I used to have a thing for emotionally unavailable men. I’m not entirely sure this infatuation with emotional distance was a result of my empathic nature towards comforting and healing those who are hurting, or whether I looked to fix others because I didn’t want to do the work of fixing myself. I’m sure that either way I was avoiding some serious issues I had with loving and caring for myself the way that I (and we all) deserve. Self-love has been a long journey for me, and it’s a journey I’m still traveling. To say otherwise would be dishonest, and true growth can never come from lies—even when we dress them up really pretty.
What is at the root, though, of desiring someone unable or unwilling to fulfill one’s needs emotionally? Many will argue that our attachment to those who are emotionally absent begins at a very early age—in childhood—and is present in relationships that children have with the adults in their lives. (An adult that may be a parent, for instance, who doesn’t nurture his or her child in a loving and satisfying way.)
That emotionally starved child grows up longing for the connections they missed, and often suffer low self-esteem as a result. They become adults searching for someone to fill up their empty spaces, not realizing that the only people responsible (and capable) of filling up those spaces are themselves.
This dilemma of attaching oneself to what is unavailable is a particular issue for women, according to psychologist and author Seth Meyers. I’d argue that this issue is greater among women because we’re taught from a very early age that it’s our life’s work to win men over, melt their hearts, make them love us. Often women feel their worth is tied explicitly to getting a man to choose them. According to Meyers:
Women who fall for unavailable men have some profound insecurities and self-esteem issues, and they invest so much in pursuing unavailable men with the following unconscious motive: If the unavailable man finally comes around and commits, they’ll—at long last—have proof that they are worthy.
I don’t believe that this kind of behavior is as gender specific as Dr. Meyers suggests, but sadly for many women and also many men, this desire to attain the unattainable creates a cyclical spiral downward—one that’s often difficult to recover from. The result is that the desire for unavailable lovers becomes a dangerous behavioral pattern, one that many continue throughout their lives and then pass on to others.
So what are the signs?
One way to spot someone who’s emotionally unavailable is noticing that the person may offer vulnerability and intimacy, but only in the short term. Often, these shows of emotion are used to reel a romantic interest in, but those who lack authentic emotional availability cannot offer that intimacy consistently and at length.
An emotionally unavailable person may also be a control freak, as per marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer. Lancer writes, “Typically, commitment phobics are inflexible and loathe compromises. Relationships revolve around them.” Another interesting point Lancer makes in regard to those who are sure to be emotionally unavailable is to be mindful of those who are arrogant. “Avoid someone who brags and acts cocky, signaling low self-esteem. It takes confidence to be intimate and committed.”
But ultimately, as I’ve learned on my road to maintaining a healthy relationship rooted in reciprocity, we have to be emotionally available ourselves if we hope to attract others who are emotionally available. We must be transparent.
Writer Ashleigh Hitchcock comments that when we’re truly emotionally available, our words match our actions and others don’t have to guess who we are or whether we are being authentic. We must also, as Hitchcock notes, “be attached to our own hearts.” She writes that when a person is emotionally available he or she has “cultivated a deep, loving relationship with themselves… [and] are not needy nor clingy because they are perfectly happy with space to be themselves and give us room to do the same.”
There are other points to remember too when seeking emotionally available partners and ensuring that we’re also emotionally available, including the practice of self care and an ability to be fully present in our lives. (No escaping with or abuse of drugs or other substances.)
What may be the most important sign that we’re ready to both be emotionally available and seek a relationship with someone who is also emotionally available is taking ownership for our lives—especially where things went wrong—and being willing to repair what we’ve damaged.
Being in a relationship centered in emotional wellness requires that we’re also emotionally well. Or we could continue chasing the unattainable and living a fraction of the happy, healthy lives we deserve. It’s our call.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.