Step into my proverbial office. I’m going to recreate some scenarios I see all the time in my therapy sessions:
Sarah has been in a relationship with her partner for four years. She tells me, “I feel like something is missing. We’re not as close as I want to be.”
Maria has been dating a guy for nine months and she still doesn’t know if he’s her boyfriend. Nor has she met his friends or family.
George has been exclusive with his girlfriend for three months. But recently, it feels like she’s done a 180. She used to care about his needs, but now she’s completely consumed by her own.
Marshall says that his boyfriend calls him “needy” and that he “needs his space.” This is the first time he’s heard this from a partner.
Chrissy has been with her boyfriend for two years and still hasn’t heard “I love you” from him.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? If so, these could be signs that you’re dating someone who is emotionally unavailable.
So, what does it mean to be emotionally unavailable?
Another word for emotionally unavailable (besides “commitment-phobe”) is avoidantly attached. Everyone has an attachment system. It’s the pattern of emotions and behaviors that influence our emotional connection and comfort with loved ones. Modern psychology believes a lot of these behaviors were established with our caregivers between ages zero and seven.There are four types: secure, anxious, avoidant, and anxious-avoidant. Let’s go over them quickly.
- Someone who has a secure attachment style is comfortable with closeness and intimacy—and entirely comfortable with being interdependent. They have no problem expressing their feelings or showing vulnerability with people who are important to them.
- Someone with an anxious attachment style, on the other hand, is preoccupied with how their partner feels about them. They may worry about being abandoned or the relationship will end, and need constant reassurance that their partner cares for them.
- Someone who is avoidantly attached avoids closeness and gets distressed by—and even fears—intimacy. They quickly feel suffocated in relationships. They might fiercely talk about their need for independence and proclaim that they “don’t need anyone.” Being vulnerable or sharing their feelings doesn’t just come unnaturally, but is actively avoided.
- Finally, an anxious-avoidant person has a mix of anxious and avoidant tendencies. It’s like a push-pull—they want closeness but then when they have it—they fear it—and suddenly feel the need to pull away.
Now, these are not absolute categories for everyone. After all, no one neatly fits in a box. Some people clearly are categorized; others will exhibit a mix of styles. Some might be mostly secure, but will occasionally exhibit anxious or avoidant tendencies when under stress. And then, there’s a spectrum. Someone who is absolutely terrified by intimacy will exhibit far different behaviors than someone who is merely uncomfortable with it.
And then, when you add another person into the mix, it gets even more complicated. For instance, some people can tolerate a partner with avoidant tendencies, but wouldn’t be able to stay in a relationship with someone who is highly avoidant. Familiarizing yourself with your own attachment style and your partner’s can help you gain clarity on what’s best for you.
You can take this quiz to find out.
Should you stay or should you go?
Now, once you figure out your partner is avoidantly attached, you might wonder: is this worth it? And that question is completely okay! It’s not selfish to consider your own needs. While knowing why a person acts a certain way can be tremendously helpful (it’s not you!) when you navigate a relationship, knowledge alone doesn’t necessarily alleviate all the problems. It’s common for clients to come into my therapy practice wondering if they should stay with their partner or end the relationship.
I’ve discovered that there’s eight main indicators that provide my clients clarity when they’re trying to decide. So, without further ado:
You should go if:
- You have a lot of anxiety in a relationship and need a lot of reassurance. It’s very common for someone who is highly anxious to get attached to someone who is avoidantly attached. If you need a lot of quality time, affection, and reassurance, an emotionally unavailable partner is not the right fit for you. If you find yourself constantly pursuing your partner for more intimacy and closeness, take a moment to really consider if you can do this for the rest of your life. Research shows that this pursuer-distancer pattern in a relationship is dysfunctional. Your best bet for relationship happiness is to find someone securely attached instead.
- Sexual satisfaction is a top priority. Now to be clear: sex is not an issue with every avoidant. But if you’ve already experienced a lot of intimacy rejection with your partner, consider that it will not improve with time. Research shows that avoidants have the least amount of sex with their partners and that the higher the avoidance, the lower the levels of sexual (and relationship) satisfaction.
- You are tired of waiting for a clear future. Commonly, avoidantly attached partners leave you uncertain about where you stand and are vague about having a future together. People can spend years in a relationship with avoidants going nowhere. If your partner is not making effort to figure out if you’re the one they want to be with to get out of their rut (such as reading self-help books, talking with happily married people, or going to counseling), it’s a sign you should end it. You deserve someone who shares the same life goals and knows they want to spend the rest of their life with you. Don’t waste your time with someone who can’t decide, even if their hang ups are more about them, and less about you. You deserve someone who actively wants to commit.
- They are unwilling to change. Some avoidants are truly adamant that there is nothing wrong with never needing intimacy. Some avoidants have zero desire to change, and believe that it’s their partner who needs to change. If that’s the case—and that there’s no drive to do the “inner work” and evolve beyond their stunted emotional understanding—they won’t be able to meet your needs for closeness, intimacy, and security. And if you can’t get that from your partner, really, what’s the point?
You can stay if:
- You like your alone time and independence too. This can be whether you’re a serious introvert or you have a busy, fulfilling life filled with time-consuming hobbies and many, many friends. Simply put: if you can enjoy lots of time away from your partner, and already have a robust emotional support system, you might be able to provide your partner with the distance they need to feel comfortable.
- You can honestly lower your expectations. If you’re in a place of acceptance and confidence—and have a deep understanding that your partner is just never going to meet your emotional needs, you might be in the right mind space to stay. If, over time, you’ve developed mechanisms to stay emotionally healthy—perhaps you’ve established true friendships that meet your needs where your partner falls short—staying might be the best solution for you.
- You truly believe their behavior is not a reflection of you. This is for those with iron-clad confidence. If you don’t take things personally because you know it’s just who they are, you might be able to do this. Watching them behave like this with others in their life, you know they’re not doing it specifically to hurt you or because they don’t care about you. It’s just who they are, and you’ve accepted it.
- They are willing to change. Your partner may get to the point of recognizing their patterns across several different relationships, and it makes them sad. Or perhaps someone mentions a book for them to read, like Attached, and a light bulb goes off. Whatever the trigger that moves them into action, if your partner sees areas for growth and boldly takes the initiative to change, you may be able to create more closeness and intimacy that works for you both.
I get it. Deciding whether to stay or end a relationship is not always an easy one, but I hope these eight indicators will provide clarity to whether or not you can handle a lifetime with your avoidantly-attached partner.