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Wellness > Mental Health

Emotional Unavailability Can Exist In Friendships, Here’s How To Handle It

So. you’ve got an emotionally unavailable friend… I’ve been there, and it’s beyond frustrating. You may be feeling stuck, like you’re putting a lot into a relationship without getting anything in return. When it comes to emotional intimacy in friendships, it’s hard to find that healthy medium between sharing too much (which can turn into trauma-dumping) and too little (aka, emotional unavailability). 

If you’re wondering what it means to be emotionally unavailable, you’re not alone. Emotional unavailability shows up in people who are unable to form meaningful emotional connections with others: They might self-sabotage by putting walls up, so they don’t get close to other people. These are people who shy away from intimate relationships or conversations, and they have a hard time allowing themselves to be vulnerable with other people. Most of us associate being emotionally vulnerable with romantic relationships, but it’s just as important in your friendships — which is exactly why it’s so hard to deal with.

For these types of people, the fear of intimacy is so real that it creates a distance between you and your friend — and that can feel discouraging. So, I spoke to Jennifer Turek, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, to find some ways to cope with these kinds of friendships.

Be aware of the signs.

There are a few signs that you can look out for in someone who may be emotionally unavailable. “A lot of times they might be defensive, like when you try to bring things up,” says Turek. “You might also notice some insecurity in general.”

Additionally, Turek says that they have difficulty committing to the relationship. Meaning, they might seem very hot and cold: Some days they may seem invested in the friendship and give it their full attention, while other days, they might neglect you completely. They are often uncomfortable talking about their feelings, either about themselves or about their feelings within that friendship.

Be patient with them.

Not everyone who is emotionally unavailable is toxic! It’s a defense mechanism that you can’t always control. Your friend might be dealing with a lot of their own mental health struggles, and they might not have the emotional bandwidth to take on anyone else’s for the time being.

It’s hard to deal with someone who is closed off without letting resentment creep in. It can feel really personal, like they are intentionally shutting you out. But try to approach the situation with empathy. They might have had a previous relationship that really damaged their ability to trust people. They may not feel safe enough to open up, or they might just be slow to. 

“I think you can respect someone’s boundaries and you can always try to start the conversation,” Turek says. “But you also need to know when it’s time to step back to secure your own mental health.” 

Emotional intimacy might come naturally for some people, but for others, it can be an extremely difficult hurdle in their relationships. Everyone comes to friendships with different experiences, and emotional unavailability is just one way that trauma can manifest. It can’t be undone overnight! Just don’t let those reasons keep you stuck in an unfulfilling friendship.

Make sure they know you’re a safe person for them to come to.

If you decide to try to get your friend to open up, approach these conversations gently. Turek says that people who are emotionally unavailable can be defensive. These conversations might require vulnerability on your part. 

“You, as the other friend, have to be willing to open yourself up to them and know that it might not go the way that you wanted it to,” Turek tells Her Campus. “Just be prepared, as prepared as you can be for that conversation, because that’s difficult! Before you go to your friend to have this conversation, also get in touch with yourself to make sure that you’re in a place where you’re able to be emotionally available with them.”

Know when it’s time to let go of the friendship.

At the end of the day, you need to do what’s best for both of you. If emotional intimacy is one of the most valuable parts of your friendships, it’s not fair for you to be friends with someone who shuts you out. Remember, you’re not their therapist! It’s not your job to “fix” them or bend over backward trying to get them to open up to you — your friend’s behavior is out of your control.

Turek suggests that there may be instances where this friend is just somebody that you have things in common with, and that might be the whole purpose of that friendship. For example, maybe you work out together or they’re someone who you can laugh with, and the lack of emotional intimacy is not damaging to the friendship.

“I think it all depends on how it’s affecting your mental health,” says Turek. “If that friendship gives you a lot of emotional insecurity and you find yourself spending a lot of time trying to fix the relationship or trying to meet the needs of that person, then I do think it’s time to step away from it.”

However, Turek also acknowledges that stepping away from a friendship is very difficult, especially if you have invested a lot of time into it. So take care of yourself in the process. You know yourself best — spend some time really thinking about how this friendship is serving you.

Julia is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh studying Media and Professional Communications with a minor in Gender, Sexuality, & Women's Studies. She loves to go thrifting, grab a coffee with friends, and go on walks with her dog!