top of page

why we want what we can't have in love

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

It's a game that no one wins.

You know how it is. You meet someone at a beer garden. You start hanging out. You cruise the city in a busted Corvette. You make Bloody Marys and watch “Totoro.” You go to the symphony. You butcher a Johnny Cash and June Carter karaoke duet.

Then after a few months you start to wonder how you’ve spent so much time together yet somehow the emotional intimacy piece of the equation hasn’t progressed past week three. But you decide to try just a little bit harder and to hang in there just a little bit longer because you’ve already put in this much time.

If someone tells you not to think about an elephant, you’re going to think about an elephant.


Whether a person is in another relationship, lives thousands of miles away, or is emotionally distant, we often want what, or rather who, we can’t have.

But what’s so alluring about the chase? And why might you continue to pursue someone who is so plainly just out of reach? As it turns out, the reasons are deeply psychological.

You’re confusing anxiety for 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 most of us grew up in households where love was practiced dysfunctionally, often withheld or highly conditional, and you've got a recipe for thinking that being avoided, ignored, and not communicated with is not only normal but ‘part of love.’ We confuse chemistry with the experience of anxious attraction.”

Anita Chipala, 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 the game.

“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 can create an addictive cycle that keeps you strung along.

“I felt like dating was meant to be a whirlwind in which I was uncertain about the outcome,” says Carolyn, 27. “This person I was seeing was being 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. The game becomes all-consuming. You watch for the “dot dot dot” on your iMessage like a crazy person.”

“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 the reality is that a competition of who cares less is a losing game. The moment you start trying to prove your worth to someone, you’ve already lost.

You’re operating from 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 of their high value— ‘They must be dating other people or partying or skiing in Aspen.’ While frustrating, that raises their value and can make them even more desirable.”

It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between actual value and perceived value. Just because someone is always busy, it 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 their 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 wanting to spend 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 have 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 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 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 gods smile on 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 looking hella fly in a red power suit, boo’d up with a fetching, tatted Blues singer, 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?

Originally published on Tinder's editorial platform Swipe Life. View full article here.

Are you enjoying this free content?

Join my mailing list here to get new episodes sent straight to your inbox.

Or feel free to make a content contribution here. Your appreciation is always appreciated.

1,916 views0 comments


bottom of page