What You Don’t Understand About Your “Emotionally Unavailable” Partner

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Disengaged Partner

I was at a conference this weekend where it was once again reiterated to me how impactful our attachment in our early relationships is on our current relationships.  When we talk about “attachment”, we usually mean how safe and connected we feel to our partner (or friend, or parent, etc.).  What the research has shown over the years is that our attachment style is mostly dictated by our relationship we had with our parents when we were little, but it can change as we have new relationship experiences throughout our life.  There are a few main attachment styles that I want to unpack today because I think they’re often misunderstood and this misunderstanding can cause major problems in relationships.


Secure Attachment

When you meet someone with a secure attachment style, they probably grew up with a steady flow of comfort, validation, empathy, and love from their parents and family.  These are the people who aren’t too anxious, but aren’t scared of relationships either.


Insecure Anxious Attachment

When someone has an insecure attachment style, they either exhibit avoidant or anxious behaviors to cope with this attachment insecurity.  The common misconception is that people who are anxious are the only ones who really want to connect and find love and make things work in their relationships.  These are the partners who are calling or texting you all day long to stay connected when you’re apart, or who need to talk about their emotional pain right away and can’t hold on to it long enough to hear yours, etc. (what we refer to as “pursuers” in this post)


Insecure Avoidant Attachment

On the other hand, when someone uses avoidance to cope with their insecurity, pop culture talks about them as being “emotionally unavailable”, afraid to commit, narcissistic, (what we call “withdrawers” in this post) or any number of negative terms to make it sound like they don’t want connection or any kind of relationship, which is just not the case.


As Children…

In studies that determine children’s attachment styles (where the mom leaves the room), they find that those children who are anxious have a strong physiological response when their mom walks back in the room and they run to her and protest that she left them, but then cling to her tightly to try to reconnect.  Avoidant children also have that same physiological response when their mom walks back in the room, but their face shows none of it.  They keep their cool and slowly wander back to their mom and don’t outwardly reach for comfort, even though every cell in their body is telling them they need it.


What this has taught us is that both types of children with insecure attachments want to be reconnected and feel comforted and safe again, but avoiders don’t think their parents are going to respond, so they don’t outright ask for it, they just gain physical proximity and silently hope their parents will comfort them.  They still want it!  They’re just terrified they’ll be rejected yet again.


It turns out that those kids who have insecure anxious attachments come from relationships where they have intermittently gotten comfort and security from their parents, but other times have been punished for having strong emotions and they can’t trust that comfort from their parents will always be there, but they keep asking, because once in a while–it is.  Those kids who have avoidant attachment, though, come from relationships where the parents rarely, if ever, respond to their needs.  They learn young that the best way to get their parents’ attention is to try to be “the perfect angel” because if they cry and ask outright for comfort, their parents ignore them or punish them almost every time.


As Adults…

So how does this impact you today?  Well, in adult relationships, we have the same two main attachment styles and it’s SO important to recognize that someone who seems “emotionally unavailable”, or cold, or distant, scared to commit, etc. really deep down craves connection, acceptance, and comfort, but is often too terrified to ask for it because they have NEVER had anyone respond to them.  They aren’t cold-hearted, unfeeling people who don’t care about the relationship–they’re paralyzed by their fear of emotional rejection.


By the same token, those who are anxious in their relationships aren’t intending to be critical, demanding, overwhelming, needy, etc, but they just can’t trust that their partner will always be there so they have to keep testing the waters of the relationship over and over.  All this because they never had a stable relationship where someone continuously loved, comforted, and accepted them as they are.


So next time you’re frustrated by your partner’s inability to get on the same emotional page as you, ask if any of these feelings resonate with them.  You may start talking about something much more important than how they didn’t load the dishes correctly, or how they were late for dinner again.  If you need help starting a difficult conversation, try taking the RELATE Assessment together for a report of the areas in your relationship you should talk about together.

Written by:  Erin

**The ideas in this post are courtesy of Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, and the theory of Emotionally Focused Therapy.

9 Responses to “What You Don’t Understand About Your “Emotionally Unavailable” Partner”

  1. Sami

    I have loved every one of your posts about EFT! I seriously need to read Hold Me Tight.

  2. Sami

    One question: In your post, it sounds as if every persuer/withdrawer develops that role because of the consistency of their relationship with their parents. Could there be other explanations as well? Could events like parental divorce, dissolution of personal relationships, etc. affect the which role someone has a tendency towards?

    • support

      Absolutely, Sami! The mental health community used to think it was a little more black and white, but we know now that recent events or even just experiences in other relationships can all have an impact on attachment style. It’s a lot more fluid than we used to think–which is hopeful because it means we can change if we want to! Also, some people are the pursuer in some of their relationships and the withdrawer in others…it all seems to depend on how we’re feeling in each individual relationship.

  3. Emily

    Will ETF work when one spouse is emotionally checked out and doesn’t buy into therapy but still goes? I’ve done every “wrong” out there. Is it too late? I tried to talk, tried not talking…ect. I’ve looked so weak and worthless. We are in crisis.

  4. Emily

    My boyfriend (6 yrs live together) after a big fight has emotionally shut me out for months. As a result I feel abandoned. I feel like I’ve done everything wrong by pursuing and wanting to talk, being weak, sulking….ect. We are in crisis. I got to a point of pain where I told him I would leave BC that’s what he seemed to want. He then asked me back. He isn’t completely cold but he still is shut down. If someone is this shut down can EFT be effective even if he doesn’t believe in therapy?

    • support

      Absolutely! In fact, most couples who come to therapy have one spouse who doesn’t really believe it’ll help. If you can find a good EFT therapist, they will be able to really validate both of your emotional sides of things and hopefully help you both feel safer and freer to be open with one another about your fears. You can locate an EFT therapist here. It’s only too late if you guys have decided that “Even if everything changed about this relationship, we would still not want to be together.” But if you still love each other and want to try to make it work, EFT can help couples who have been together 30 years and are in the middle of divorce negotiations!

  5. Jenna

    My husband was in a very serious relationship and took a lot of time to get over his past girlfriend before getting married to me. I feel he is very much emotionally unavailable for me most of the times as many things i want to enjoy with him seem as a waste of his time or something he doesnt want to do. Even something as simple as clicking a photo with me irks him though i’ve seen numerous photos of him with his ex girlfriend. Is it possible that he has given away all his emotions in the past relationship and is hence emotional unavailable for me. He is still connected and very concerned about his ex girlfriend though.

    • support

      It is possible that his past relationship has left your husband tentative about being emotionally available again. While people don’t run out of emotions to give, it can be hard to be fully invested in a relationship after having an intense rejection or hurtful exchange in another one. It sounds as though your husband has some fears that may be limiting him. Validate him when you can, and also be vocal about your own needs and feelings. If you feel hurt by this, let him know as clearly and kindly as you can; he cannot fix what he doesn’t know about. Once you both feel completely heard and understood, you can start to share your needs and brainstorm together how to make sure both partners’ needs are being met. We recommend finding an EFT therapist. Good luck!

  6. Randy

    After reading your post it is very clear that I am the avoider and my wife is a persuer. How can a relationship work with both of these anxious types in it? We both want nothing more than to be connected but it seems that we are constantly in flux.


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