At some point, we’ve all been hit with a “Get-Out-of-a-Date-Free” card. Maybe they’re not looking for a relationship, they’re too busy with work, or they’re too deeply committed to their cats.
And then, of course, there’s the dreaded cliché of being “emotionally unavailable” and unable to commit. Whether you’ve encountered someone with the issue or it’s become part of your own romantic repertoire, read on to find out the causes, symptoms, and steps to counter the all-too-common excuse.
What it means
So what does the root of all romantic-comedy evil actually mean? Basically, the term describes someone who’s evasive, makes up excuses, or simply doesn’t like to talk to about how they feel or their relationships. Other warning signs include flattery, control, anger, or arrogance, which all signal an aversion to intimacy.
Still, on the surface, emotionally unavailable people can appear to be very stable, says Elisabeth Mandel, LMFT, a relationship therapist based in Manhattan. “But if you can tell they are resisting changing emotional states, or they don’t have a lot of range, then there’s something threatening to them about emotions.”
Although emotional unavailability is often depicted as someone whose life is falling apart (hello, Trainwreck), it is ultimately about control. “It’s sort of a protection or defense from feeling hurt,” says Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a sex and relationship therapist. Emotionally unavailable folks are fiercely independent: They may not feel like they need anyone.
To protect themselves from rejection, Fleming says these individuals retreat to their island of restricted emotions. But when someone cuts off half the spectrum of their emotional range, it comes at the cost of joy, excitement, and depth of connection in relationships.
Going back to the beginning
For starters, a bad breakup can cue a domino effect of emotional unavailability. “Most people don’t want to feel the pain, or the grief, of the loss of the relationship, and they want to jump into the next one,” Fleming says. “It’s like when people lose a dog, and they want to go ahead and buy a new one.”
After all, it’s tempting to jump back on the horse (downloading dating apps isalmost too easy, right?). Plus your friends are telling you to “get back out there.” But while it sounds like a healthy idea, that strategy can seriously backfire. “A big mistake that people make after a breakup is to start to date as soon as they possibly can,” says Rachel Sussman, LCSW, a relationship therapist.
The better plan: “Allow yourself to feel the pain so that you can actually grieve that loss, and then welcome something new,” Sussman says. If you head into the dating world again with an open wound, it’ll probably bleed through. And remember, it takes time to let it heal.
Family dynamics can also be the source of your problems. Say you grew up in an emotionally avoidant family, where the emphasis was less about being open with your feelings. Hitting the emotional brakes may come naturally to you, because you won’t “have muscle memory for a deeper quality of attachment,” Fleming says. Monkey see, monkey doesn’t do a lot of sharing, as the case may be.
The red flags
The first step to recovery is seeing yourself honestly. Here are a few warning signs to look out for—in yourself or a partner.
You’re overly critical
If your dating life feels like one long episode of Seinfeld—this one eats peas one at a time; that one’s a low talker; he’s way too close to his family—look out, Mandel says. If you’re dismissing people for any (and every) tiny reason, you may just be finding excuses to not let the person get to know you.
But if you’ve instigated the last few breakups, don’t freak out yet: The repetitive aspect is important, Fleming says. There’s a difference between being independent and confident in what you want, and being afraid to need someone. If your breakups aren’t following the same exact pattern, you might just not be in love. (Phew.)
You keep things (really) light
Coming back to the control aspect, trying to sway the emotional experience of the people you’re with, however well-intended, can be a giveaway. If you’re very focused on making the other person laugh all the time—as opposed to letting conversation flow in different directions—it may signal you’re not comfortable with things getting a little more serious, Mandel says.
There’s nothing wrong with some superficial topics (unless you only date philosophers), but someone who’s reliably fixated on keeping things light ‘n’ easy may be unwilling, or unable, to commit.
You blame others
Denying any blame is usually the clincher for recognizing emotional unavailability, Mandel says. If someone can’t admit their own limitations and always points the finger at other people, they may not be able to handle their own shortcomings and imperfections, instead pushing blame onto other people—and pushing those people out of the picture.
Your action plan
First things first: Remember that you don’t always need to hold people at arm’s length. But the solution isn’t always true love’s kiss (though finding someone you truly care about can help, Mandel says). It may just take time, but if you want to do something, here are a few tactics to try.
- Deepen relationships with friends and family. Consider these your training wheels for scarier territory: By using safe, stable relationships, there’s less fear of rejection. And the more and more you practice letting people in, the more natural it will start to feel.
- Change your social scenery. If you’re constantly at a bar surrounded by friends who complain about their partners, that might not be the healthiest environment for the long term. On the flip side, Mandel says that spending time with healthy couples can give you a more realistic idea of what a relationship can look like, and the benefits of letting someone in.
- Distract yourself. When all else fails, try distraction. Whether it’s talking to a friend, writing, or coloring, expressing yourself in healthy ways is infinitely preferable to falling into the “I don’t need anyone” trap, Fleming says.
- Face it head on. If you find yourself fixating on why no relationship ever works, try to put your finger on it—it can actually help, Sussman says. It’s usually a matter of a time, but working on yourself, either with a therapist or another professional, can help you figure out why past relationships went wrong, she says. “And once you do that work, you feel a lot better about yourself.”
Brief periods of emotional unavailability are very common, Fleming says, and can happen after a breakup disconnects your feelings from your actions, or if you’ve learned it from interacting with family members. If you feel like you’re turning over every rock and still not finding happiness, it’s not that your heart is flatlining—it’s just that in trying to cut out sadness, you might be missing the dark that makes the light so much brighter.