Are you in a relationship with a man who struggles to open up about his feelings? Does he avoid emotional conversations, seem distant, or shut down when you try to connect on a deeper level? If so, you may be dating an emotionally unavailable man.

Recent psychology research sheds light on why some men have trouble being emotionally present in relationships. Studies show that traditional masculine gender norms – which expect men to be tough, stoic, and self-reliant – are linked to emotional suppression and difficulty with intimacy.[1] [2] Psychologists call this “restrictive emotionality” and it’s a key aspect of the emotionally unavailable personality style.[3]

The Roots of Emotional Unavailability in Men

Where do these emotionally aloof tendencies come from? Psychologists point to early socialization experiences that teach boys a strict “boy code” – to always appear strong, hide vulnerabilities, and curb affectionate expression. [4] [5] Boys grow up learning to shut down their emotions to meet impossible masculine standards of toughness and detachment.

Research shows the critical importance of fathers modeling and encouraging emotional openness for their sons. [6] [7] A lack of affectionate communication from dad leaves many boys ill-equipped for the emotional demands of adult relationships. Instead, they rely on the only blueprint they have – the “guy code” of self-containment and distance.

Spotting the Signs of an Emotionally Unavailable Partner

What does emotional unavailability look like in a relationship? Here are some telltale signs:

  • He prefers sexual intimacy over emotional closeness
  • He dismisses or minimizes your feelings
  • He avoids conversations about the relationship
  • He sends mixed messages – being sweet one day and cold the next
  • He keeps you at arm’s length, not letting you get too close
  • He’s uncomfortable talking about his own emotions
  • He shuts down, leaves or lashes out when there’s conflict[8]
  • He accuses you of being “too needy” when you express needs[9]

Underneath these emotionally avoidant behaviors often lies a fear of losing freedom, a need for control, or a deep-seated belief that emotions make him weak. Your guy may want intimacy, but pushes you away because it feels too frightening and vulnerable.

Why Emotional Walls Wreck Relationships

An emotionally unavailable partner can be frustrating and disheartening. You’re left feeling lonely, unimportant, and disconnected – even when you’re spending time together. His emotional walls block the kind of deep bond and secure attachment a relationship needs to thrive.

Renowned relationship psychologists, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, have found emotional responsiveness – being attuned to each other’s feelings and needs – is essential to relationship health and longevity. [10] An emotionally absent partner threatens this vital connection.

When a couple hits bumps, as all relationships do, an emotionally open approach helps navigate conflicts productively. But research shows emotionally unavailable men tend to either withdraw or get aggressive when problems arise, eroding relationship satisfaction and trust.[11]

When Emotional Unavailability Turns Manipulative

In some cases, a man’s emotional unavailability may go beyond an inability to express feelings to an unwillingness to do so. This distinction is important. An inability suggests he lacks the skills or struggles to be vulnerable, but wants to improve. An unwillingness, on the other hand, indicates a more deliberate choice to withhold emotion as a means of control or punishment.

Some emotionally unavailable men, especially those with narcissistic traits, may use their aloofness manipulatively. Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by an inflated sense of self-importance, a lack of empathy, and a deep need for admiration.[16] For these men, withdrawing affection and attention (sometimes called the “silent treatment”) is a way to punish partners who aren’t meeting their needs. If you criticize a narcissistic man or threaten his sense of superiority, he may stonewall you with cold silence to regain the upper hand.

The silent treatment is part of a broader pattern of manipulative emotional unavailability. The narcissistic man creates an inconsistent emotional climate – sometimes showering you with attention, other times ignoring you completely. This keeps you in a state of confused insecurity, always working harder to please him and win back his affection.[17] It’s a toxic cycle that preserves his power and control.

Not all emotionally unavailable men are narcissistic, but it’s important to be aware of this more pernicious dynamic. A man’s unwillingness to be emotionally vulnerable because he lacks the capacity or fears intimacy can certainly cause relationship problems. But it crosses a line into emotional abuse when he withholds affection punitively to maintain dominance over you. If you recognize these manipulative patterns, it’s best to reevaluate the relationship with the support of a therapist.

How to Support an Emotionally Unavailable Man

If you’re committed to making it work with an emotionally unavailable partner, here’s what psychology recommends:

  1. Lead with compassion. Realize his aloofness likely stems from lifelong conditioning, not a personal rejection of you. [12]
  2. Model vulnerability. Share your own feelings and emotional needs, but do so with caution with he seems perfectly capable of sharing emotions if it achieves his aims. If, however, he never shows emotion, demonstrate how it’s done. Show him it’s safe to be open.
  3. Reinforce his efforts. When he does express emotions, even in small ways, appreciatively acknowledge it. Make it a positive experience.
  4. Avoid criticism and pressure. Attacking his lack of emotional expression will only make him retreat more. Extend patience.
  5. Suggest couple’s counseling. A skilled therapist can help you develop healthier communication and ways of relating. [13]
  6. Take care of yourself. His emotional limitations don’t mean you have to suppress your own feelings. Cultivate self-compassion and attend to your emotional wellbeing, with or without him.[14]

Remember, you can encourage and invite more emotional connection, but you can’t force it. Ultimately, he must be willing to gradually break down his emotional barricades.

With commitment, compassion and professional support, it is possible for emotionally unavailable men to become more open over time. [15] But it’s also important to assess whether his current capacity for intimacy truly meets your relationship needs. You deserve to feel loved, heard and emotionally safe with your partner.


[1] Levant, R. F. & Richmond, K. (2007). A review of research on masculinity ideologies using the Male Role Norms Inventory. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 15(2), 130-146.

[2] 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(3), 358–445.

[3] Levant, R. F., Hall, R. J., Williams, C. M., & Hasan, N. T. (2009). Gender differences in alexithymia. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 10(3), 190–203.

[4] Pollack, W. S. (2006). The “War” for boys: Hearing “real boys'” voices, healing their pain. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 190-195.

[5] Reigeluth, C. S., & Addis, M. E. (2016). Adolescent boys’ experiences with policing of masculinity: Forms, functions, and consequences. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 17(1), 74–83.

[6] Floyd, K. (2014). Empathic listening as an expression of interpersonal affection. International Journal of Listening, 28, 1-12.

[7] Slade, A. (2005). Parental reflective functioning: An introduction. Attachment & Human Development, 7(3), 269-281.

[8] Gottman, J. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail: And how you can make yours last. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[9] Mahalik, J. R. (2000). Gender role conflict in men as a predictor of self-ratings of behavior on the interpersonal circle. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19(2), 276-292.

[10] Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1992). Marital processes predictive of later dissolution: behavior, physiology, and health. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(2), 221–233.

[11] Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B., & Warren, L. Z. (2005). Emotional skillfulness in marriage: Intimacy as a mediator of the relationship between emotional skillfulness and marital satisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

[12] Way, N., Cressen J., Bodian, S., Preston, J., Nelson, J. & Hughes, D. (2014). “It might be nice to be a girl… Then you wouldn’t have to be emotionless”: Boys’ resistance to norms of masculinity during adolescence. Psychology of Men & Masculinities, 15, 241-252.

[13] Snyder, D. K., Baucom, D. H., & Gordon, K. C. (2008). An integrative approach to treating infidelity. The Family Journal, 16(4), 300-307.

[14] Neff, K. D., & Beretvas, S. N. (2012). The role of self-compassion in romantic relationships. Self and Identity, 12(1), 78-98.

[15] Wexler, D. B. (2009). Men in therapy: New approaches for effective treatment. WW Norton & Company.