What is emotional unavailability?
Diving deep and opening up.
Feelings are complicated. And when sex and intimacy are involved, they add a whole new layer of complexity to any given relationship.
In interpersonal relationships, emotional availability is the ability for two people to share a healthy emotional connection. That means being able to openly discuss both your emotions and the other person’s, and having an awareness of the other person’s emotional wants and needs. It’s a two way street: If one person isn’t emotionally available, you can’t foster a healthy relationship. A lot of the time, this can feel like there’s something missing from a connection and like your conversations never go beyond the surface level—or even that the other person just doesn’t get where you’re ever coming from. In intimate relationships, emotional unavailability essentially eviscerates any chance of a real connection built on good communication and openness.
It pretty much goes without saying that emotional availability plays a key role in forming romantic relationships, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as important in more casual intimate encounters, too. Just because you don’t want to date your FWB, for instance, doesn’t mean that being emotionally unavailable will serve either of you; what can feel like a defense mechanism actually sets the stage for miscommunications and disappointment. Having a lack of romantic feelings doesn’t mean you’re completely emotionless. And if you’re physically intimate with someone, you’re more likely than not to feel something.
Is sex without intimacy possible? For sure (see: many one-night stands). But in a consistent relationship, emotional availability does have a huge impact on sex. Research shows that intimacy and partner responsiveness (which can be considered components of emotional availability) are correlated with greater feelings of sexual desire. In older couples, researchers also found that emotional intimacy has a strong correlation with sexual wellbeing. And in women in particular, higher levels of emotional intimacy are correlated with greater sexual satisfaction—because emotional intimacy leads to better communication.
How to create emotional availability
There’s clearly a benefit to having emotional availability in intimate relationships—but it’s not something that’s built overnight. It’s also not something you can reverse engineer: Although sex does lead to the release of the “love hormone” oxytocin, the postcoital bonding effect you might feel isn’t the same as true emotional availability. You can become more emotionally available to your partner by making an effort to listen to their wants and needs, working to open up, and being transparent, says the relationship counseling center The Hart Centre. It might also be helpful to interrogate if you might be getting in your own way or if you might have limiting beliefs about your role in relationships. Talking with a therapist may help.
What to do if your partner is emotionally unavailable
Emotional availability isn’t a static thing—it can, unfortunately, wane or waver overtime, leading you to feel like a partner may not be fully “there” or like they might be slipping away. In these instances, communication is key, suggests Berkeley Well-Being Institute. Use “I” statements to tell your partner how you feel and establish boundaries and expectations that might put your communication back on track. If emotional unavailability continues to be a problem in the relationship, you might consider couples therapy or individual therapy—and consider if the relationship can continue to work.
Emotional unavailability in a partner isn’t always an indicator that the relationship is on its last legs—but it’s also not an issue that you can “fix” in another person. Relationships take effort on both parts, and one-sided emotional openness isn’t enough to sustain a healthy connection in the long run.