5 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Some men are emotionally distant because of past trauma, how they were brought up to suppress their feelings growing up, or how they were parented as kids.
Regardless of the cause, emotional withdrawal can be devastating to a relationship, especially when it means your emotional needs aren’t being met.
There are steps you can take to talk with your partner about their emotional avoidance, as well as strategies you can follow to reconnect.
Things might have started great. But the more time went on, the more distant your partner became.
When a man is emotionally unavailable, the toll on a relationship can be overwhelming. So how do you connect with your partner – and help them connect with you?
Pay attention to your feelings. If it feels like you barely exist to the other person, that’s a strong indicator they’re emotionally unavailable.
Having an emotionally distant partner can be confusing. Some aspects of the relationship might seem fine – for example, if you:
Get along well
Share household responsibilities
Parent well together (if you have kids)
Yet it may still feel like something’s off. You might feel isolated, overlooked, or like the connection just isn’t there. Likely, you feel your emotional needs aren’t being met. Listen to that feeling. Relationships only work when both partners are responsive to each other’s emotional needs.
If you think your partner might be emotionally unavailable, here are some questions you can ask:
Are they difficult to read? Do I have to guess what they’re feeling or thinking?
Do they become evasive, defensive or angry when I bring up my feelings?
Do they minimise what I’m feeling?
Do they ever ask what I’m thinking or feeling?
Do they seem distant? Do they require a lot of time on their own?
Do they resist making commitments, whether it’s something in our relationship or simply scheduling a time to go out?
Do they accuse me of getting ‘too emotional’ when I’m upset?
There can be short-term factors that cause someone to withdraw emotionally. For example:
Stress at work or home
Focusing too much on another part of their life, such as their career
Depression or other mental health issues
Long-term factors can also play a role:
Past trauma. A previous relationship that ended badly, for example, may lead them to be more cautious and withdrawn in their relationship with you.
Socialisation during childhood. As kids, many men were socialised to be ‘tough’ and avoid expressing vulnerability – ‘boys don’t cry’ and all that. It’s only in the last decade or so that’s really started to change. If someone grew up suppressing what they felt, it can impact their ability as adults to recognise emotional needs in themselves or others.
Parenting. Emotionally unavailable parents raise emotionally unavailable children, often resulting in an avoidant attachment style. It’s a defence mechanism, really. If a child grows up without a safe space to express themselves emotionally, they’ll adapt by restricting their emotions to keep from getting hurt.
Alexithymia. This is when a person doesn’t have the language to identify emotions. It’s not that they don’t have feelings; they just can’t articulate them. They also have difficulty recognising other people’s emotions. They may be genuinely perplexed when a partner expresses hurt because of their behaviour. Alexithymia affects 1 in 10 men.
Whatever the cause, it’s not your place to diagnose them. It’s also unlikely your partner is being emotionally distant on purpose. (If they are, then it may be time to re-evaluate the relationship.) They may not be aware of what they’re doing or how it affects you. Chances are, they want to be emotionally connected. They just don’t know how to get over the hurdle.
First things first: do they recognise that it’s causing problems?
In order to move forward, your partner needs to acknowledge their emotional distance and express a willingness to work on it. If they don’t show an interest in doing so, then it may be time to move on.
Next, it’s important for you to understand how they are wired.
Again, many guys are emotionally distant because of how they were brought up. (If they are actively, wilfully neglectful of your feelings, that’s another matter.) They may withdraw into themselves as a means of emotional self-regulation. When they’re in this state, they tend to see your attempts to connect as an intrusion.
This doesn’t mean they’re incapable of connection. But they may need help finding their way out of a withdrawn state first.
In short, talk about it. Make sure they know how their emotional distance is affecting you. Be careful not to accuse or assign blame. Use ‘I’ language to share how you feel.
Depending on how much research you’ve done, you may have come across terms like ‘dysregulated’ or ‘alexithymia’ (just a few paragraphs above this one, in fact). Keep clinical language out of the conversation. Using terms like these can backfire, putting the other person on the defensive.
Above all, don’t attempt to diagnose the cause of your partner’s emotional detachment. Focus on behaviours you’ve observed. For example, you could say, ‘You seem like you’ve been really stressed lately’. Or even, ‘Things seem different’.
Here are a few more tips for addressing your partner’s emotional avoidance:
Choose the right time, and approach with care. Ask if you can talk ahead of time. That will give them a chance to mentally and emotionally prepare – and make it feel less like an ambush.
Speak honestly and openly. Be direct about what you need from the other person.
Listen. Give them a chance to respond. (It’s ok if it takes a while to collect their thoughts.) Repeat back what they say to show you understand.
Give them space. Don’t issue an ultimatum to open up. Taking a step back after you share what you need may give them the space they need to respond.
If your partner wants to work on being more emotionally available, there are some things you can do to help.
Come up with a ‘code’ your partner can use to express feelings
This can be especially helpful if a health professional has determined that they have alexithymia. Instead of verbalising feelings, which can be difficult, your partner can express emotion through physical touch or body language.
Be (gently) direct
Some guys genuinely don’t know how to make themselves more emotionally available, so tell them. Give your spouse or partner gentle, positive prompts – that may be all they need to jump into action. For example:
Give positive feedback
Let them know when they do something that meets your emotional needs, even if it’s a small gesture. For example: ‘Thank you for telling me you love me this morning. That really made my day’.
Help them move to a connected state
If your partner has trouble transitioning out of their own head (that is, a withdrawn state) in order to focus on you, psychotherapist Gabrielle Usatynski suggests lengthening the runway – that is, giving them time to make the transition. Instead of asking for immediate attention, try telling them you’d like to talk or spend some time together in a few minutes (or later in the day). They may give them enough space to emotionally self-regulate and respond to your needs.
Try counselling together
Some guys will need a therapist’s support to learn how to be more emotionally available, especially if they’re dealing with alexithymia. Counselling can help them develop tools to recognise and communicate their feelings, as well as helping them recognise other people’s emotions.
Take care of you.
Be mindful of how the other person’s distance affects you. If a partner or loved one shows no interest in becoming more emotionally available, or if they resist all efforts to change things, it may be time to let go of the relationship.
Being with someone who’s emotionally unavailable can take its toll. Many couples are able to work through it and strengthen their emotional bond. In some cases, that’s not possible. Either way: your emotional needs matter and are worth prioritising.