Why Am I Attracted To Emotionally Unavailable Partners? 7 Reasons For This Pattern
"You know what, I think I might just really like dating jerks," I told my sister. I was going through a tough breakup, and her front porch just happened to be the place where I finally reached this somewhat depressing level of self-awareness. "I make poor choices with men," I continued. My sister's response of wide-eyed silence confirmed what I already knew. Part of the reason I keep having negative experiences with men is the fact that I'm attracted to bad boys, or guys that aren't emotionally available.
I know I'm not alone in this self-sabotaging attraction — there are a multitude of reasons why you may be attracted to someone who doesn't have the emotional capacity for commitment. Whether it be that you like the challenge, or you secretly don't want commitment yourself, dating someone who isn't emotionally available can become a pattern.
"An emotionally unavailable person is someone who feels extreme discomfort with sharing and developing a healthy bond or attachment with someone else," Rachel Perlstein, dating coach and co-founder of A Good First Date, tells Bustle. They may be guarded, not open to emotional support, or inconsistent in your relationship, Perlstein says. They may even seem to warm up to you for a while, only to retreat back when you start to become close or vulnerable.
While you may be OK with playing games and keeping things at a distance, if you truly want to form a deep connection with someone, you don't have to be stuck in this dynamic. Here are seven reasons you may be seeking emotionally unavailable people, and how to break the pattern, according to experts.
1. You Don't Think Love That Lasts Exists
If the mantra you have playing in your head is particularly negative, that can definitely contribute to a pattern of dating emotionally unavailable people. Oftentimes, people seek out others who can't be there for them because they don't believe they deserve it, or that this type of relationship actually exits. If this is your understanding of yourself, this form of negative self-talk can lead to relationships that may not be emotionally reciprocated.
"We tend to repeat a pattern [of dating emotionally unavailable people] because it matches some core understanding of ourselves (I’m not good enough or lovable enough) or it may match our understanding of relationships, which comes from our parents’ relationship," Michelle Baxo, an international love coach and dating/relationship expert, tells Bustle.
For instance, your first example of a relationship growing up was likely your parents'. Baxo says that experiencing issues like parents getting divorced can set a precedent for what you think a healthy relationship looks like. As a result, she says, you may look for things that will inevitably fail because that is what your parents showed you.
Baxo also notes that self-worth, just as much as your parents' example, plays a factor. If you sincerely believe that you don't deserve a love that lasts, chances are you are going to look for emotional unavailability.
2. You May Be Trying To "Fix" Them
Sometimes, when you meet someone who doesn't seem emotionally available at first, you may feel hope that they will change. This may be the case for some, but it's important to distinguish when you are hoping that they will change, and when they have actually made a commitment to forming a solid connection. When the former is the case, it can lead to a codependent relationship where you are trying to change your partner and find validation that they care for you, simultaneously.
"A person can be drawn to dating emotionally unavailable people if they are too care-taking," Katie Ziskind, LMFT, RYT 500, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, yoga therapist, and owner of Wisdom Within Counseling, tells Bustle. "[This can be] dysfunctional in a relationship because it leads to codependency. Being a people-pleaser, always needing the approval of your partner, and care-taking too much, takes away from your healthy sense of self and leaves you drained."
Because you may feel the obligation to help your partner, but also want them to show gratitude and love back, it can become a vicious cycle if they are unable to give it. If you are having difficulty breaking it, it may be a good idea to speak with loved ones or a mental health professional.
3. You Like The Challenge
For some, the mystery that comes with the first stages of dating can be incredibly enticing. But as time goes on, you will likely want things to progress and land on more secure footing regarding your relationship. If your partner continues to keep you on the hook, without any promises of truly committing, you may be sticking it out because you like the challenge.
"We date emotionally unavailable people because we are attracted to the small nuggets of attention or signs that the person cares for us," therapist Charese L. Josie, LCSW, of Counseling and Consulting Services, tells Bustle. "That can be as simple as the person responding to our calls or text messages. If the person initiates it, this heightens our desire for more."
Because we want to feel wanted, Josie says we may continue on with a person in hopes that we receive that attention. But because they dole it out so rarely, it can leave you wanting more and feeling unsatisfied. If this is the case for you, it's important to ask yourself if you really are looking for commitment, or you're content with the mystery and flirtation that comes with a fling. There's nothing wrong with either, just be honest with yourself.
4. Your Parents May Have Been Emotionally Unavailable
Let's bring it back to the parents again — since they set the example for your relationships, you're likely to carry that with you, whether that be a good thing or a bad thing. And if your parents were the type to make you work for their love, it could result in you seeking out emotionally unavailable people in other relationships.
"One of the reasons we might be attracted to emotionally unavailable people is because one or both of our parents was emotionally unavailable," therapist Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC, tells Bustle. "We model, make sense, find comfort, and base our assessments of the world on our childhood experiences [...] we seek situations and people who feel similar, comfortable and familiar and who reinforce our past experiences."
Cush says that children who may have been neglected by their parents eventually learn that this type of interaction is "normal." As a result, they may struggle to connect with people who are genuinely interested in a relationship. If this is the case for you, speaking with a therapist can really help to break this cycle of thinking.
5. Your Attachment Style May Be To Blame
According to Psychology Today, your attachment style is the way you behave in relationships based on the model your parents displayed for you when you were young. There are four types but the ones that are most likely to engage in this type of dynamic are people with anxious/preoccupied attachment styles, and dismissive/avoidant avoidant attachment styles. Anxious/preoccupied people often do not feel security in their relationships, so they may crave that validation from their partners. Dismissive/avoidant people, on the other hand, may push people away or shut down emotionally in vulnerable situations.
"There's a relationship cycle called both the pursuer/distancer and the demand/withdraw cycle," Tara Vossenkemper, individual and couples therapist and owner of The Counseling Hub, tells Bustle. "[In this dynamic] one person chases and leans into pressure, while the other keeps distancing and leaning out of pressure." And this, Vossenkemper says, can be a product of our attachment style. "[...] Emotionally distant people (distancers) typically have dismissive/avoidant attachment styles whereas pursuers typically have an anxious/preoccupied attachment style."
If you find you are constantly engaged in this cycle as the role of pursuer, it may be a good idea to speak to a professional about how to form a more secure attachment style.
6. You Think You Can Change Things
Similar to wanting to "fix" a person, you may be attracted to someone who is emotionally unavailable because you think you can change the situation. And the less affection or validation you get from someone, the more you may be able to create an image in your head of what things could be, rather than how things actually are.
"Emotionally unavailable people do not provide us with much feedback or interaction," Heather Lyons, licensed psychologist with the Baltimore Therapy Group, tells Bustle. "This ambiguity can heighten our anxiety and act as somewhat of a blank slate onto which we can project not only our fears but also our wishes for a relationship. In this case, our backgrounds usually inform our projections."
Once again, Lyons says that parents may have a role to play here. If you grew up with parents who were there for you, and offered you a sense of security, you may have a more optimistic outlook on things. That doesn't mean things won't work out, but it's important to be true to yourself. If someone isn't giving you what you want, it may be time to move on.
7. Past Relationships Made You Feel Like You Don't Deserve Better
If you've been hurt in the past in any relationship, it may reinforce the idea for you that that's how relationships are supposed to be.
"If you don't feel worthy of someone showing up in a nurturing, kind, consistent or emotionally available manner, having someone be absent or not completely there may feel more comfortable," Perlstein says.
Similarly, relationship expert and spiritual counselor Davida Rappaport, tells Bustle that previous experiences have a way of creeping up into your life now. "When someone has been in bad relationships in the past and may have been hurt badly, they may close up and be afraid to date or get involved with someone again," Rappaport says. "Even though they want love and want to be in a committed relationship, they may often date people who are emotionally unavailable and unwilling to work on a relationship."
This could be a defense mechanism, because deep down you're afraid to get hurt again. Or, you may be sticking to what you know. Either way, you don't have to continue to pursue people who are not open to committing to you.
"They key to breaking this cycle is awareness and advocacy for self," Dea Dean, LPC, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Bustle. "While you may be in a familiar relationship with an emotionally unavailable partner, you’re no longer the child who didn’t have the tools or agency to speak for yourself. If you are partnered with a safe person, this could be a powerful opportunity to truly move through wounds from the past, into healthy, balanced and intentional new roles."
There is potential for you to have a happy and healthy relationship with a truly committed partner. With the help of some loved ones, and potentially therapy, you can get there.
This post was originally published on May 17, 2016. It was updated on June 4, 2019. Additional reporting by Kristin Magaldi.