What Causes People to Be Emotionally Distant?

Written by kay tang
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What Causes People to Be Emotionally Distant?
Lack of coping mechanisms for anger and disappointment can lead to emotional distance. (Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images)

People can be emotionally distant for numerous reasons, including childhood conditioning, chemical dependence, compulsions, stress or unfulfilled needs. Emotional availability often depends on a person's sense of security and self-worth. Secure people understand their feelings and needs as well as how to communicate their needs and show affection to others. Insecure people may exhibit various defence mechanisms that shield them from rejection, thereby creating emotional distance in relationships.

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Past Conditioning

Children of indifferent parents may experience insufficient emotional connection and lack of guidance. They tend to withdraw, becoming emotionally self-sufficient and push others away. While some people react to this type of upbringing by becoming over-involved in their spouses' or children's lives, others repeat their parents' behaviour patterns. In addition, men are typically conditioned to focus more on performance than relationships. They seek solutions to problems while women prefer to examine the ramifications of issues. This gender gap may affect interpersonal exchanges, resulting in a man's evasive manoeuvres and a woman's needy pursuit for intimacy.

Substance Abuse

People addicted to chemicals such as alcohol, drugs or sugar will grow emotionally unavailable. They require substantial space to continue uninterrupted use of the chemical. Relationships become peripheral to their addiction. Substance abusers may become cold and distant, responding to questions with sharp retorts and ignoring the needs of others. They typically refuse to discuss feelings, needs or issues relevant to their partners or children. People locked in the grip of compulsions may exhibit similar behaviour. Workaholics may not sacrifice the time and energy required for intimate relationships.


Overwhelmed by anxiety, illness, work or fear, some people may not have the emotional resources to handle both stress and intimate relationships. They may become less available to acknowledge or accommodate the needs of others. Some people are unable to reach out for help, expect perfection in their own performances or seek to avoid making mistakes. These self-made rules may inhibit emotional connection with others. Still others require the adrenalin rush resulting from relentless stress to feel alive.


Withholding affection may be a manipulative tactic used to force a partner to open up and become more loving. If the distant partner inflicts enough discomfort and pain, the other partner may respond. Such tactics are characteristic of a couple locked in a power struggle. They're unable to communicate their needs in a direct way and resort to passive-aggressive methods to interact. In addition, one partner may shut down when subject to excessive emotional demands by the other partner.

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