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Key Early Red Flags of an Emotionally Unavailable Partner

Research on love-bombing, empathy, and micro-abandonments.

Key points

  • Most people are validating and supportive at the beginning of a new relationship.
  • Love-bombing may feel like emotional attunement and empathy, but it is not.
  • Idealizing a person may prevent them from being their true self in the relationship.

Almost everyone seems emotionally available at the beginning of a relationship. A new partner usually makes a concerted effort to listen, support, and validate you, and is usually complimentary and encouraging.

However, positive attention and love-bombing are different from empathy and emotional attunement. The latter two involve a partner who resonates with your feelings in order to truly understand. A partner who naturally recognizes your emotional state and seeks to sincerely comprehend your internal world may be emotionally attuned and empathic. Conversely, a partner who immediately “jumps on your team” may seem supportive but may, in fact, be a problem in the long run.

For example:

An empathic partner may resonate with your feelings regarding a problematic parent, “You are really hurt. You have every right to be. You do not deserve that. I would feel the same way.”

An idealizing partner may say, “Your mom is so selfish. She has no right to do that. If she cannot see how wonderful her daughter is, then she does not deserve to have you in her life. Don’t talk to her anymore. It just upsets you.”

Although both partners provide validation, they do so in different ways. The first partner recognizes your hurt and honors it. Their focus is on you and what you feel. Because they “get it,” you feel connected to them and less alone in your plight. Conversely, the other partner rushes to exalt you and vilify the individual who hurt you. Instead of understanding, the partner seeks to fix the problem by telling you what to do. One partner empathizes and the other idealizes.

A significant other who idealizes you in the beginning of a relationship usually puts you on a pedestal. However, viewing you as perfect and flawless may be defensive. Instead of getting to know who you truly are, the partner may view you unrealistically, as the version the partner wants, not who you really are. In place of authentically connecting, empathizing, and seeing you in a balanced way, with both lovable strengths and weaknesses, the partner maintains you at a distance as “perfect.”

Also, being idealized may be a setup. You may feel like you cannot really be yourself for fear of disappointing your partner. Censoring opinions and shutting down feelings may become your norm. Slowly, you may begin to cater to the partner’s idealized image of who you are instead of being you. This may create feelings of guilt and shame because it may feel as though you are hiding something.

In addition, you may intuitively sense that your partner’s love is not solid. Aspiring to remain “perfect” to avoid rejection and disapproval may create anxiety. Often an emotionally unavailable partner uses idealization and devaluation in tandem to gain emotional control.

If you fail to satisfy your partner, the partner may emotionally abandon you. Treating you with indifference and disdain, the partner may passive-aggressively withdraw from you. This may last for hours or days, but every minute that passes may feel torturous. Suddenly withdrawing love, affection, and even contact from you may be emotionally traumatizing and compel you to clamor to re-establish the connection. This cycle may continue, and the series of micro abandonments may significantly impact your mental health.

The partner uses this cycle of idealization and devaluation to control you, and all the while, shames you for attempting to be who you really are and articulating opinions and feelings that the emotionally unavailable partner does not like.

You may wonder, at this point, how you got into a relationship like this because the partner seemed so emotionally available and enamored at the beginning of the relationship. Yet, it is possible they were not emotionally available and never were, they may have just seemed that way. Although you may feel regret for failing to see the dysfunction more quickly, the scenario is very common. It is difficult to recognize emotional abuse when you are being actively manipulated. Often you may not realize the extent of the mistreatment until you are clear of it.

Recognizing the subtle but distinct difference between idealization and empathy may be critical when pursuing a healthy and long-term relationship. Although being validated and supported is critical, ultimately a partner who empathizes instead of fixes may be the “real deal.”

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