Whether you think the term applies to you or someone you're dating, understanding what it means to be emotionally unavailable can put a new perspective on your love life.
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You're probably familiar with the term "emotionally unavailable" — whether that's thanks to someone you've dated who called it off or something you've used as a way to refer to your own relationship status. But the term "emotionally unavailable" is probably tossed around more often than it should be or at least, without a ton of regard to its actual meaning.

"'Emotional unavailability' is a catch-all phrase describing a state of not being in touch with your own emotions and/or being willing to show them to someone else," says Irene Fehr, M.A., a sex and intimacy coach. "It's as if there's a wall between you and other people that prevents emotional information and experiences from leaving — and also going in."

Because of its overgeneralized use, the term has also made it easier to dismiss someone as being emotionally unavailable without truly understanding what it means, how deep it goes, and from where it stems. As with most things that humans experience, emotional availability or unavailability is not so cut and dry.

What Does It Mean to Be Emotionally Unavailable?

To better understand what it means to be emotionally unavailable, you first have to unpack what it means to be emotionally available, according to Fehr.

Emotionally available people tend to be able to do the following:

  • Experience your own feelings to the fullest extent.
  • Share these feelings with another person and allow them to witness your internal experience so you can connect deeply with them.
  • Open your heart even when there is a chance of disappointment.
  • Allow yourself to fall in love in spite of past experiences that may have hurt you.
  • Express your true needs to not just your partner, but all the close people in your life.
  • Receive the love and support of everyone in your network, from your partner, to your friends and family.
  • Allow yourself to dream fully, then be able to share those desires with others in your life.

Granted, being emotionally available doesn't require that you check everything off this list, but it does give insight into what it can look like and what it requires of someone.

Everyone is born emotionally available, says Fehr. It's the experiences along the way that can take that availability and flip it on its side. From the moment you came into the world, you let those around you know your needs so they can be met. For example, as a baby, you cried to let your parents know you were hungry or needed a diaper change.

"A child asks for exactly what they want without hesitation — not what they should want or what is allowed," explains Fehr. "A child fully feels the wonder of things and does not worry about disappointment. Children do not have trouble dreaming or letting love in; they're love sponges."

What Causes Someone to Become Emotionally Unavailable?

If you are born open and available, then what happens to someone who becomes emotionally unavailable? This is something that is developed through negative life experiences, often at an early age, explains Fehr. When you're denied something you need, time and time again —especially in your formative years — it's only natural that you'd become emotionally closed off in an effort to protect yourself. You might then view vulnerability (aka emotional availability) as dangerous or disappointing. (Related: How to Break Up with Someone In the Healthiest Way Possible)

While the specifics about how someone becomes emotionally unavailable will be different, there are still some common themes: emotions were not outwardly shared within the family nor were needs, fears, dreams, and experiences truly heard. Without the validation of a parent or trusted adult to make a child feel safe and protected from their overwhelming feelings, a child will be forced to learn how to manage these things — that they're sometimes too young to handle — on their own, says Fehr. For some, that means shutting down. "If the feelings were a water main line that has burst, and you have no means of fixing it, the best solution is to shut down the water and keep it shut," says Fehr. "Without support, children learn to shut down emotions to protect themselves." (Also read: Why It's So Important to Experience Both Positive and Negative Emotions)

Is Being Emotionally Unavailable a Problem?

If, at this point, you're asking yourself "wait, am I emotionally unavailable?" you should continue to explore that curiosity.

"The tools you used as a small child to manage your [overwhelming] feelings no longer apply when you're an adult," says Fehr. "When you're not able to share what's hurting you or what you need in your marriage, and therefore are not getting your needs met or you aren't feeling close to your partner, you're now actually hurting yourself. If this develops into a pattern, it becomes a very unhealthy expression of what was originally healthy and needed."

Being closed up in this way is also a sign you're emotionally unavailable. But (!) you don't have to be stuck here: You can remedy the situation (if the desire to make a change is present) by understanding what emotional unavailability looks like in your own life, admitting that it's present in your interpersonal relationships and your own personality, and then, of course, working to overcome that. You ultimately may want to consider working with a therapist, life coach, or intimacy coach to help you discover buried emotions and become more open. (Related: How to Build Intimacy with Your Partner)

How to Tell If You're Emotionally Unavailable

Now that you understand where you started and how you got to where you are now, here's how to spot emotional unavailability in yourself or a partner, according to Fehr.

Emotionally available people tend to be able to do the following:

  • Allow yourself to feel the full extent of hurt feelings and hide behind, "I'm fine."
  • Keep your heart closed and don't share your feelings with others out of fear of disappointment. You don't risk being vulnerable.
  • Keep your partner at arm's length, both physically and emotionally, to avoid a deep connection.
  • Don't allow yourself to fall in love and don't know how to fully receive love — both romantic and platonic.
  • Not be honest about your feelings and what you really want and need, preferring to say what you think others want to hear.
  • Don't allow yourself to fully imagine your desires, staying in the "practical" or "realistic."

While no one can fault you for protecting your heart, it can be unhealthy and profoundly lonely to avoid deeper connections with those around you, especially if those people love you and want you to be fully open with them.

"Everyone experiences some level of emotional unavailability — and often it's a prudent thing with strangers and those you're getting to know," says Fehr. "You want to develop trust with a person that allows you to disclose your innermost experiences." The key is to eventually let that guard down when you do develop that sense of security. (Related: All of the Relationship Attachment Styles, Explained)

How to Tell If Your Partner Is Emotionally Unavailable

While some of the same cues to look for within yourself can be used here, emotional unavailability may look different in someone you're dating. Some signals, according to Fehr:

  • They avoid conflict, turning to "I'm fine," instead of working out what's troubling them.
  • They brush off compliments or signs of love from you.
  • They lash out what seems like no reason because they can't vocalize fear of hurt.
  • They avoid conversations about emotions — both theirs and yours.
  • They overdo or over-give but won't let others support or contribute to them.

Should You Date Someone Who's Emotionally Unavailable?

Ask yourself: Would you want someone to give you a chance if you were (or are) the emotionally unavailable partner in this scenario?

"Fundamentally, a person who is not emotionally available is still deeply scared of their emotions… it also means that in the past, it has not been safe for them to open up emotionally," says Fehr. "As a result, emotionally unavailable people have a hard time forming deeply emotional relationships, but they absolutely can learn to thrive in them — if and only if they have a desire to do that."

If that desire is present, the first step to building an emotional connection is for you to make the first move to be completely open with them. Don't hold back on whatever emotions you're feeling. Think of it as leading the way for them, opening the door, and creating a safe space so they can share their own experiences. However, it's important to realize that emotionally opening up with a partner who's emotionally unavailable isn't a one-time thing, it's an ongoing process. (Related: How to Identify Your Feelings with a Wheel of Emotions — and Why You Should)

It's also important to realize that some emotionally unavailable people may simply not be willing to do the work to become more open. Knowing this, if you still choose to enter into a relationship with them, don't expect an epiphany. They're not a project that will eventually come around when certain milestones occur or with longevity. People who don't want to change, won't and pressuring them to do so will only backfire. (Related: How to Define Emotional Cheating or Emotional Infidelity In Your Relationship)

To be emotionally available is to allow yourself to live fully — whatever that looks like for you. But know that if you're not there yet or someone you started seeing needs some support to get there too, that everyone is a work in progress — and that's okay. Respecting the past allows you to learn from it and grow as a person and within your relationships. In doing so, the hope is that you will better be able to give and receive love in any shape and form.