pain and suffering.

Impact of Emotional Unavailability

Below, Dr. Romanoff describes how emotional unavailability can impact you and your relationships.

Impact on You

People who are emotionally unavailable usually view conversations about hurt feelings, requests to change behavior, and discussions of their relationship dynamics as off-limits. Not only will they shut down, they might even get angry or find ways to blame the other person and make them feel like they are the problem, to displace focus from their own discomfort and limitations.

It may also be difficult to emotionally connect with other people. Because they are so accustomed to turning off their emotions, it might be hard to empathize, relate, and honor the needs of others.

They are also likely to have landmines that they are constantly navigating and avoiding. Emotional triggers will tend to spark defensiveness and an automatic habit of putting up walls when people try to get close to them. 

Impact on Your Relationships

Emotional unavailability can take a toll on your relationships, both romantic and otherwise.

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Emotional unavailability prevents emotional intimacy.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Potential romantic partners are likely to quickly grow frustrated when the emotionally unavailable partner refuses to let down their walls. Partners of emotionally unavailable people might also take it personally and assume their partners don’t trust them or like them enough.

Emotionally unavailable people also avoid commitment. This could look like avoiding labels in relationships or postponing the progression of a relationship. For instance, they may find it difficult to commit to moving in or getting married.

Instead of committing and deepening a relationship and connection with one person, emotionally unavailable people are more likely to have multiple superficial relationships and cut things off with people when they become too serious. 

This is not exclusive to romantic relationships, as they might not want emotional intimacy in friendships as well. They might become uncomfortable when people confide in them, tell them intimate information or become emotionally attached to them.

Coping With Emotional Unavailability

Below, Dr. Romanoff suggests some strategies that can help you cope, if you think you may be emotionally unavailable to others:

  • Identify the causes: It’s helpful to start by understanding the causes of your emotional unavailability. It could be situational due to a recent trauma or loss. In this case, it’s important to be patient with yourself and give yourself time to process what happened. Alternatively, if the source is attachment trauma or childhood neglect, it can be helpful to work on processing these experiences. It’s not helpful to neglect your own emotions the way your caregivers once did.
  • Practice expressing emotions: Find safe ways to access, sit with, and share your emotions. The best way to start is by yourself. You can do this by journaling or checking in with yourself to see how you are feeling. You can then branch out to a trusted friend, sibling, or partner to begin sharing your emotions with others.
  • Seek therapy: Therapy is another great way to gain insights into your emotional response patterns and potentially use the therapy relationships as an opportunity to experience greater emotional availability.

A Word From Verywell

Your upbringing, childhood experiences, or traumatic events may have taught you that it’s better to maintain emotional distance from others to avoid getting hurt or dealing with messy emotional entanglements. However, emotional availability is an essential aspect of our healthy relationships, so it’s important to learn to be vulnerable and open yourself up.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Saunders H, Kraus A, Barone L, Biringen Z. Emotional availability: theory, research, and intervention. Front Psychol. 2015;6:1069. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01069

  2. Frigerio A, Porreca A, Simonelli A, Nazzari S. Emotional availability in samples of mothers at high risk for depression and with substance use disorder. Front Psychol. 2019;10:577. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00577

By Sanjana Gupta
Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.