Do you find yourself constantly dating people who pull away from you and struggle to create a meaningful emotional connection? Are you constantly trying to pull your partner closer while he’s pushing you away? If so, you might be dating an emotionally unavailable man.
If you’re in this kind of relationship, you’re almost certainly asking yourself “can an emotionally unavailable man change, and what can I do to help?”
In this article, I’m going to explain what makes someone emotionally unavailable, talk about what he’ll need if he’s going to change, and explore some other ways that you can try to break the pattern of dating emotionally unavailable men.
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Someone who is emotionally unavailable in a relationship is going to hold their emotions in check. They might not get angry or flustered easily, but they’re also not going to show you much love, affection, or support.
Emotionally unavailable men will usually feel distant, as if you just can’t get close enough to them to see their real emotions. You might feel as though they have strong barriers or emotional walls that keep you out.
Every emotionally unavailable man will have his own reason and explanation for becoming that way. Often, it’s a simple matter of their upbringing1. If they were taught that “boys don’t show emotion,” they might have learned to keep all of their feelings bottled up or buried away deep inside.
Parenting styles where a child is chastised for emotional displays or praised for stoicism are really common for emotionally unavailable men. They don’t learn how to communicate their feelings or how to deal with the feelings of others. When they’re forced to confront those feelings, they feel scared, powerless, and lost.
Emotionally unavailable men will often also have an avoidant attachment style2. Your attachment style is something you learn, usually in childhood, about how far you can rely on others to meet your needs and take care of you.
Someone with an avoidant attachment style will usually be emotionally unavailable because they’ve learned that the people they love will ignore their emotional needs, and might even reject them for showing hurt or distress.
It’s important to note that not everyone who feels emotionally distant from you is actually emotionally unavailable. If you have an anxious attachment style, you might have such a strong desire for intimacy and closeness that it’s difficult for anyone to give you the kind of emotional connection you crave3.
Here are some signs of an emotionally unavailable man, to help you understand the root of the problem in your relationship.
A guy who is emotionally unavailable will usually be really fun and enjoyable to date at first. His lack of emotional availability will only become clear when things move from ‘casually dating’ toward something more serious.
If you feel as though your partner has changed since you discussed becoming exclusive or after you said that you love him, this is a good sign that he’s emotionally unavailable.
There are some things in life that it’s ok to admit you’re bad at. Depending on your social circle, these might include reverse parking, remembering your mom’s birthday, or quantum physics. Being bad at relationships doesn’t usually make it onto that list.
If your guy admits openly that he’s not good at relationships, he’s probably right. This is especially true if he doesn’t admit to being bad at anything else.
If he’s emotionally unavailable, he’s not telling you that he’s bad at relationships out of humility. He’s trying to limit your expectations and prepare for his exit from the relationship. Later in the relationship, he’ll probably say “I told you I’m not good at relationships” as a way to deflect your hurt at constantly being kept at an emotional distance.
Emotionally unavailable men don’t just keep their own emotions in check. They’re also really uncomfortable about yours. If you’re having strong emotions, they’re going to struggle.
This will be the case regardless of whether your emotions are positive or negative. They might find it harder to deal with your grief at the loss of a loved one than your joy over a promotion at work, but neither will be comfortable for them.
Another feature of emotionally unavailable men is that they’re afraid of commitment. This often shows when you try to work out exactly what your relationship is and what you mean to each other.
Not wanting to label a relationship too early is understandable, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t both know where you stand. If he says that he just doesn’t like using labels, there’s an easy way to tell whether he’s being honest or whether he’s trying to hide his emotional unavailability.
Someone who dislikes labels will usually be keen to talk through exactly what they do, and don’t, feel in your relationship. They don’t like the prescriptive nature of labels, so they actively want to have a detailed conversation instead.
If they’re trying to hide that they’re emotionally unavailable, they’ll find a nuanced, detailed conversation about your relationship even more uncomfortable than a simple label.
An emotionally unavailable man who is trying to avoid commitment will always have the eventual end of the relationship in the back of his mind. Given how much he struggles with strong emotions, he’ll want to make sure that any eventual breakup is as straightforward as possible.
One way to do this is to make it difficult for you to meet his friends and family. If you’re being kept away from the people who matter to him, it’s much easier for him to cut you out of his life if he feels he needs to.
Men who struggle with emotional availability definitely don’t want to share their problems. Talking about problems means making yourself vulnerable, even if only a little bit4. It’s a small opening in that big emotional wall they’ve built around them, and they’re not keen on that.
This can show itself in different ways. He might seem perpetually cheerful, even when things are going wrong. This might be because he’s not letting you see his real fears and insecurities. He might also just shut down or pull away from people when he’s dealing with difficult situations and events.
Being defensive is the default state of emotionally unavailable men. Their big emotional wall is really just one big defense strategy. If he feels like you’re getting too close to his true self or as if you’re seeing through his barriers, he might decide that offense is the best form of defense.
He might lash out if you ask about his feelings. He’ll tell you that his problems are none of your business. He’ll probably tell you to leave him alone.
Being emotionally unavailable makes it hard for these guys to put themselves in someone else’s shoes or to understand other people’s emotional reactions. They’re so shut off from their own feelings that it’s really difficult for them to even imagine someone else’s.
This means that they will usually lack empathy. They won’t have an intuitive understanding of your feelings. Even when you explain what’s going on, they might still struggle to understand how that works or what it might feel like.
When someone asks whether an emotionally unavailable man can change or not, they’re not usually asking the question they really want to know. What they really mean is “will my emotionally unavailable man change?” This is important because the answers to the two questions are different.
Emotionally unavailable men can sometimes change.
Most emotionally unavailable men don’t change, and the chances of yours changing are slim.
The most important thing to realize is that you can’t force an emotionally unavailable man to change, and you shouldn’t try. Pushing him to open up more and share his emotions feels to him as though you’re disrespecting his boundaries. It’s likely to make him feel less safe, which makes it harder for him to open up and be vulnerable.
Emotionally unavailable men can change and start to talk about their emotions and share what’s going on for them but only if they decide that they want to for themselves. They can be motivated by wanting to feel understood or realizing how much of life they’re cutting themselves off from.
One thing that usually won’t get them to make real changes and become more emotionally available is the fear of losing you. That’s not because they don’t want to or they don’t love you. It’s just that that’s rarely enough to help them overcome such a deep, pervasive fear and set of beliefs about the world.
Threatening to leave if he doesn’t start to share his feelings might lead to some short-term progress, but this will usually disappear quickly because it’s not sustainable for him.
Wanting to change for you might feel a little bit like wanting to be a pilot even though he’s scared of flying. He might be able to manage to struggle through once or twice, but it’s too much to do every day.
Often, learning to open up will mean having to change his attachment style, at least a bit5. He might never become fully securely attached, but he will probably need to move away from the most extreme levels of avoidant attachment style.
Trying to change your attachment style isn’t easy, and he’s more likely to succeed if he has help from a qualified therapist or counselor. You might be able to help, but you have too much of a vested interest in him opening up to be the biggest factor in his support system for this challenge.
So, if you can’t really help an emotionally unavailable man to change, you have two options open to you. You can hope that he does and give him as much support as you can. Alternatively, you can try to understand how you have ended up in this situation and change your actions, especially if lots of your relationships go the same way.
I mentioned at the start of this article that you might find yourself constantly forming new relationships with emotionally unavailable men. This is upsetting and frustrating, but it’s not unusual. Let’s look at some of the reasons that you might be attracted to (and stay with) emotionally unavailable men.
Emotionally unavailable men can actually be pretty awesome at the start of a relationship. They’re flattering and charming and make you feel special. It’s easy to fall for them at this stage, especially if you’re someone who falls in love easily or loves attention.
The trouble is that they make you feel special by focusing entirely on you and not putting their feelings center stage. This feels generous and kind, but it’s actually part of their defense mechanisms. They’re deflecting attention away from who they are and how they feel.
You can be even more susceptible to emotionally unavailable men and their incredible first impression if you’re more of an optimist than a pessimist. You want to see the best in people, and you’ve seen some really fantastic things from your partner. You’re ready and willing to believe that they can be that way again.
A pessimist might decide that they’d been carried away by the honeymoon period or might conclude that great behavior at the start of a relationship isn’t actually sustainable. An optimist clings to the hope that the current lack of emotional connection is just a temporary blip.
As much as it can hurt to accept, you might be attracted to emotionally unavailable men because deep down you don’t quite believe that you deserve an incredible relationship with deep, fulfilling emotional connections.
This is especially common if you have some form of trauma in your past. You might feel that you are “broken” or “damaged,” or that this is the most that you deserve6. You might even have a hidden fear that an emotionally available and aware man might reject you because of all of the flaws you see in yourself.
Sometimes, like calls to like. People who are emotionally unavailable are often more comfortable with other people who share that characteristic. You might be attracted to your partner exactly because he’s never going to push you for more intimacy or commitment.
This can be the case even if you wish he was a little more emotionally open and there for you. Our deepest insecurities and wishes don’t have to be logical or consistent. It’s not hypocritical to be attracted to someone for their emotional distance and also want them to open up. It’s just being human.
Some people like to feel important and needed by their partners. They want to be able to help them, do things for them, and even fix them. They want to be a savior. This leads them to seek out relationships with people who are carrying some form of damage or pain that they can try to help with.
Unfortunately, this typically leads to codependent relationships. You seek out men who are afraid of their own emotions and then sacrifice your happiness and well-being to help them to open up. Your motives are good and pure, but the outcome is an unhealthy relationship that holds you both back.
Now that we understand some of the reasons you might end up dating emotionally unavailable men over and over, we can try to look for ways to break that cycle and help you find healthier relationships where your needs can be met.
Here are some of the most effective ones.
Building up your self-esteem is an important step to improve most aspects of your relationships, including moving you away from seeking out emotionally unavailable men. Try working on your ‘inner critic’ and try to make your self-talk more positive and less critical as a good first step7.
Improving your self-esteem can also give you the confidence and self-sufficiency you need to let you give your emotionally unavailable partner space. This space is going to be essential if he’s ever going to be able to change.
Boundaries are essential in every relationship8. They’re your way of being clear about how you expect to be treated and what you think is ok and what isn’t. Setting clear boundaries lets you see quickly whether the person you’re dating is going to be able to open up to you in the way that you need.
Clear boundaries can actually be good for an emotionally unavailable partner as well. Vague and unclear boundaries are unsettling. Knowing that you’re able to be really upfront about what you want and need might help your partner to relax and feel safe enough to start to open up.
If you’re used to attracting emotionally unavailable men, there’s a vicious cycle you might have fallen into. You worry that your emotions are “too much” early in a relationship so you hide them. Your emotionally unavailable partner gets used to you not talking about your emotions, and gets scared off once you feel safe enough to start opening up.
Break this cycle by starting your relationship the way you want it to go. Talk about your feelings from the start, and ask him about his. This might scare a guy off if he’s emotionally unavailable. That’s ok. It’s actually the point.
Talking about your emotions will scare off emotionally unavailable men, allowing you to concentrate your energy on the ones who are willing and able to make you happy.
Working on your own attachment style can be helpful in allowing you to address some of the emotional baggage you’re carrying that makes you seek out emotionally unavailable men.
This is especially important if you have an anxious attachment style because you might be falling into the anxious-avoidant trap.
There are things you can do to help yourself become more securely attached in your relationships. The fastest way to make progress is almost always working with a qualified therapist. They’re going to be able to help you dig deeper into what’s going on for you, and deal with whatever you discover.
The final step to breaking your pattern of dating emotionally unavailable men is to be really alert to the signs that he might be emotionally unavailable.
Ask your close friends about your last few relationships with someone who was emotionally unavailable. The chances are, they’ll tell you that they knew he was emotionally unavailable from really early in the relationship. The signs were there, but you weren’t looking for them.
If this is the case, use your friends’ awareness and observational skills. Ask them to be honest with you about whether the guy you’re dating seems like he’s going to be emotionally open and loving. Give them permission to sound the alarm if they see you falling into old patterns.
Emotionally unavailable men can still love you and they might miss you. Sometimes, they will move on from a failed relationship without a backward glance but other times they will wish that they had been able to open up more.
Emotionally unavailable men can fall in love. Sometimes, this will be enough to push them to open up more and become emotionally available. In other cases, this will make them feel extra vulnerable and they’ll pull away even harder.
Dating an emotionally unavailable man is challenging, and you can’t rely on him changing his ways. Many of the things that you can do to protect your heart in this situation are also key to giving him space in case he does want to change.
Have you ever dated an emotionally unavailable man? Did he change? Let me know in the comments and make sure you share this with a friend who keeps dating men who can’t return her love and affection.