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Understanding the Allure of the Emotionally Unavailable Lover

You’re dating a really nice guy but it’s the one who got away who’s populating your dreams and you can’t pry yourself away from his Facebook, seeing what he’s up to. What is it about the guy you can’t have—the one who’s dating a friend or maybe even married, the guy you keep flirting with in the hopes that he’ll notice how truly perfect you might be together—that turns you on? Why do you keep thinking about your ex—yes, the narc in your life who left you flat when you started asserting yourself—when there are so many nicer fish in the sea? Why do you stay with the dude you bitch about to your girlfriends—the one who disappoints you once a week, the one who you’re sure will hurt you in the end—when you really know better?

Are we all just masochists at heart?

The short answer is no, but if you want to stop repeating history and get off that here-I-go-again treadmill that’s going to leave you sobbing and flattened, you’ve got to see what’s at play.

Your concept of romantic love

You’ve got this idea that true love is full of ups and downs and that passion is a like a rollercoaster, right? That, my friend, is missing with your head, not to mention your heart. You manage to focus on the hot make-up sex instead of looking at why you need to make-up to begin with. Confusing a rollercoaster ride with love is what keeps so many of us in thrall to guys who need to control their partners or those high in narcissistic traits. Could it be that the way you think of love is driving your choices? Take a moment and chill and look at what you bring to the party.

The power of intermittent reinforcement

If you ever took Intro to Psych, this may sound vaguely familiar but do you know that getting what we want some of the time makes us increase our commitment more strongly than if we get what we want all of the time? Yes, that’s why it’s so hard to leave a relationship where some of the time things are just great but, mainly, they’re not. This got spun out for years on Sex and the City with Carrie and Mr. Big but it happens all the time in real life. Just like B.F. Skinner’s hungry rats who became obsessed with a lever that delivered food pellets some of the time with no discernible pattern, we’re more likely to get stuck in emotional quicksand when our unavailable lover shows us his available side once in a while—or, better put, the side of him that seems available. That one time he doesn’t stonewall you but appears to listen becomes, in your mind, the turning point when, in truth, he’s just behaving slightly less badly than usual.

Your own emotional history

Truth 1: Not all women are attracted to emotionally unavailable men. Many believe that their needs should be met, their words answered, and think about dyadic connection which, while it may not look roller-coaster passionate on the surface, is about knowing each other’s wants. They’re not interested in unavailable men.

Truth 2: We all gravitate toward the familiar and what we learned about love in childhood carries over into our adult behaviors. If love and support were meted out sparingly or not at all in your family of origin or affection forked over only as a reward for your playing by the rules or achievement, then emotional unavailability is your default setting for what you think love looks like. If you’re used to seeing being loved as a challenge or transaction, then the just-out-of-reach lover is the one you will be drawn to. To get out of the trap, you have to be able to identify what you learned about love as a child and set about to unlearn it. For more on this, you should look at my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your life.

Tantalizing, yes, but unhappy-making too

The ancient Greeks knew all about this and gave us the myth of Tantalus from which our word “tantalizing” comes. He was punished by the gods and left to stand right next to a fruit tree and clear water; when he was hungry, the branches swayed beyond his reach and when he was thirsty, the pool would recede.  That’s pretty much what you end up with with the emotionally unavailable lover: starved for affection and parched.

Love isn’t a test. Remember that.

Photograph by SarahRichterArt. Copyright free.


Understanding the Allure of the Emotionally Unavailable Lover

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Understanding the Allure of the Emotionally Unavailable Lover. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 8 Feb 2018
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