I'm drawn to unavailable guys

I know it's not healthy, and he insults me and makes me lose my self, but I can't get away from him

By Cary Tennis

Published December 15, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I had always thought I knew who I was until I discovered my weakness: emotionally unavailable men. Let me start by saying that I have a wonderful, close family and grew up secure in the knowledge that I was loved for who I was. On top of that, both my parents spent a combined 30 years in religious life before they met each other and got married, and now both are marriage and family therapists. Needless to say, I grew up a self-reflective, spiritual person.

I went to a Catholic all-girls' high school, so dating was effectively out of the question and I had lots of time to focus on my studies and get to know myself really well, apart from what any guy might see. By the time I graduated high school, I had come to define myself as an independent, intelligent, compassionate woman for others. I knew that I didn't know everything, but I have always been a willing and eager listener, so I knew that my open-mindedness would serve me well in life.

It wasn't until I went to college that I realized how sheltered I had been. I know most people get that shock in college, but the thing that struck me was not that I was suddenly surrounded by people with different points of view -- it was that I became enchanted by close-minded guys who were the opposite of me in almost every way. There were two guys whom I would get into long arguments with, and though they were very different people, they had several things in common: they were intelligent, articulate, authoritative, close-minded and sometimes mean. I've always been an easy butt of jokes, but they would pick on me constantly, and though most of the time it was all in good fun, it frequently crossed the line. It took me a while to realize it, but I was genuinely trying to express my opinion while they were baiting me for their amusement and not listening. My rational side told me to cut ties with them, and I finally did, but it took a long time because at various points throughout our friendship, I had had very strong romantic feelings for both of them.

Fast forward to a few months out of college when I'm starting a new job. I meet some great friends and we start hanging out together quite frequently -- and then I meet my friend's roommate. Cary, he is like the two of these guys combined and then some. Not only is he one of the most intelligent people I've ever met, he knows things I didn't even know I didn't know. He also is in a band, which is something I've wanted for myself for a long time, and he has a way of turning a phrase that makes your spine tingle. I've always considered rhetoric to be my strong suit, so the last part was particularly exciting. He has a former-bad-boy thing going for him, too. We would get into long conversations, and I would learn a lot and stay open-minded, and was excited by this new, different person in my life. And then it all went to hell.

When I was first getting to know him, I was largely unconcerned with him, but then I realized all at once that I was almost obsessed with him. I've never been good at hiding my emotions, so I know he knew I had feelings for him, and then he started being extremely cruel to me to push me away. He would insult me in large groups of people, he would point out in front of me what he found attractive in girls (qualities I didn't have), and try to drive a wedge between my sister and me (who was also briefly interested in him). I know this guy is emotionally manipulative and unavailable, but in spite of everything about my well-being that I hold dear, I still want him in my life. I had thought that his cruelty would be my rock-bottom, but I'm scaring myself by wanting to ignore that time period and maintain a friendship. Things have gotten better between us, but they are still on thin ice. One day he's charming, the next he's dismissive. I find myself constantly seeking his approval even though I know I should give up caring whether I'll get it. He used to tell me I was his example of what a woman should be, but that praise has long since stopped. His voice is always in my head.

My therapy-ridden upbringing tells me that trying to be his friend is a no-win situation that I should pull out of, but we're involved in organizations together now, and we have to see each other on a regular basis.

I have little relationship experience, and sometimes think I was loved too much as a child, which is possibly why I seek adversity in romantic relationships. I don't want to give up the activities we're involved in together, but how do I maintain my sense of self around such an overbearing person? How do I break the pattern of wanting what I can't have?

Needing a Kick in the Pants

Dear Needing a Kick,

You seem to be playing a dangerous game by not acknowledging even to yourself what is going on. So I will reflect back to you what it sounds like to me, and ask you to please consider whether there could be some truth in this.

It sounds to me like your erotic shadow self is emerging to do battle with your psychological and religious beliefs. This shadow self wants to submit but also to dominate. It wants a challenge; it revels in power but also fears power; it wants to assert itself in a contest, to test itself against an attractive adversary, to conquer or be conquered.

You say this man insults you and ignores you and you feel you lose your self, and at the same time you are drawn to him. Part of you, surely, wishes to lose your self, and there is a healthy, consensual way to lose the self in a trusting erotic encounter. But there is also a way that an erotic power struggle turns brutal and violent. If you had grown up around men like this you might be able to read his signals; the fact that you have been sheltered and don't seem to understand how you are being manipulated and how you are manipulating him raises danger signals.

My guess is that the man you are attracted to sees you all too clearly. He sees what you want and he sees you pretending not to want it and it make him angry. He is trying to get through to you by being mean. He is trying to break down your facade, trying to get into your head. And he has succeeded. But he couldn't do that if you weren't locked in a struggle with him.

I wonder if it is possible for you to get some therapy specifically in the realm of your erotic awakening and this shadow self. I suggest you find a therapist who is nothing like your parents, one grounded in sexuality and the body, one who comes at things from the dark side, who is earthy, messy, unintellectual, rooted in the paradox of sexuality and its anarchic pleasures.

Cary Tennis

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