Attracted to the Unavailable: 12 ways to Overcome This Self-Sabotaging Pattern

05/14/2015 07:13 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2016

© Susan Anderson May 11 2015

Why are we attracted to the emotionally unavailable? What can we do about it?
Obviously, if we lose interest as soon as someone becomes available, that won't work because we'd be forever chasing and never having a relationship. So how do we get off the hamster wheel?

I get so much feedback about this kind of pattern, that I'm digging into my files and presenting 12 ways to overcome.

Most people think they are specially equipped with radar to detect the right person - if not at first sight, at least by the second date. But a common bind for many is that they are only attracted to unavailable partners.  Their radar hones in on those who are destined to leave them in the end.  They are caught up in cycles of abandonment.

If this describes your love life, it may be that while you believe you are looking for a relationship, you are in fact seeking infatuation. When someone comes along who wants to be with you, he or she is too easy-to-get to arouse that "required level of insecurity."  If you can't feel those yearning, craving sensations, you think you aren't "in love." So you keep pursuing partners who trigger your insecurity and offer an "emotional challenge" in order to arouse the biochemistry of infatuation.
What is this chase all about?

Many people are afraid of commitment -- they fear both abandonment and engulfment. Engulfment is when someone starts to want you back and the walls close in on you. You become overwhelmed by their expectations and fear you'll have to abandon yourself completely! So to stay out of either thicket - abandonment or engulfment - you pursue unavailable partners as a way of avoiding the risk being either devastated by abandonment or strangulated by engulfment. 

Another cause lies buried in your early relationship with your parents.  Maybe you felt rejected or dismissed, or struggled to win their approval or recognition.  Now as an adult you're easily "hooked" when someone pushes these old insecurity buttons.  Another cause is low self-esteem:  You wouldn't want anyone who would want you.  You can only value them if you are in the one-down position, which makes you more easily dismissed by them, hence abandoned (again). You may stay in the vicious cycle of pursuing hard-to-get lovers in order to keep replaying the old drama - to distract yourself from your old abandonment wounds.

To break the cycle:
1. The first step is to recognize whether you have this problem.

2. Question your motives: Are you looking for the emotional high of infatuation or seeking a trusting, loving, mutual relationship? In other words are you seeking romance instead of relationship?

3. Reexamine your values about who is a "good catch." False notions about love, about what a relationship is supposed to be, and about what kind of partner to choose, may be keeping you outside of love.  Revamp your old values left over, no doubt, from high school -- the ones based on looks, money, status and the size of a person's ego, rather than on his/her capacity for love and connection.

4. Recognize that these patterns don't just go away because you've become aware of them.  You have to change behavior.  Open yourself to new truths, new values, new experiences, and new people. Do new things, new ways.

5. Make breaking this pattern a primary goal of self-improvement and therapy.  As you aim toward your higher self, you increase your capacity for mutual relationship.

6. Be suspicious of your gut -- when you feel attracted to someone, it may be because he/she is emotionally unavailable.  Your gut most likely got you into this pattern in the first place.  Your gut may be attracted to those who only seem available when they are choosing you, but when they catch you, they lose interest. As you change your values, you'll learn to bypass your gut. You'll be able to distinguish being "attracted" from being "interested" in a truly emotionally reliable partner.

7. Be suspicious of your notion that you "just haven't met the right person."  Maybe the right person came by and was too available -- and it turned you off.

8. Ask your prospective lovers how they ended their past relationships. Reading between the lines, you may be able to spot an abandoner -- someone who can't commit and who blames it on their former partners' supposed neediness in order to justify breaking up with them. We all act needy when someone we love pulls away from us.

9. Learn to tolerate being loved.  The feelings of trust, mutuality, and security are different from the intense emotional high aroused by insecurity.  After pursuing unavailable partners, being loved takes some getting used to.

10. To enhance your entitlement and reception of love, practice self-love. Use hands-on exercises that help to reverse self abandonment and inculcate self-caring actions.

11. When you find someone who is worthy of trust and commitment, rather than expect love to be an infatuated feeling that "washes over you." think of love as an action verb that involves conscious choice and caring actions.

12. Learn how to build intimacy by sharing your true self. That means that as trust sets in, you increasingly share from your true emotional self.