The problem of emotionally unavailable men

Have you dated a man who suddenly got cold feet and ghosted you? Alternatively, maybe he outright told you, "Let's cool it for a while…" "Let's not see each other so often." Are you wondering if he were one of those emotionally unavailable men?

18 signs of an emotionally unavailable person

  1. He wants you when it is convenient for him but cancels engagements.
  2. He could not wait to be sexual with you. Now he looks at other women the same way.
  3. He breaks dates to work longer hours or hang out with his friends.
  4. He tells you, "I am bad at relationships," or "I am not the marrying type of guy." 
  5. You cannot read him. His face seems devoid of expression.
  6. When you ask him what he feels, he struggles to answer or dismisses the question.
  7. He never considers your feelings. Moreover, when you complain, he protests that you are "too emotional."
  8. He does not ask questions about what you may be thinking or feeling.
  9. You feel like something is missing within him.
  10. He seems distant and cold when you are emotionally upset with him.
  11. He acts way too cool as if having feelings is an annoying but preventable fact of life.
  12. He is defensive and gets angry quickly when you want to talk about "feelings."
  13. He would rather be in pain than be vulnerable.
  14. He is remarkably incurious about himself and you as well.
  15. He wants attention, validation, and praise because his self-worth is always contingent on the approval of others.
  16. He can be sarcastic and dismissive.
  17. He prefers sexual intimacy to emotional intimacy.
  18. When there are problems, he avoids you by working more, staying out, keeping secrets, and not wanting to face you.

You have an emotionally unavailable partner.

Being emotionally available is not just about sharing emotions. Many good men can talk enthusiastically about their favorite sports figure or hated politician.

Being emotionally available means that he will share feelings about his daily life, dreams, and fears. Being emotionally available means that he accepts all emotions, including "negative" ones, such as sadness, anger, or fear. He will voluntarily talk about what bothers him personally about you, his work, and his life.

The science behind emotionally unavailable men

Pollack, 2006, suggests that the problem with emotionally unavailable men begins with the socializing experience of a "boy code" defense mechanism. He describes a "boy code" as one that expects boys to:

  • display problem-solving skills,
  • strength, boldness and
  • achieve a high peer status.

These children are also expected to curb the expression of affection, and hide their vulnerability, or need for others (Wexler, 2009).

The code shames boys to an extreme position of "self-containment, toughness, and separation."

This "boy code" morphs into a "guy code." Young men often struggle with overwhelming emotions as they grow up and face sadness, need, or desire. The guy code leaves them unprepared to experience and express these feelings. If they lacked loving fathers and brothers as role models, only the guy code is left to guide them.

Mixed messages

Traditional male gender norms now clash with modern expectations of men as providers and caregivers. Young men today are expected to possess contradictory and confusing qualities. They are told to be strong but sensitive, independent and vulnerable, confident and humble, and stoic yet affectionate.

It presents boys with the impossible task of meeting double standards regarding male gender roles.

The importance of fathers

Researchers have claimed that the father-son relationship is one of the most critical contributors to psychological health (Atkinson, 2013). Of particular importance is the amount of affection shown by fathers to sons. Affectionate communication between fathers and sons decreases stress levels, aggression, and substance abuse. Close father-son bonds lower depressive symptoms and improve the ability to heal from depression and enhance the likelihood of seeking support (Floyd et al., 2000).

Further, a father's affection toward his son impacts his son's affective communication style later on as a parent with his own son (Floyd & Mormon, 2000). Jacobsen (2005) noted that new fathers rely on their own childhood experiences with their fathers to inform their parenting practices.

Exposure to gender socialization is inevitable. Nevertheless, especially with the presence of a loving, involved father, many boys survive the experience and go on to live healthy, productive intimate lives.

Restrictive Emotionality (RE)

Restrictive Emotionality is suppressing emotion or having difficulty sharing and articulating affect. According to O’Neil (2008):

"RE is defined as having restrictions and fears about expressing one's feelings as well as restrictions in finding words to express basic emotions." (p.367)

Multiple studies have noted the significant relationship between Gender Role Conflict (GRC) and depression among heterosexual (Good & Mintz, 1990; Magovcevic & Addis, 2005; Sharpe & Heppner, 1991; Shepard, 2002) and gay men (Blashill & Vander Wal, 2010; Simonsen et al., 2000).

GRC is associated with restricted emotional expression, depression, substance abuse, aggressiveness, violence toward women, psychopathology, marital conflict, anxiety, self-esteem, poor communication, low help-seeking behaviors, and poor quality parent-child relationships.

A review of 15 years of research (Levant & Richmond, 2007) on masculinity ideology revealed that endorsement of the traditional masculine role is associated with negative views regarding racial diversity, negative views of seeking support, interpersonal violence, sexual aggression, problems with intimacy, poor relational satisfaction, restricted affect, and alexithymia.

A summary of research spanning the past 25 years indicated that gender role conflict had been related to low self-esteem, poor intimacy, relationship dissatisfaction, sexual aggression, negative attitudes toward women and gay men, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression (O'Neil, 2008).

Research confirmed that, out of all GRC domains, Restrictive Emotionality is the most reliable predictor of psychological distress (Cournoyer & Mahalik, 1995; Good et al., 1995; Sharpe & Heppner, 1991; Shepard, 2002).

Eventually, according to the research by Levant et al. (2006) boys who embrace the "boy code" learn to not only restrict their emotional expression but their developing brains eventually become unable to consistently recognize the presence of another’s emotions and needs.

Relationship failure

Being emotionally available enables an intimate relationship to weather problems. A loving relationship requires a man to listen, express empathy, and discuss his feelings. When couples turn toward one another to talk about problems, they feel closer and have a greater emotional connection.

In contrast, emotionally unavailable partners fail to connect. They instead, internalize feelings of failure when problems arise and feel intense pressure. He doesn’t want to talk about issues. He wants to distance himself, arrive at a solution, and then present that solution in its entirety to his spouse.

This type of walling off from emotional conversations is damaging to the marriage. He withdraws and shuts down precisely when he needs to lean in and step up. This doesn’t bode well for the relationship.

What’s worse, instead of talking calmly, Moore and Stuart (2004) reported that these men follow a predictable pattern. They first withdraw and then, if pressed, become more aggressive and angrier when problems present themselves.

Helping emotionally unavailable men reconnect

Gottman's groundbreaking research in the early 90's recognized that stonewalling and emotional withdrawal are highly toxic behaviors that can stress healthy relationships to the breaking point.

Using physiological measurements, he taught these men to better regulate their blood pressure and heart rate simply using inexpensive biofeedback equipment. We continue to use these same techniques today. Instead of shutting down and withdrawing, the man is taught to calm down and to reconnect.

Communication also improved as women learned what to do when their husbands shut down emotionally. Rather than escalating the exchange, both learn the importance of separating, calming down and after 20 minutes, reconnecting. This time-limited intervention fundamentally disrupts a previously destructive pattern.

We now teach couples how to do this over a weekend.

10 Things to remember if you love an emotionally unavailable man.

1. He may never have committed to you.

Even after marriage, he may have genuine commitment issues. Emotionally unavailable men can struggle with making long-term commitments because they fear being tied down or believe they will lose their freedom. They may avoid deep emotional connections to maintain a sense of independence.

2. He has to want  to be emotionally available. 

This kind of change is inner-directed. Emotionally detached people must be willing to alter a lifelong attachment style and become available. He has to be willing to work on it with you.

3. Communicate your needs anyway.

Express your feelings and needs openly and honestly. Let him know how his emotional unavailability affects you and the relationship. Use "I" statements to avoid sounding accusatory and create a safe space for dialogue.

4. Lead by example.

Show him what emotional openness and vulnerability looks like by being authentic and transparent in your emotions. Reject accusations that you are “needy” because you express your emotions. Demonstrate healthy communication, express your own feelings, and model healthy emotional behaviors.

5. Encourage self-reflection.

Encourage him to reflect on his emotions, past experiences, and any patterns or beliefs contributing to his emotional unavailability. Help him understand the importance of emotional connection and the potential benefits of being more open and vulnerable.

6. Be patient and understanding.

Changing deep-seated emotional patterns takes time. Be patient with his progress and avoid pressuring him to change overnight. Understand that he may have fears and insecurities that need work.

7. Set boundaries to keep sane.

While you can support him, it is crucial to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. Take care of your emotional well-being and ensure you are not compromising your needs or sacrificing your happiness. His fear of intimacy should not mean that you must sacrifice your mental health.

8. Evaluate your compatibility.

It is important to consider whether his emotional unavailability is compatible with your needs and relationship goals. Be realistic about your expectations and consider if the relationship is healthy and fulfilling for you in the long term. A relationship with an emotionally distant partner can be a lonely road.

9. Understand possible payoffs

There are sometimes hidden payoffs in emotionally unavailable people. In long-term relationships dealing with emotions could be seen as exposure. Unavailable people often prefer to hide their true feelings.

10. Promote therapy or counseling.

Suggest the idea of seeking professional help. A Gottman certified couples therapist can provide an objective perspective, guidance, and tools for emotional growth. However, seeking therapy is a personal decision, and he must be willing to engage.

Remember, you cannot force someone to change or become emotionally available if they are not willing to put in the effort. Ultimately, his emotional growth and willingness to change are his own responsibility. If his emotional unavailability continues to negatively impact the relationship, it may be necessary to reevaluate your own needs and consider the best course of action for your own well-being.


Atkinson, H., 2013 (2013). Restrictive emotionality, Father-son affectionate communication, and suicidality in adolescence: A retrospective investigation. Dissertation from the Graduate School of the Texas Women's University. 

Blashill, A. J., & Vander Wal, J. S. (2010). Gender role conflict as a mediator between social sensitivity and depression in a sample of gay men. International Journal of Men’s Health, 9, 26-39. doi:10.3149/jmh.0901.26 

Cournoyer, R. J., & Mahalik, J. R. (1995). Cross-sectional study of gender role conflict examining college-aged and middle-aged men. Journal of Counseling Psychology,42,11-19. doi:10.1037//0022-0167.42.1.11 

Floyd, K., & Mormon, M. T. (2000). Affection received from fathers as a predictor of men’s affection with their own sons: Tests of the modeling and compensation hypotheses. Communication Monographs, 67, 347-361. doi:10.1080/03637750009376516 

Good, G. E., Robertson, J. M., O’Neil, J. M., Fitzgerald, L. F., DeBord, K. A., Stevens,  M. A., et al. (1995). Male gender role conflict: Psychometric properties and relations to distress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 42, 3–10. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.42.1.3 

Levant, R. F., Good, G. E., Cook, S. W., O'Neil, J. M., Smalley, K. B., Owen, K., & Richmond, K. (2006). The normative Male Alexithymia Scale: Measurement of a gender-linked syndrome. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 7(4), 212–224.

Levant, R. F., & Richmond, K. (2007). A review of research on masculinity ideologies using the Male Role Norms Inventory. Journal of Men’s Studies, 15, 130-146. doi:10.3149/jms.1502.130 

Magovcevic, M., & Addis, M. E. (2005). Linking gender role conflict to non-normative and self-stigmatizing perceptions of alcohol abuse and depression. Psychology of Men and Masculinity¸6, 127-136. doi:10.1037/1524-9220.6.2.127 

Moore, T. M., & Stuart, G. L. (2004). Illicit Substance Use and Intimate Partner Violence Among Men in Batterers' Intervention. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18(4), 385–389.

O’Neil, J. M. (2008). Summarizing 25 years of research on men’s gender role conflict using the Gender Role Conflict Scale: New research paradigms and clinical implications. The Counseling Psychologist, 36, 358-445. doi: 10.1177/0011000008317057 

Pollack, W. S. (2006). The “War” for boys: Hearing “real boys’” voices, healing their pain. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 190-195. doi:10.1037/0735-7028.37.2.190 

Sharpe, M. J., & Heppner, P. P. (1991). Gender role, gender role conflict, and psychological well-being in men. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 323– 330. doi:10.1037//0022-0167.38.3.323 

Shepard, D. S. (2002). A negative state of mind: Patterns of depressive symptoms among men with high gender role conflict. Psychology of Men & Masculinity,3, 3–8. doi:10.1037//1524-9220.3.1.3 

Simonsen, G., Blazina, C., & Watkins, C. E. (2000). Gender role conflict and psychological well-being among gay men. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47, 85-89. doi:10.1037//0022-0167.47.1.85 

Wexler, D. (2009). Men in Therapy: New Approaches for Effective Treatment. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. Kathy McMahon

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. Im a emotionally detached man and i need help working through my past to figure out how i can get back to being more emotionally connected. I know that every time i start to work on myself my partner brings up a list of failures in my life that she is bothered with and then my emotionally detached person doesn't get worked on but the other things do and that is hard for me to deal with. So if you can please come into our relationship and help us fix me first before we open up to all the other failures that my girlfriend or soon to be fiance has with me that will be awesome because i believe if i am able to be less emotionally detached then most of the other things that my fiance has against me will go away. I am the problem and i need help working on me in a group setting with my fiance present.

  2. First, I think this article was well written and helpful to begin to help folks understand the issues that can come from this sort of cognitive dissonance. I am struggling, however, with how couples can move forward here. This seems to lack responsibility taking on the male’s part. The last paragraph, particularly was upsetting — to imply that women were never expected to conform to gender stereotypes is an unfair assumption. While no one explicitly says “be a woman”, there are messages about what women are supposed to do/be that are coupled with messages like “act like a lady”. We can attempt to get clients to have a better understanding of one another without putting so much emphasis on one-sided understanding.

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