Relationship Tips

Yikes: It’s Possible for Your Loving Partner To Become Emotionally Unavailable—Here’s What To Know

Photo: Stocksy/Ana Luz Crespi
There often comes a turning point in a romantic relationship when things shift, however subtly or dramatically, from light fun into deeply emotional territory. And a partner's capacity to respond to this and reciprocate this growth in vulnerability reflects their level of emotional availability.

But at the same time, emotional availability isn’t a static trait. Just as someone might grow more emotionally available within a relationship over time, they could also become (often temporarily) emotionally unavailable due to other emotional demands in their life. That’s right: It's possible for a loving partner who once seemed fully invested to become emotionally unavailable.

What does emotional unavailability look like?

Often, the extent of someone’s emotional availability is something you’ll run up against early in a relationship. Perhaps you find that you just can't reach that critical juncture of vulnerability with a partner—something that often happens on week two or three in the warp-speed reality-TV version of relationships, where someone just can’t “open up” or “let their walls down” on a time crunch.

In real life, this might happen a few weeks or months into dating. “Emotional unavailability can appear as if, despite a strong start to your relationship, you never feel able to develop an emotional closeness with your partner,” says psychologist Alyson Nerenberg, PsyD, author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusion of Flawless Relationships.

“An emotionally unavailable partner will give a blunted response [to emotional sharing] that doesn’t show empathy or communicate their readiness or ability to offer support.” —Theresa DiDonato, PhD, psychologist

In other cases, you are, in fact, opening up and getting vulnerable, but your partner is neither responding effectively nor reciprocating. “In healthy relationships, when someone shows their partner that they are stressed, scared, or worried—or happy, excited, or proud—their partner is listening, validating, and showing care and concern,” says psychologist Theresa DiDonato, PhD. “But emotional unavailability cuts this cycle short. Instead, they’d receive a blunted response that doesn’t show empathy or communicate a partner's readiness or ability to offer support.”

Below, experts share what can cause a once-vulnerable romantic partner to become emotionally unavailable and what you might do if this happens to you.

What causes emotional unavailability to develop?

Much of the research on emotional unavailability ties it to attachment theory. Those who are insecurely attached (e.g., having an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style) are often the same folks who struggle with emotional availability. And that makes sense: For example, if the relationships you had with caregivers in your childhood were inconsistent, or your needs were often ignored, chances are, you’ll feel as though you can’t really rely on the people with whom you form relationships later in life (cue: insecure attachment). The resulting emotional anxiety or flat-out emotional denial can make being emotionally available a real challenge.

Because of its deep roots, this is the kind of emotional unavailability that might make itself known once a newer relationship pivots toward vulnerability. “Some people find it a lot easier to be, or appear to be, emotionally involved in the beginning of a relationship because it feels relatively safe, and they can hide behind topics that are still pretty superficial,” says Dr. Nerenberg. “Going deeper would involve risk-taking, and the person could then become afraid of getting too close due to past traumas, relationship rejection, or insecurity.”

"They might think that if they emotionally disconnect, then nothing else can hurt them anymore, including their partner." —Christie Kederian, EdD, LMFT, psychotherapist

But sometimes, a person who does not inherently have an insecure attachment style can become emotionally unavailable after going through a difficult or traumatic experience, says psychotherapist Christie Kederian, EdD, LMFT. Take the loss of a loved one or a job, or becoming very physically sick, for example. “These circumstances can push them into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode emotionally, as a form of self-protection,” she says. “They might think that if they emotionally disconnect, then nothing else can hurt them anymore, including their partner.”

In some cases, mental-health issues could be the culprit, too, says Dr. DiDonato. “If your partner is living with depression, post-traumatic stress, or anxiety, they might periodically enter states in which they cannot be emotionally available,” she says. Instead, they may be tempted to “isolate and shut you out” as a coping mechanism, or they may “lose their sense of self-esteem, which can make it uncomfortable for them to connect with others,” says Dr. Nerenberg.

Beyond these chronic conditions, any changes in a partner’s mental state prompted by external circumstances could lead to dips in their emotional availability, too. “Consider the external stressors that people face,” says Dr. DiDonato. “If someone is under considerable stress due to work or family obligations, for example, this will tax their energy and emotional resources. At the end of a long stressful day, someone might have little left to give to their partner.”

What to do if your partner becomes emotionally unavailable

No matter the reason, a loving partner becoming emotionally unavailable can be incredibly challenging to manage, says Dr. DiDonato. After all, the very difficult circumstance or internal dialogue prompting them to disengage is often the reason why you might want to get even closer to them—to be able to lend your emotional support and help them through it. And their becoming a brick wall will just make it that much harder to do so.

That said, it’s also unhelpful to simply retreat in response. Instead, Dr. Nerenberg suggests gently alerting your partner to the change you’ve noticed. “It is important to bring up the topic in a non-threatening way so that your partner does not get defensive or feel attacked,” she says. You might also consider addressing the circumstance that you suspect triggered the switch in their emotional availability so that you’re showing your understanding from the jump, she adds. For example, you might say, "Hey, I miss you lately. I’ve noticed that since your dad passed last spring, you have just been watching TV every night, and we haven’t had a meaningful conversation in a long time or planned anything fun. Are you open to talking about this?" suggests Dr. Nerenberg.

Because fear can spur or exacerbate a sense of emotional unavailability—for instance, fear of rejection or intimacy due to recent negative relationships or losses—it can also be helpful to reassure your partner that you’re just bringing up the topic so that you can both get the most out of your relationship, and not as a matter of blame, says Dr. Nerenberg. "To help this process feel easier, make sure to create a safe environment without a lot of distractions, and let your partner know you are interested in listening to their responses without judgment," she adds.

If they begin to share their feelings or offer insight into why they’ve been closed off, it’s important to “meet them with acceptance and understanding instead of anger and frustration,” says Dr. Kederian. “Consider how you can be supportive during this time rather than focusing on why you can’t get your needs met by them at this moment.”

Their responses will hopefully shed light on the root of their emotional distance—whether it’s a particularly stressful situation at work, family issues, a mental-health condition, or something else entirely. And from there, you can determine whether you think this challenge is temporary or reflective of a new normal, says Dr. DiDonato.

If it’s the former, consider it an opportunity to “establish yourself as the safe person for your partner in the midst of traumatic circumstances,” says Dr. Kederian. “This can help solidify your connection and ground your relationship as you weather the storms of life together.”

But if it’s the latter, and you suspect that your partner’s change toward emotional unavailability runs deeper than external circumstances can explain, know that it’s not your job to “fix them,” says Dr. Nerenberg. “You can suggest to your partner the value of going to therapy and talking with a trained professional, but whether they choose to follow your advice is ultimately their own decision.”

In the meantime, while your emotional needs are not being fully met in the relationship, you can certainly seek other outlets of support, perhaps by speaking to a loved one or your own therapist, says Dr. Nerenberg. However, it's also important to remember that you deserve a partner who is committed to emotional availability for the long run (even if not all the time, given the demands of life). And if that doesn’t seem to be the case with your current partner, says Dr. Nerenberg, “you may have to consider whether the relationship is really working for you.”

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