Someone who gets into relationships with unavailable people knows that it can feel nonsensical. Taking up with someone who is already married, or who does not want to be tied down, or who lives several thousand miles away seems so unlikely to succeed. And yet for some people that is their typical relationship scenario.
To make it even more mysterious, people who become aware of this pattern in themselves actively try combat it but still end up in dead-end relationships. They begin to think that they have some kind of supernatural way of zeroing in on people who seem available but aren’t.
What we know from working with sex addicts and love addicts
Sex addicts often choose to take up with partners or even spouses who are fundamentally unavailable. By this I mean that if they do have lasting relationships they are often ones in which they and their partner lead separate lives or where the intimacy is missing. This works well for the addict who doesn’t really want an available person. The addict leads a double life and the less connection and accountability with a significant other the easier it is to pursue the addictive sexual behavior.
Love addicts choose unavailable people in a different way. They tend to become fixated on a relationship that is mostly in their head or where it is tenuous at best. In these situations the love addict lives largely in fantasy even though they feel they very much want a relationship.
Yet sex addicts and love addicts have no monopoly on the kind of early attachment issues that underlie this self defeating process. Many people have had childhoods in which there was some kind of relational trauma. By that I mean that they experienced an insecure or otherwise inadequate attachment with a parent or caregiver. They have grown up with a deeply misguided sense of what an intimate bond is all about.
The best statement I have ever heard of how this works is: “We repeat in adulthood whatever we did to get love as a child.”
If a parent’s love is conditional on the child being violated in some way, or being seen and not heard then the child will go along with this in order to please the parent. If the parent is emotionally disengaged or unavailable then the child will try to adapt to emotional abandonment as the norm.
Some of you have no doubt read Patrick Carnes classic book on this subject The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships which deals with the ways in which early trauma repeats itself later on in our adult love relationships. People who repeat trauma bonds often find themselves being taken advantage of or even abused. In a perverse way this is what feels familiar and safe. This is what the person knows how to do.
Staying in a fantasy relationship
Like the love addict, some people with a history of relational trauma will seek out one exciting but hopeless relationship after another. It is as though they are looking for that perfect person who will make their life OK. This is sometimes an attempt to repeat the kind of relationship scenario they experienced as a child but with the hope of a different outcome. These people try to bond with partners who are exciting, important or powerful in the hope of getting what they didn’t get in childhood. This could be nurturance, validation, or devotion. And yet in picking partners who resemble their early defective bonds there is no hope of getting those needs met.
Some people deal with their intimacy issues by avoiding any relationship that could become real or committed over the long term. Closeness with another person often feels dangerous. The person is so sure that they will experience pain in a close bond (based, again, on early experience) that they make sure that they never allow themselves to get that close in the first place. This intimacy avoidance can also take the form of choosing to relate to people who are distant and remote, unaffectionate etc. These people most likely experienced some form of emotional deprivation or abandonment in their early years. They get into relationships in which the other person will reject them or leave them. But this too is a way of feeling “safe” from the vulnerabilities of real intimacy.
The way out
Changing a pattern of relating to unavailable people probably involves some serious self exploration with a counselor in which the person can confront their old fears and think about and try new behaviors. In counseling or therapy a person can look at what went wrong in their early life, grieve it, work it through and let it go. Good relationship skills can be learned but in the beginning it is a frightening new world for some.
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Last reviewed: 29 Jul 2013