Here you go again: you feel attraction to someone who’s a hard nut to crack. They exude vibes of mystery and aloofness you can’t get close to. And you can’t help but keep trying to conquer their attention.
Or, you seem to have found your soulmate. You both feel emotional and sexual chemistry. And you both see a clear perspective of starting a relationship. But they always avoid talking about their feelings and retract right before the important step.
Can you relate to any of these stories? We’ve shared them not to blame or shame you. Many of us draw to emotionally unavailable people and favor them over those who are caring, vulnerable, and easy to get close with.
However, this pattern often brings up painful emotions that you’re probably familiar with. It can take a toll on your well-being, self-worth, and ability to nurture healthy, lasting relationships in the long run. Meanwhile, building a deep bond based on mutual intimacy and closeness offers many more ways to enrich our lives and make us happy.
If you repeatedly find yourself falling in love with someone who can’t or doesn’t want to reciprocate, there might be a reason. Let’s explore the concept of emotional unavailability and find out why it can be so attractive.
First, what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
You won’t find the term “emotional unavailability” in any diagnostic psychology manual. But it denotes the real way people build relationships with others and themselves.
Emotional unavailability is a coping, defenсe mechanism.
Emotionally unavailable people also tend to withdraw from their own emotions and eventually can’t or don’t want to handle those of others. They find it difficult to express their feelings, be vulnerable, share healthy emotional connections, and maintain meaningful relationships.
However, there are some misconceptions around this term. Let’s challenge them real-quick:
- Emotional unavailability isn’t about the inability to love or fall in love
- It can impact all types of relationships and happen at any age
- Its signs may overlap with narcissistic personality disorder, but they aren’t the same thing
- Not only men develop emotional unavailability. And not that all of them are emotionally unavailable
- Emotional availability isn’t “feminine stuff”
- Closed-off people can build connections and create families
- And they are absolutely able to care about others and miss them
What causes emotional unavailability?
Emotional unavailability is a defensive response often learned at a very early age or later in life. And that can happen for several different reasons:
- Witnessing an unhealthy relationship dynamic
- Developing insecure attachment style in childhood due to caregivers’ rejecting behavior
- Growing up in an environment where emotions were suppressed or seen as a sign of “weakness,” or they were acted out in an uncontrollable way
- A history of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Exposure to other traumatic experiences
- A fear of things not working out after being badly hurt in previous relationships
- A fear of intimacy or being abandoned after disclosing vulnerabilities
- Being in an environment where intimacy was seen as something inherently negative or shameful
- Some cultural and gender expectations: for example, the bias that talking about men’s problems and feelings is unmanly
- A need for some alone time after a breakup and before committing fully to someone new
- Being just not that into a person is also a possible cause
So, for some reason, people may start rejecting the natural drive for an intimate connection with others and themselves. These might cause them to shut down as a means of protection.
Emotional unavailability can be temporary or last for a long time — as a cycle of self-sabotaging behavior that one can learn to break with the help of a therapist.
13 signs someone is emotionally unavailable
The signs of emotional unavailability may be subtle and look different depending on the situation.
“Often, we face someone’s emotional unavailability when we get acquainted with them closer, while sympathy may come earlier,” — says Oksana Levchuk, a certified Gestalt therapist, “We’re attracted to a person by some of their traits, appearance, or the way they communicate… In closer communication, they may turn out to be alienated, avoiding, and unable to nurture intimate relationships.”
So how do you know whether someone you like is emotionally unavailable? Here are some signs to look for:
- You feel like you need to be perfect all the time to keep them interested.
- You feel like you’re climbing Mt. Everest every time you try to get close to them.
- It’s you who do all the calling, texting, and planning.
- They don’t communicate consistently.
- They struggle with being affectionate.
- They become awkward when you get physically close.
- They change the subject or switch to the “light” or superficial topics when you start going deeper or discussing relationship dynamics.
- They don’t feel comfortable venting or giving you space for sharing your experiences.
- They’re not living fully in their feelings and emotions.
- They may lack empathy.
- They put off labeling your relationship as a relationship or initiating the next step.
- They become uncomfortable when you express your affection and care for them.
- They drop a relationship completely at the first sign of emotional intimacy.
Possible reasons you’re attracted to emotionally unavailable people
Being attracted to emotionally unavailable, hard-to-read people is common. But you probably know how frustrating, painful, utterly lonely, or even unbearable it may be to not be able to fully connect with the person you like.
So why do you keep choosing emotionally distant people? Some of these reasons may resonate with you.
1. The harsh but highly likely truth: you also have a fear of intimacy
You’re attracted to uninvolved people because some part of you may also be unavailable. That’s not something that makes you a bad person or partner. Rather, these are your deeply ingrained fears: of intimacy, commitment, engulfment, rejection, or getting hurt.
And there can be many reasons why you developed them. Perhaps, it has to do with your past traumas. But these fears make you favor cold distance over warm closeness and “safe” connections over fulfilling relationships, despite your desire to commit.
Psychotherapist Oksana Levchuk explains, “With an emotionally unavailable person, it’s impossible to build a relationship characterized by openness, honesty, and vulnerability. They can’t get truly intimate, and you might not want to because losing a fully-fledged, warm, and deep relationship would be unbearable. Thus, paradoxically, by avoiding painful experiences that might or might not happen somewhere in the future, you decide on having no less painful relationships in the present.”
Such self-discovery isn’t an easy journey. Start with asking yourself, “How do I feel receiving care, love, warmth, and support from a fully-committed partner? Why?” If you feel anxious and uneasy, talking to a therapist may be a good idea for exploring your feelings and uncovering the underlying fears.
2. You don’t think you deserve reciprocal love
It’s common for people with negative self-image and low self-worth to have problems with receiving unconditional love.
Perhaps, you were brought up by distant parents whose behavior taught you that love is conditional. You learned that you must do your very best to be worthy of it. In other words, you learned to “earn” love, not receive it. And unless you earn it — the love isn’t real. Unless you struggle — your self-worth isn’t valid.
That’s why you may push away those who are available. And that may be the reason why you subconsciously choose emotionally distant people — their closedness opens a battlefield where you make every effort to win their thoughts and feelings over.
Another side is that you may have subconscious beliefs that you don’t deserve love. So you try to overcompensate and over-give to someone disconnected. You smother them with love and care because it seems easier for you to focus on someone else instead of taking care and giving love to yourself.
One of the keys to healing is to be compassionate towards yourself and practice self-love. Besides, try to be mindful when receiving affection and love from others — be it a gift, a compliment, or a kind act. Notice how it feels in your body — being loved unconditionally.
3. The tricky game of your psychological projections
They say love is blindness — it’s natural for some projections to occur when you fall in love. Projection is a process of unconsciously attributing your thoughts, feelings, desires, or qualities to another person or object. And the less you know the person you like, the closer they’re to your ideal. But this ideal is highly likely to exist only in your mind.
Here’s how the tricky game goes:
- Let’s say, you’re attracted to someone by noticing their beautiful shoulders, a shared sense of humor, or similar political beliefs. So far, this is all you know about them.
- Then, you make attempts to get closer and communicate more. Everything seems to be perfect and exciting.
- But should you cross into the emotionally or physically intimate territory, you start noticing their detachment, closeness, and weak intention to connect. You get confused, not knowing what has happened. And since emotionally unavailable people experience difficulties with direct communication, they are unlikely to openly say what the matter is.
- And where there’s not enough information, your mind seeks to complete the picture based on the details it already has.
The Gestalt therapist comments, “This way, the projections come into play: your ideas about what this person is are rooted in your previous experiences, guesses, and fantasies. Since the first impression of a person is very positive, so are the projections. Eventually, you can for years explain the coldness of a partner with special qualities that are attractive to you, which they actually don’t possess. This is until you face the reality: they can’t and don’t want to build intimacy and stay in emotionally involved relationships simply because they’re the way they are.”
Relying on projections and then going through disillusionment is a disappointing experience that has chances to turn into a vicious circle. The good news is that, with a therapist, it’s possible to learn to withdraw from projections and see people’s true selves more clearly.
4. You try to resolve the wounds of your childhood
If you find yourself constantly choosing emotionally unavailable people, you choose a familiar dynamic.
Here’s how a childhood-adulthood loop works: perhaps one or both of your parents were neglecting or physically and emotionally distant from you or one another. So you may strive to heal your childhood wounds by chasing a distant partner. This way, you try to rewrite the past and get your childhood needs met by repeating the same dynamic and hoping that it’ll work out this time.
This defensive strategy is called repetition compulsion. And beside child/parent relationships, it also can be about your past unsuccessful relationships with romantic partners.
5. Love chase is exciting and addictive
Forbidden fruit is so much sweeter. You may be intrigued by that alluring mystery vibe an emotionally unavailable person has. Only the thought that you have the power to win over an unordinary person, to crack the code, evokes thrill and excitement.
But the psychotherapist warns, “There’s a risk that this person may become a way for us to satisfy our triumph-starved ego, and the relationship (if it happens) will become just a trophy, a symbol of our victory.”
Furthermore, any little sign of their attention — a compliment, a night text, a like on your social media post, a short date — becomes an exhilarating signal that you’re on the “right path.” Such irregular encouragement is called intermittent reinforcement. Consequently, it motivates you to push yourself even harder and fall back into the pattern of codependency.
Additionally, some projections like “It’s definitely different between them and me” or “No one else has been able to get to them so close!” add fuel to fire. Though, when the time comes to face the reality, or when you stop getting enough “love rewards,” feelings of being insufficient literally collide with your well-being.
But you have the power to break the cycle. And a mental health professional can help you discover this power and teach you how to redirect your resources to yourself and someone (or something) that eventually can bring you even more than you give.
6. You feel the urge to “save” them
You may be more likely to choose a particular archetype: the “broken” and distant person who you believe needs rescuing. The one who will come out of their shell at some point and learn to love. The one who doesn’t seem to be impacted by affection and attention, but who, you feel, is just waiting for you to come along and change their life.
Does this sound familiar? And can you relate to the thoughts below?If you’re driven to save others because you believe no one else can and feel that your love will “cure” a person, it might indicate a savior complex.
You probably exert much of your energy to “break those walls,” become irreplaceable in someone’s life, and make them realize your value. However, even apparently kind intentions can cause more harm than good, especially for your mental and physical well-being. Giving it all and receiving nothing back of all the great things you deserve is a disappointing and damaging to your self-esteem experience. Besides, it may lead to burnout.
But let’s gently face it: emotionally distant people can’t be single-handedly transformed by your love. It’s pretty much impossible to heal them only by your insistence on being, feeling, or building something they don’t want. What’s more important is that you should take responsibility for your own life and happiness. And a therapist on Calmerry can help you learn how.
There’s a way to create a new narrative around attractions and relationships
Is being with an emotionally unavailable partner always a losing game? Not necessarily. But your emotional needs may not be fully met. So it’s a good idea for you to explore if this is the type of connection that fulfills you.
Usually, the strive to get emotionally close with a distant person is accompanied by painful feelings of loneliness and worthlessness, anger, extreme jealousy, and grief. A therapist can devise a plan to help you cope with these difficult emotions and feelings.
Apart from these 6 reasons, there are many more possible causes of why you keep choosing emotionally unavailable people. By developing self-awareness, you can learn more about yourself and your behavior patterns. A Calmerry therapist can support you on a self-exploratory path to identify where these patterns stem from, unlearn them, and learn to choose to build healthy relationships.
Because a much more rewarding approach to true love and meaningful relationships is nurturing emotional intimacy with someone who genuinely wants to get to know you and commit reciprocally. And therapy is a safe place to feel it in the setting of therapeutic relationships — how it’s beneficial to share your feelings and fully trust another person who’s emotionally present with you.
Kate has a B.S. in Psychology and M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University and has worked in healthcare since 2017. She primarily treated depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, and grief, as well as identity, relationship and adjustment issues. Her clinical experience has focused on individual and group counseling, emergency counseling and outreach.Read more