You know how it is. You meet someone at a beer garden. You start hanging out. You cruise the city on bicycles. You make bloody marys and watch “Stranger Things.” You butcher a Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga karaoke duet.
Then, after a few months, you start to wonder how you’ve spent so much time together without the emotional intimacy piece ever really progressing. You continue to attempt and win their heart, to try just a little bit harder and to hang in there just a little bit longer.
As this scenario demonstrates, we often want what, or rather who, we can’t have. This tendency can manifest itself in myriad ways. Perhaps you’re attracted to someone who is emotionally distant, is in another relationship, or lives thousands of miles away.
But what’s so alluring about the chase? And why might you continue to pursue someone who is so plainly just out of reach?
You’re mixing up anxiety and excitement.
“I’ve found that most of us have been socialized to confuse emotional unavailability with mystery and romantic intrigue because of the way love is depicted in movies,” says relationship expert and coach Theora Meonch. “Stack that with the fact that some of us grew up in households where love was practiced dysfunctionally, and you’ve got a recipe for thinking that being avoided, ignored, and not communicated with is not only normal but ‘part of love.’”
Anita Chipala, LMFT, author of “First Comes Us: The Busy Couple’s Guide to Lasting Love,” agrees. “The uncertainty created by someone who is emotionally unavailable is not excitement and passion, it’s anxiety. Being with someone who is consistent and stable can actually feel boring in the beginning, but this person may be a better fit for you emotionally.”
You want to win.
“Intermittent reinforcement,” i.e. irregular disbursements of reward, is what makes gambling so addictive. Unpredictably timed expressions of affection and attention from a would-be romantic partner are also an example of intermittent reinforcement, and they can create an addictive cycle that keeps you strung along.
Carolyn, 27, realized she’d been caught up in a chase leading nowhere after she’d moved on from a relationship with someone who was emotionally evasive and inconsistent. “I felt like dating was meant to be a whirlwind in which I was uncertain about the outcome,” she says. “This person I was seeing was flirty and noncommittal, but also did big romantic gestures to remind me they cared. I thought I was having fun, but it was more of a high than a stable feeling.”
“If someone sometimes responds warmly to your flirtatious comments, but other times doesn’t even seem to notice, and other times even seems irritated… what they’re doing is giving you intermittent reinforcement. You don’t know what reaction you’re going to get from them, like you don’t know what’s going to happen when you pull the lever on the slot machine — and that’s what gets you hooked,” says Amy Waterman, dating expert at Your Brilliance.
When a relationship becomes a game, you want to win. But chasing what you can’t have is a losing game.
You have a scarcity mindset.
Could it boil down to the economics of supply and demand? Dating coach Connell Barrett thinks so. “When something is out of reach, we want it more,” says Barrett. “It’s about the law of scarcity. Any commodity — from gold to gasoline to a would-be partner’s affection — seems more valuable when in short supply. In dating, when someone plays or is hard to get, this scarcity can make you want them more. Plus, we’re all wired to want people of high social value. So when a person you like isn’t available, you might assume it’s because they must be dating other people or partying.” In other words, you assign them more social value than you do yourself and figure that associating with them will raise your status.
It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between actual value and perceived value. Just because someone is always busy doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out of your league. Maybe they have an inflated sense of self. Or they’re bad at time management. Or they’re consumed in writing the next great American novel. Or they have no interest in getting close to anyone.
We all have the same number of hours in a day, and we make time for what and who we want to make time for. Consider making reciprocated interest a prerequisite for you spending time with someone, and watch how it changes your dating life.
You’re also emotionally unavailable.
Pursuing someone who is just out of reach is a very sneaky way to scratch the surface of intimacy without actually diving into the deep end. It’s a seemingly “safe” way to create the illusion of closeness without risking getting hurt. But putting yourself in this position is a guaranteed sledgehammer to your self-esteem. So even if it’s a slow burn, you’re going to get hurt.
“I had just gone through a painful breakup and I was still processing that loss, so I thought it wasn’t a big deal to have a relationship with someone who was already married,” says Lee, 24. “I told myself it was fine because I wasn’t even looking or ready for something serious. But it ended up eroding my confidence, and that carried over into other relationships after I finally broke it off.”
If you find yourself chasing what you can’t have again and again, there’s one common denominator, and it’s you. You have the power to take responsibility for the dynamics you choose to participate in, and you have the power to snip the string on the whole cat-and-ball-of-yarn puppet-master charade once and for all.
And maybe, if the universe smiles upon you, you’ll run into your former puppet-master at a pool party a year after you’ve cut the string. Maybe you’ll be the epitome of hot girl summer, distracted by someone else and sipping mezcal margaritas by the taco bar. Maybe you’ll be so busy enjoying what you can and do have that you’ll barely acknowledge your former puppet-master’s attempts to pull you aside for yet another frustrating, inconclusive, and cyclical conversation about why you should tie the string back together.
But like I said, there are no winners in this game. Or are there?