Do you have an Emotionally Unavailable Partner?
We are all familiar with the phrase “emotionally unavailable.” Indeed, it is tossed around among friends and in our culture as a diagnosis for any number of relationship challenges. And while emotional unavailability is an extremely common issue in relationships, the familiarity of the term can reduce its meaning and import on an individual and interpersonal level.
We may think “emotionally unavailable” simply means someone who “plays it cool,” or who keeps one foot out the door in relationships—the classic bachelor who refuses commitment or the "runaway bride." These categories are accurate, however, they are only surface descriptions. There are many layers that make up the depth of what it means to be emotionally unavailable, and what it means to be in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner.
It is incredibly difficult and disorienting to feel blocked from the true center and heart of the one you love, especially without understanding why it’s happening. No matter how many times you try, or what route you choose, the walls seem unscalable, the armour impenetrable. You may feel that you’ll never get through to the other side or that authenticity and true connection await if only you could “figure it out” or “solve the problem.”
In this way, we mistakenly blame ourselves, believing the false idea that as intimate partners we are responsible or are the only ones who can help—but it is not your job to “fix” your partner. It is so important to recognise that emotional unavailability, while it certainly creates conflict and hurt, is often not so much a problem to be solved as it is a wound to be healed. A wound in need of tending, space, and listening. Your role is to hold space for your partner as they journey into the process of healing and growth.
Emotional unavailability is an experience. It’s not simply a symptom. It is a state of being that both individuals in a relationship contend with on a day-to-day level, impacting everything from basic communication of everyday needs to the individual soul lives of each partner. Living in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner can be painful, alienating, and confusing, especially when a partner is entirely available in one emotional area of life, like friendship, yet unavailable in another area, like romantic intimacy. Or perhaps a partner is comfortable with some emotions, but not others. Often at the center of the experience of emotional unavailability is a failure to communicate, a loss of trust and safety and a feeling of helplessness possibly for both partners.
It’s vital to understand emotional unavailability at a core level in order to avoid applying it to our partners (and ourselves) as a blanket and fixed label. When we dismiss our partners with statements like, “oh he’s just emotionally unavailable,” we participate in our culture’s coarse, throwaway attitude toward intimate relationships, e.g., if it isn’t working, immediately toss it out. But if we did this then we would miss out on precious opportunities to attend to the spirit of the other and to ourselves. We miss out creative possibilities for clarity, repair, and deep transformation. All are real and possible!
You may be thinking, “but my partner doesn’t want to transform and heal!” This may be true, and it is understandable if you feel impatient, even angered. However, holding space for your emotionally unavailable partner will require patience on your part, allowing them ample room and time to recognize their unavailability and to desire change. It is in this space that you have the opportunity to take part in discernment about your own choices, expectations, and narratives. We expend so much energy toward our partners, toward our frustration and disappointment over their unavailability, that we forget ourselves. We must return that energy to ourselves in order for deep change to occur. We must create and nurture the space for transformation in our own hearts.
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