If you don’t know what it’s like to be attracted to someone who’s emotionally unavailable, let me tell you—you’re not missing out.
The loops of confusion, doubt, anger and sadness that come with fancying someone who “isn’t ready for a relationship” (or is already in one) are hardly ever worth it. But it may be convenient for people who are, themselves, unable to commit. For one thing, being attracted to emotionally unavailable people allows you to feel all the rainbows and butterflies of infatuation without actually risking anything or putting in the effort to build a relationship. It can feel safe because, realistically, nothing can or will happen. And if something does, then it happens against all odds and expectations.
But for the most part, being attracted to someone who likely won’t reciprocate can just be demoralizing. It can reinforce feelings of worthlessness and create dangerous emotional and behavioral loops.
“We start to create or reinforce narratives or stories about ourselves, on whether or not we deserve love,” said Philippines-based psychologist Mara Yusingco. “Pursuing [unavailable] people will feed that loop.”
If you do know what all this is like, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that, according to Yusingco, it’s likely you attract all kinds of people, not just unavailable ones. The bad news is that you likely tend to respond more to the unavailable ones.
One big factor, said Yusingco, are people’s relationships with their caregivers in early childhood. These relationships become the models for people’s relationships as adults. For instance, if your parents’ relationship with each other, or with you, was detached, then you will likely take that detachment as a format for other important relationships. As an adult, you will look for the same detachment and think it’s love.
“If a caregiver or parent is unavailable, then the sense of neglect, abandonment, or maybe anxiety that’s associated with the parent or caregiver who’s unavailable is actually what we become comfortable with,” said Yusingco. “So when we date or when we look for people, even friends, we tend to feel safe even if we’re anxious and scared and nervous in the relationship.”
Growing up with too much of the opposite may have the same effect. Yusingco explained that people who grew up with over-involved parents might also find themselves averse to too much availability, leading them to be attracted to people who aren’t available.
Of course, it might not always be your parents’ fault. It could also be one bad romantic relationship that defines the way you approach other relationships. The way mainstream media sometimes presents love and relationships might have fucked you up, too.
Yusingco pointed to the romanticized and popularized concept of “changing people for the better,” or the idea that a person can make someone love them. Think: Blair Waldorf’s on-off relationship with toxic playboy Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl.
“Messaging like that can trick people into thinking relationships with unavailable people can work,” she said.
A lot of these things don’t register consciously, added Yusingco. This contributes to the sense of being stuck “repeating history” or getting into the same types of doomed relationships many people claim to have.
Now, people don’t necessarily go out of their way to be attracted to those who are emotionally unavailable. It’s just something you get used to after a couple of times, until it eventually feels safe—a pain that’s already familiar. Sticking to it saves you from the possibility of experiencing new kinds of pain, explained Yusingco, like rejection from someone who isn’t emotionally unavailable.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything about it.
If you start to notice an unhealthy pattern in the people you’re attracted to, Yusingco advised taking an honest look at your past relationships—and yourself. She said that being attracted to people who are emotionally unavailable might be a reflection of how people feel about themselves.
“Sometimes, you might be projecting your own sense of unworthiness or not deserving of being loved to the people that you date… That’s what you feel for yourself, and that’s why you tolerate certain behaviors that you’re not supposed to be tolerating.”
Other times, you might be just as unavailable as the people you fancy. According to Yusingco, people can think they want commitment while also being afraid of intimacy. Getting lost in an attraction with someone who’s not available can be the perfect storm for that ship.
It’s also a good idea to decide on your wants, needs, non-negotiables, and red flags in a relationship—and hold yourself accountable for that list.
For example, you might decide that you want and need someone who is consistently there for you. Holding yourself accountable means giving someone whom you might not be initially attracted to a chance, if only because that someone could potentially offer that consistency.
You might also decide to treat unavailability as a red flag (as opposed to, say, a challenge). This means quickly dropping all romantic hints and hopes for someone who you know is emotionally unavailable.
Breaking the pattern can be difficult, and can open people up to new risks and unfamiliar pains. But if you really want to do it, Yusingco offered a final tip:
“See people for what they present you, and what they really are. Not what you think they could be if you fixed them. A lot of times, people show the [red] flags—inconsistent replies, not asking you out. That’s what they are. Is that what you need?”
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