Why do I seem to date only unavailable men?

Who's choosing who?

Published December 1, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I know a thousand other women have this problem, and yet I have no solution; my problem is with unavailable men. I seem to date them religiously -- not because I'm choosing them, at least not consciously -- they just appear in my life. Every time I start a new relationship I'm excited about it, I'm interested in him, I put a lot into making the relationship work -- and then I discover that he's not that committed, that he only really wanted me when I was dating someone else, that once he got my attention he didn't want it anymore.

My current interest is a case in point; he and I became friends when I was dating someone else. We connected instantly; we talk about everything, and I talked to him about the problems I was having in my relationship, which was falling apart really fast. I didn't want to start anything new quite yet -- though I knew that he had feelings for me. At a party at my house he got drunk and made quite a spectacle of laughing at my jokes and making me the central focus of his attentions.

I went away for a month, and when I came back it was clear to everyone that I had moved past my breakup. My new interest has been distant since I've been back.

I know I should talk to him about it. I'm sure I must be encouraging this trend in some way or another and honestly I don't really care why this is happening. I just want it to stop -- I want to date nice and smart men without wondering how they feel about me, what kind of "I want you"/"I don't want you"/"I want you"/"I don't" game we're playing, and what the rules are. I have no idea what to do differently. Can you help me?

Lost in Game Land

Dear Lost in Game Land,

Sometimes what we call "unconscious" motives are not deeply buried drives or the ghosts of childhood trauma, but merely inconvenient facts we would rather not acknowledge. So when you say you are not choosing these men, at least not consciously, I believe you. But what if -- just for the sake of speculation -- you actually wanted to have a series of short sexual relationships that are invariably terminated by the other party? It is a perfectly reasonable thing to want. It has considerable advantages over other more protracted entanglements. You go out with a lot of men whose attractiveness and suitability have already been attested to by others. You have a lot of fun and you don't have to initiate the breakup. No one pressures you to marry. No one suggests you alter your life to suit his requirements. In other circumstances, you might find yourself wishing for just such men.

If you wanted such a thing there would be various reasons not to admit it openly. You may have been taught -- and may believe in your heart -- that the energetic pursuit of brief sexual liaisons with men is not becoming to a lady. You may also realize that becoming known as a woman who seeks such liaisons might hurt your success in achieving them -- that is, if you get a reputation as a slut, men will avoid you. So, if you were above average in intelligence and quick to intuitively grasp the situation, you might find yourself dating the kind of men you want to date, but prevaricating a little about the exact circumstances under which each of these events comes to a conclusion.

Let's try an experiment: What would your friends and family say if you told them that you just wanted to fool around for a while, that you didn't really want a steady boyfriend? What would they say if your heart got broken? Could this pattern be a way of avoiding talking about what you really want, and avoiding the letdown of not getting it?

And how do we come to this spot where we cannot be ourselves, where we must have "unconscious" reasons for doing what we do? What does it mean to say we know there is a reason we are doing something but we cannot or do not want to know what the reason is, that we don't have time for that, that we just want it to stop? The farther down we go, the closer we get to that primal directive: Thou shalt not know thyself. And why not? What could be the harm in knowledge? Knowledge might upset the way things are. So people hide the fact that they are gay, or atheist, or nonmonogamous, or a boy trapped in a girl's body, or simply not all that interested in medieval history: Whatever we know we are not supposed to be, we feel some slight pressure to hide from ourselves, and thus must make a concerted, and consequently often clumsy, effort to proclaim it: I'm here, I'm queer, and I'm not majoring in medieval history no matter what my grandfather did!

I'm not saying you don't have a problem. Right now you find this a baffling and painful pattern, and would like it to change. OK. You can change it.

But keep in mind what you may have to give up. There is often a reason that one man has a string of girlfriends and is thus unavailable, while another man remains available. The man with the string of girlfriends may be more attractive and more fun. He can afford to live as he does because experience has shown him that there will always be more women interested in him. So there is little cost to him in remaining largely unavailable; he knows women will still take a chance on him. Likewise, there is a reason the man who is available is available: He's not all that desirable.

If you want the unavailable man, but on your terms not his, you may have to compete with other women who want him too but don't care if he is available or attached, who simply want to have some fun. If you attach yourself to such a man, you may then find yourself in the unenviable position of trying to both hold onto him as he is and also change his social habits.

So here are some common-sense things you can do to stop dating unavailable men: Don't date any man who is already in a relationship. Only date men who are single. Second, don't date any man while you yourself are in a relationship. Only date men while you yourself are single. Third, don't date any man who doesn't seem to really like you a lot. Fourth, don't date any man that you don't really like a lot yourself. Fifth, don't have sex right away. Wait a little longer than you usually do.

If you do as I suggest, you will probably date fewer unavailable men; in fact, you will probably date fewer men in general. You also might find that the men you do date are placing demands on you. If he has remained available for a long time, he might very much want to become permanently unavailable, i.e., through marriage. If your feelings for him are not sufficiently strong, it might be you this time who has to do the breaking up. And while you are dating the available man, and thus remaining unavailable, you might meet a man who's more fun, and you might have to pass up on the opportunity to enjoy his company.

We often overlook the advantages of our situation and focus on the one thing that seems wrong. When you weigh all this, you may choose to maintain things as they are. On the other hand, you may discover in yourself a true desire to settle down. You're the only one who can decide.

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