What Does it Mean When Your Partner is Emotionally Unavailable


What does the term “emotionally unavailable” mean to you? It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone.

Have you ever been in a relationship or marriage with someone who you felt was emotionally unavailable? Has any friend or romantic partner ever described you this way?

The term, in my opinion, carries some irony. Because if you are truly emotionally unavailable, it will be very difficult to understand the meaning of the term. In other words, it really helps to be emotionally available if you want to understand what it means to be unavailable.

Much of this has to do with how a person deals with his or her own emotions. This typically goes back to how your emotions were treated as a child. Did your parents notice what you were feeling enough of the time? Did they ask? Did they care what you felt and what you needed, and do their best to meet your true needs? Did they succeed?

Surprisingly, it matters less whether your parents tried. What really matters is whether or not they succeeded. If your parents weren’t able, for any reason, to notice and respond to your feelings and meet your emotional needs, then you are at risk of being an emotionally unavailable adult.

Here’s why. When a child’s feelings and emotional needs are treated as if they matter, that child receives a loud and clear message: “Your feelings are real, and they matter.” This encourages the child to pay attention to his emotions, and teaches him how to manage, express, and use them throughout his adult life. The converse is also true. When a child’s emotional needs are treated as if they don’t matter, the message to the child is, “Your feelings don’t matter.”

A child who receives this message will not be consciously aware of it and will not remember it. This is because typically it was never stated outright; it was a subliminal message delivered by the absence of response and validation from the parents. But that child will accommodate, as children do. She will suppress her emotions by pushing them far and away so that they will not bother her parents or herself.

Years later, in relationships, that child will continue to lack access to his emotions. To his friends or romantic partner, he may seem to be difficult to connect with. Others can see his depth and quality but have trouble reaching it.

Here are some of the complaints that I have heard from various patients about their emotionally unavailable boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife:

“He just shuts down and refuses to talk to me when there’s a problem.”

“She’s a great person, but she doesn’t tell me what she needs or feels.”

“I know that he loves me, but I can’t feel the love from him.”

If you identify with this description of “emotionally unavailable,” do not despair. There are solutions to this problem. And the solution lies with you. The solution is to get in touch with your feelings, accept them, and use them. It sounds simple, but it is not. It’s a process that requires purpose and effort and work. But it can be done.

If, on the other hand, you are in a relationship with someone who is emotionally unavailable, you are in an even more difficult spot because it is easier to change yourself than it is to convince someone else to change. However, there are somethings that you can do.

Six Steps to Reach Your Emotionally Unavailable Partner:

  1. Express to your partner that something is bothering you.
  2. Explain what you feel is missing in the relationship (emotional connection and communication).
  3. Tell your partner that it’s not their fault, that it’s simply because of their childhood experiences.
  4. Explain that there is a way to heal from it.
  5. Offer your support.
  6. The rest is up to him.

To learn much more about how to recognize CEN in your marriage and talk with your spouse about it, see the book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty.

This article was initially posted on Psychcentral.com. It has been republished here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.


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Matt - August 3, 2022 Reply

Hi Jonice, I have been the emotionally unavailable one in my marriage for a long time. My wife is pretty much checked out and has told me so. I am trying so hard to turn things around. I can feel changes in myself after reading your books and doing some of the exercises. However this is not yet translated into meaningful action that my wife can look at with any hope. How long does this healing typically take? Can you offer any advice for someone in my situation?

    Jonice - August 14, 2022 Reply

    Hi Matt, I would suggest you get a CEN therapist from the list from this site to help and support your changing. Another option would be to take the Fuel Up For Life program which will guide and support you through the process, or both. If your marriage is at stake, then it is worth doing everything you possibly can. I applaud you for your efforts!

Russell - February 3, 2022 Reply

I’m a 41 year old man who’s life is a cautionary tale of what can happen if childhood trauma and neglect issues are not worked through to the point of at least partial healing. I’ve had multiple suicide attempts, been diagnosed with Major Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder ( probably either an incomplete diagnosis or misdiagnosis altogether), lifelong severe substance abuse issues, extreme financial problems including 2 bankruptcies, experienced multiple episodes of homelessness, sporadic employment, and over a dozen periods of incarnation. I’ve been unable to find or maintain any semblance of stability since I was a child. I’m very blessed to be fully employed at the moment and have been married for almost a year but I find little to no satisfaction in any aspect of my life and my wife unfortunately has a lot of the same life experiences due mostly to the same childhood emotional neglect and abuse. I’m intent on bringing some healing to my marriage and hopefully ghis is a good jumping off point to start the process.

Vp - January 4, 2021 Reply

When someone is emotionally unavailable doesn’t matter what you say. It is always false. Everything is YOUR fault. Why stay with him? With an emotionally unavailable partner? I think only one reason: you are used to. Your parents, grandparents or whoever were the same. This is the only reason why an unavailable partner can be tolerated. And there is no happy end. No one can be saved unless he saves himself. Living without emotion around you and more, hiding them, is your suicide. It is your own choice to slowly murder yourself. I know. I have buried myself. No one should say “there is hope”. No hope. You have to know: nothing nor anyone will change but you.

Natasha - November 20, 2020 Reply

Im in a loving 4 year relationship with a committed and understanding partner who introduced me to your work and to CEN. In that time ive got better in touch with my emotions but find that in doing so it triggers my shutdowns. Im caught in this horrible loop of being a bit connected and then drifting away from connection – realise whats happening – sit with the feeling of emptiness – than feel sad/frustrated/lonely/scared – have trouble decoupling from the emotions and end up more triggered and more shutdown. I know i can change and grow but the emptiness and wall seem so insurmountable – it can be so disheartening. Im also feeling more empathy towards my partner and Im feeling bad for what i put him through (though i also recognise its his choice if he stays). So tricky – I end up very confused and feeling like being in a relationship is too hard.

denise - November 2, 2020 Reply

I am exhausted trying to understand my husband’s disconnection and silence. We have been married for 35 years. I just am so tired and feel like giving up. Just as i a sure his needs are not met mine too are not met…. I bought the first book but he didn’t read it. I cannot change him, he has to but i dont think he wants to.

no hope - August 24, 2020 Reply

It means a life of misery if you and your spouse are emotionally unavailable. My wife and I both come from abusive alcoholic homes. Neither of us can tolerate our own nor each other’s emotions, unless they are “good” emotions. My issue is that I was completely shut down to all feelings for 60 years. I started working on this 2 years ago, but the only feelings I’ve gotten in touch with so far are rage and fear. My spouse cannot tolerate those, and she shuts me down if I express so much as an unpleasant thought, let alone feeling. The only thing worse than a life of no feeling when one robotically pretends to be like everyone else, is to be in touch with feelings that no one will accept. I don’t know how much my suppressed feelings hurt me before, but being consciously aware of constant, alternating rage and fear but not being able to express it is torture.

    Jonice - August 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear No Hope, it is crucial that you either see a therapist with your wife or, if she’s not willing, go on your own. This situation is most definitely harming your health. Please talk with a professional.

    Mary - September 13, 2020 Reply

    I too felt a lot of feelings of anger and rage. For a long time. It is good you can name them. Journalling helped me a lot. I refer to it as WTF to help me remember what I need to figure out. I journal all that I am feeling, all that I am thinking. I make sure to read it over to see that my thoughts are actually thoughts and feelings are actually feelings and not vice versa. Then I write down what it is I want right now. What do I need. And then, who can I tell, who will listen, and who do I need to ask something from. What do I want or need from them. I am finding this takes a lot of practice and I am not always ready to talk and ask for what I need, but with each journalling, and with each conversation, things get a little clearer.
    It is very hard work. Stay strong. You can do this.

Robert - August 24, 2020 Reply

I sometimes feel as though my thoughts and feelings don’t matter to my spouse. It is not easy for me to say what is on my mind. I fear being shot down, so I keep my thoughts to myself. This is very frustrating to me. I need to feel that I am feeling has some value.


    Jonice - August 26, 2020 Reply

    Dear Robert, I recommend you try to get your spouse to see a CEN therapist with you. This must be addressed and a CEN therapist will help you both do that.

Kathleen Noll - August 23, 2020 Reply

Very, very helpful, Jonice! My husband and I have stayed together over these 48 years by the grace of God, and, I suspect, because we both had our feelings were ignored. The subliminal or overt message was “put a cork in it, and keep a stiff upper lip”. Press on…
We both are a bit unavailable. When I open up, it makes others uncomfortable. It’s best to leave it alone in my case. We both are largely loners who are good in management roles??!
Makes little sense. It’s like we can only have good relationships in a structured environment.

    Jonice - August 24, 2020 Reply

    Dear Kathleen, that actually makes a lot of sense. It’s much harder to be emotionally present and attuned in a personal relationship, especially marriage. I suggest you read my second book together, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. I think it will help you address this together.

Lee Ann - August 23, 2020 Reply

My husband struggles with this. We have spoke about it for years. He feels, that he will just “shut down” when he feels a conflict, argument etc coming on. Or if he feels I’m being negative. But I feel I’m sharing what I feel, what I’m needing and what I’m concerned about. That I don’t FEEL him or his love, affection etc. it’s horrible. Friends have noticed he pulls away also. So I don’t feel it’s just in our marriage. Can it still be CEN or is there other things? And how does he help himself understand it?

    Jonice - August 24, 2020 Reply

    Dear Lee Ann, have your husband read through all of my blog posts. Or read my book, Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect. You could even read it together.

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