Dating Unavailable Men

I pursued him most of my life. Advice columns are dedicated to him. My therapy practice sees many clients attempting to loosen themselves from his grip. He is ever-elusive and ever-intriguing, and possesses a mysteriously irresistible appeal. He is The Unavailable Man.

The Unavailable Man comes in different packaging, depending on the nature of his pursuer. He might be The Married Man or The Alcoholic. Perhaps he is The Narcissist or The Loner. He could be a combination of these. But the underlying trait shared by all his mutations is that he is ultimately emotionally distant, unreliable in his feelings, and unable to commit to the pursuer the way she would like.

I am not quite certain when my pattern began, but by 11 years old I was writing longingly in a journal about being rejected by the boy I had a crush on for two years (who had never given me an ounce of indication he had any pre-pubescent reciprocal interest in me). At 24 I overlooked multiple confessions from a man who lied about his age, his job, and his marital status. When I turned 30 my boyfriend was actually in love with someone else. Pretty spectacular track record, right?

Some might argue that The Unavailable Man simply has not found the right woman to be available to, which might be the case. My primary interest is not in what makes The Unavailable Man tick, but rather, why certain women seek him out, and then quite often continue to seek him out, repeatedly, without any conscious understanding of what they are doing, or why.

While the specific reasons vary from woman to woman, the tendency to unconsciously and compulsively repeat relationship patterns is nothing new. In fact, it was given a name 100 years ago by Dr. Sigmund Freud — repetition compulsion. Repetition compulsion is considered to be one of many common defense mechanisms. When a person engages in behaviors of repetition compulsion, she is unconsciously attempting to revise and resolve a dysfunctional aspect of a primary, or central, past relationship. Most loyal followers of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory believe the primary past relationship one attempts to alter and make a complete success is that between child and parent (I tend to believe that the pattern can originate from a variety of primary significant relationships and does not have to be parental in nature). Since no parent can fulfill a child’s every need regardless of how much they may try to be present and available, inevitably there are times in which a child is left with his or her needs neglected. These incidents of neglect can range in severity from a mother not anticipating her baby’s desire to be comforted and held, to more significant behaviors of neglect such as not providing adequate nourishment or safety. According to Freud’s theory, the child internalizes the impact of these traumatic experiences (regardless of how minimal an outsider may believe them to be) and believes intuitively that she is at fault. In an attempt to control and master her own experience within this relationship, the child concludes that if he or she were different in some way – perhaps less needy or more intelligent – the neglectful experiences would cease, and the painful implications of these experiences would never be felt again (of course, all of this is negotiated by the child – and eventually the adult – outside the realms of her conscious awareness). However, since the child is not actually at fault for these experiences, nothing she does can prevent them. But she continues to try, all the way into adulthood, choosing significant relationships such as boyfriends and husbands who somehow perpetuate these patterns of dysfunction, all the while clinging to the hope that things will turn out differently and she will finally be “good enough” to have all her needs met. The Unavailable Man is the perfect potential partner for this woman, since no matter how she behaves or tries to change herself to fit his mold, the distance between them will never remit.

But there is good news. Women do not have to play out this pattern for the rest of their lives. We can develop awareness and understanding of what we are doing and why we are doing it, and then make the conscious decision to change. This process is often difficult and uncomfortable, but the payoff is hopefully that we stop getting into knee-jerk reaction relationships and instead choose relationships where we honor a more fully realized version of ourselves. My suggestion to begin this process is to first “date yourself” and then to date “beyond your ‘type.’”

To date yourself, you will invest in getting to know yourself the way you usually invest in getting to know the Unavailable Man. For many, this takes a long time since we are so used to adapting to how we perceive the Unavailable Man would like us to be. One woman I know realized after dating herself that she actually hated living in Los Angeles, and was only there because of her ex-boyfriend (currently she lives in Minneapolis and is loving her new life). A great way to begin to get to know yourself is by using the questions in a book such as 1001 Questions To Ask Before You Get Married (by Monica Mendez Leahy), which is designed for partners to ask each other. I recommend, however, that you ask these questions of yourself because you may learn you actually don’t know the answers! Keeping a journal of your feelings and incorporating more quiet time where you are not distracted from yourself by excessive stimulation or other people are two more ways you can delve more deeply into the truth of who you are, examine your usual relationship patterns (and their possible origins), and discover the qualities you seek in both yourself and an ideal partner. Once you feel you have a handle on your authentic self you may also notice you actually really like who you are. That’s when you will be more prepared to again start dating others.

Dating beyond your “type” means you will probably have to overlook men who initially attract you (as these are probably covert versions of the Unavailable Man), and instead look at men beyond your immediate lust list. At first, the experience may feel a bit like you are intentionally ignoring an itch that wants to be scratched, but if you stick with it by choosing to meet men who possess the personal characteristics you admire rather than simply gravitating towards those you customarily choose (and if you jump ship once you begin to notice signs he might actually fit the Unavailable Man bill after all), it is likely to pay off. For these are the potential husbands and not the one-night stands.

Before we started dating, I knew my husband had all the qualities I wanted in a life partner. I also knew I wasn’t quite ready to go the distance since I still had mistakes to make and work to do on myself (including plenty of therapy to help me unravel the patterns which had gotten me so hurt in the past). Luckily, he was available and interested when I decided to make my move, and the rest is history. Everyone’s path is different, but I feel strongly that through the development of insight and a commitment to change, every woman can acquire tools necessary to un-love The Unavailable Man and instead, learn to love herself and a true potential life partner.

Stephanie Stenta-James is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California, and the owner of her own practice — Growth and Change Therapy — in Los Angeles, where she sees adults, adolescents, and families. Visit for further information..
  1. Stephanie, you hit the nail right on the head! You explained this repetitive reenactment compulsion (and the way out) so clearly and in so few words! This is been a huge challenge for so many people. I have definitely been working on these patterns. And I know a woman very close to me who got out of this cycle just how you described, by going against the grain, understanding the situation, and hanging in there with a new and unfamiliar but great situation. She has been married for years to this man and has been very happy. She just had to hang in there with a guy who was different from all the past unavailables. The discomfort is great but well worth it when you find somebody who can be present, loving and devoted. Great article. Best of luck with your practice!

    Michael Pearson is a therapist working at the Department of Mental Health and knows Stephanie from their work together helping severely emotionally disturbed teens in residential psychiatric programs. If any of you need a great therapist, call Stephanie!

  2. I have ended a relationship recently to an Unavailable Man….. I am still emotionally attached to him and wonder why he changed but I have come to realize he did not change, he remained the same distant detached selfish man that he was when we met. A good lesson learned and a hope an easy habit to break.

  3. I understand the concept. My problem is that I cannot be with someone I’m not physically attracted to. Most of the guys I find attractive are narcissists. But being with someone that is unattractive for the sake of being in a good relationship sounds like settling. I rather be alone. But I will start doing the dating myself part, sounds like a great idea to get to know yourself. Thanks, that was a great read.

  4. Thank you!! This is me to a T. I want to break the pattern , not to have a relationship but to get myself back and to be truly happy. I’m in Hawaii can you recommend a therapist?

  5. I think you said everything that a woman like me needs to hear. What attracts me unconsciously is the challenge of changing his mind from the state of unavailability to available but damn it never happens. I’m dating someone now who is totally different from what I’m used to even much older. If he starts showing signs that he’s not emotionally available I’m out. And boy do I know the signs. That was a wonderful post. Thank you

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