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Ask Polly: Why Do I Always Want Unavailable Men?

Photo: Francis Apesteguy/Getty Images

Hey, Polly,

This question comes to you from a problem I’ve had for a while and that I can’t see ever dying: I keep falling in love with people who don’t want me. Or, to be clear, people who can’t. Friends with girlfriends, friends’ brothers who I see in passing, acquaintances who have moved to Europe. I had a fucking dream about Elvis and couldn’t stop thinking about him for weeks. It’s getting poisonous, because I can’t just be chill any more. I can’t be my own person with my own life because I keep giving my all to some imaginary life with another person who is, quite honestly, very happy with their lot already. It makes me feel guilty because I project so much shit onto other people who are just, y’know, doing people stuff. They don’t deserve my acting weird about them because in my head they’ve reached over to kiss me and we’ve fucked gently and are holding hands and laughing. See what I mean? It’s destructive.

I feel as if maybe it’s a sort of torture I’ve devised for myself now. I get into a good place and I have to have something that’s going to make me feel a little bit shit, so I create a something with someone who can’t possibly reciprocate. But if any of them did reciprocate, I know I would go to it full-steam ahead, because I actually love them (or whatever). The most recent target is my flatmate, who is kind and easy to get on with and who has a fucking great laugh and who has been cursed with a beautiful relationship with a truly lovely human being. They’re so happy together, and their world is opening up for them, and I feel like some little gremlin on the side licking my lips and watching and waiting for them to fail. If he dumped her for me, I would explode with happiness. But it’s not fair to want him to, is it? Especially when most of what I imagine us having is just that: imaginary. I’m starting to develop feelings for him, and it’s acutely painful. This girlfriend of his — they’re idyllic together, they really are, and I say this being in the room next to them where I can hear them laughing and kissing all night in a particularly painful turn of events that makes me want to punch myself in the face (because I did this to myself — I DON’T HAVE TO KEEP FALLING IN LOVE LIKE THIS).

This has happened so many times before that unrequited love is becoming a familiar feeling. I can’t keep doing it, because it poisons me and the people around me. In between these guys, there’s no one who catches my attention at all. It’s like I’m either in 100 percent and imagining forever, or they repulse me. My therapist said maybe it was the potential of actually being with someone that repulsed me. But if any of them had turned to me and asked me out, I would’ve been over the moon. Especially my flatmate: I can imagine his face so close to mine that we’re sharing the same breath and it doesn’t feel confrontational or upsetting; it feels soft and it makes me smile. I don’t know. Fuck.

My question is: How can I stop falling into unrequited love? How do I stop my heart from creating false images of people, and how do I just get more fucking chill so I can focus on other shit? I’m done with always straining toward something, always having something possessing my mind, always yearning. I just want to hang out with people and have a good time.


Stupid Yearning Heart

Dear Stupid Yearning Heart,

When I was young, my mother told me, over and over, in a million different ways, not to fill my head with guys who wouldn’t matter at all in a year or two. My dad told me, over and over, that all guys were assholes and none of them were worth my time. He referred to each of my boyfriends as “That Guy.” No name. As in “Why did that guy run away when he saw me coming? Is that guy afraid of me?” (He made this particular remark about my college boyfriend, and yes, That Guy was very afraid of him.)

I still spent all my time obsessing about That Guy, or moving across the country with That Guy. I abandoned my plans to study abroad and to move to New York City and to get a job in comedy because of That Guy. And when I wasn’t dating That Guy or living with That Guy, I would create another That Guy out of thin air. I used to write music with a good friend of mine, and because we spent some time together and I wasn’t seeing anyone, he had to become That Guy in my mind, too. In my imagination, we made out over and over, always with the cinematic lighting and the laughing and the holding of hands. I had so many different first kisses with him in my brain; I could cue up that imaginary footage at any time. I wrote soft, sullen lullabies about That Guy, how he would never look my way, how he would never turn to me and look into my eyes and suddenly realize: OH MY CHRIST, IT’S YOU, GORGEOUS, GLOWING, UNBELIEVABLE YOU! YOU’VE BEEN RIGHT HERE RADIATING PURE, LUSTY, BRILLIANT GRACE AND DIVINITY UNDER MY NOSE THIS WHOLE TIME! HOT DAMN, YOU ARE FINE! GET IN MY PANTS, WOMAN!

He was hot, though. Black hair and bright blue eyes and the giant torso of a goddamned Hemsworth. I’m not fucking around here; I need you to understand that this man was heavenly. And also? This is a guy who wouldn’t have fucked me if his life depended on it, with or without hand-holding and laughter. He wouldn’t have fucked me up against a trash can in a dark alley 15 beers into a blind-drunk stupor.

It’s fun to fantasize about hot, convenient, nearby guys when you’re out of your skull with horny chemical longing and nihilistic “What does this shit heap of a life add up to anyway?” longing. It feels good to shift gears away from the grind of “Who am I, and who will ever care what the answer to that question is either way?” and shift into “Someone will magically believe in me and want me and crush me in his Hemsworthian embrace” gear instead. This is a salve for the soul of a deeply romantic, abidingly horny nobody.

It’s telling, though, how the footage always zooms in on that moment when That Guy can SEE THAT IT’S YOU and not her or her or her. YOU are the perfect, special, amazing one! Your soul is the one that shines! You are the prettiest, too. You are pure and real and full of everything good in the world. And this very familiar but untouchable hero goes from almost never looking at you to fixing you in his gaze and NEVER EVER WANTING TO LOOK AWAY.

Let’s talk about what that means. First of all, you want someone you already know. You don’t want to go out and meet new, unknown people. That’s common. We want an ex-boyfriend or a former lover or the guy who’s dating the girl next door or a celebrity, of all stupid fucking preteen things. We want someone we see all the time, who is in our circle but unreachable, who is in our past but untouchable. That seems romantic, and easy to picture. We know how he would laugh, how he would stare adoringly.

Instead of starting from scratch, you’re using a character that’s already fully fleshed-out — like a Ken doll — and placing him in each of your imaginary scenes. That’s not falling in love, though. That’s playing games of make-believe. You don’t actually know that much about the dolls you play with. You only know about the stories you’ve MADE UP for them. Falling in love with your flatmate is like falling in love with a Hemsworth.

Or, more accurately, you’re in love with the idea of yourself as Hemsworth’s love interest. Think of the moment you cue up for yourself, over and over again: Your flatmate reaches over to kiss you. It’s like he sees you for the first time, and suddenly YOU MATTER. You are not a gremlin, licking its lips on the sidelines. You are worthy. You win.

This scenario has nothing to do with him, and it has nothing to do with falling in love. You aren’t in love with him. You’re in love with the idea of being delivered from the world of gremlins into the world of gorgeous creatures who are worthy of adoration. Your fantasy is kind of like emotional, identity-focused pornography: In your money shot, you are accepted and embraced for the first time.

But just as actual pornography sometimes has a tendency to train those who watch it to feel allergic to the real living, breathing, flawed human beings who don’t wear see-through stilettos and bleach their assholes, your emotional pornography narrows your vision so that you can focus only on unavailable but familiar men as the source of your salvation. And that’s a damn shame. Because YOU are the source of your salvation. You have the power within you to pull all the focus, to be that gorgeous glowing unbelievable human being who he wants so badly in your fantasy. But you have to see yourself that way first.

The problem is that you believe you are a gremlin. Bad, greedy, distracted, twitchy, useless, a blight on the land. I used to think of myself this way, too, but I didn’t realize it most of the time. I had to peel back a lot of layers in therapy to see this clearly. I believed that I was a monster, disgusting and wretched and weak. As long as I saw myself this way, That Guy was never going to give me the time of day. He mattered too much to me; he could feel it. And also, honestly, he was into vaguely dismissive women who had better things to do with their time than hang on his every word. He also had lots of projects, lots of adventures, lots of pressing shit to do. He was mostly spending time with me because I was actually very good at writing songs. He knew that and respected it, but I didn’t. I was too busy daydreaming and feeling rejected and ignoring my own talents and desires. But he was busy doing things that felt important to him.

That kind of focus is attractive. There’s this photo of Chris Hemsworth making a dinosaur cake for his kid that was making the rounds last week on Instagram. Once you see it, it will be singed onto your eyeballs forever, but somehow you’ll still need to look at it again and again. “Wow, he sure is concentrating hard on mixing that batter,” you’ll say. “I admire his focus. A lot.” Then you’ll pull it up a few hours later, to remind yourself of something, you’re not sure what. “Dinosaur cakes are important,” you’ll mumble.

The moral here is obvious: Focusing on something outside of yourself is hot. Even swole dudes who give away free soft porn on Instagram know this. Doing stuff that’s not about you is hot. Hemsworth’s photo is hot because, well, it’s just hot, but also because he’s required to eat and train like an actual T. rex in order to look that way. It’s hot to work that hard. It’s also hot that someone who works that hard has a little kid, and it’s hot that he would take some time out from eating 15 pounds of chicken and running through quicksand in combat boots to make his kid a pretty shitty-looking cake. Hemsworth’s clumsy cake-making is hot, too. The idea of his being slightly clumsy is fucking hot. Big, fumbling hands. Australian-accented apologies as he crushes you under his heft.

Whoa there, Nellie. Let’s not lose the thread. The point is, you need to focus all this swirling, intense, imaginative mind-fuckery into something bold and bright and useful. You must figure out where to put this! You must make something with your big, clumsy imagination! You must learn to focus really hard and work really hard, even if at first you only make shitty-looking, stupid, pointless things that other people will call crappy!

Having something worthwhile to focus on is key. It’s sexy because it feels good because it’s everything. You can’t become a full person until you learn to turn off the pretty fantasies of emotional theft in your brain — and yes, it’s truly not fair to be rooting against your flatmate’s relationship. You need to make your own stories out in the real world instead.

And when I hear that song, I think, Yep, that was the year I was young and hot but thought I was a monster. When you believe that you’re a monster, you believe that any real, flawed human being who’s not a creation of your imagination is a monster, too. That’s sort of what my song sounds like. Like creating things in a vacuum and never really telling anyone what they meant to me. Like feeling broken but big and full and confused and alive and nuts but pretending that everything was fine and mundane and small and ordinary. Like feeling that I was at once hideous and gorgeous, and being so ashamed of those feelings that I chose to remain invisible rather than allow myself the luxury of being seen at last. Back then, I dared to stoke fantasies about people I barely knew, but I didn’t dare to care about myself. That was too embarrassing. That was too vulnerable.

No one will care until you care. You don’t care yet. Own the woman who fucks gently and own the gremlin who licks its lips, because you are both of these things. Forget your flatmate. He is the least important part of this story. Let him go, but show him some respect. Respect his space and his soul. Give him some room. Allow him to exist outside of your very creative mind.

You can’t hang out with people and have a good time — as you state is your goal — until you show them respect. That means you have to stop putting yourself at the center of every picture. That means you have to appreciate pictures even when you’re not in them. You don’t need to be everything to everyone. You just have to matter to yourself. Once you care about yourself, you’ll have room to care about other people — as human beings, not as mirrors or escape fantasies or imaginary rivals or ciphers or scapegoats.

I have two daughters, and this, for some reason, is my biggest fear when it comes to them, that they’ll waste their lives chasing men in circles instead of recognizing how much sunshine and genius and expansive, outrageous possibility they carry around with them everywhere they go. But this anxiety of mine isn’t just about young women and their tendency to ignore their own value and worth and potential. It’s also about 30-something men and 40-somethings and 50-somethings and everyone under the goddamned sun. We are all so completely poleaxed by our own longing, by our own magical thinking, by our own physical resistance to hard work. We put our faith in prefabricated fantasies instead of reality; we believe in easy answers and short cuts instead of craft; we admire popularity instead of originality; we find ourselves reaching for shiny dreamworlds and ignoring human beings. The world tells us that we should be disappointed in ourselves, every single day. The best party is across town. The best party is across the universe. We should be fucking a ghost that looks like Chris Hemsworth, gently, in some galaxy far away.

Let’s just be ourselves instead, broken but hopeful, and let’s be right here, right now. Let’s look around and see the scrappy, mediocre, mundane details of our lives and proclaim them exalted and glorious. Imagine for a moment that I can see you clearly for the first time. I can see you clearly, and you are radiating pure, lusty, brilliant grace and divinity. Feel it. Believe it. Carry it with you.


Ask Polly: Why Do I Always Want Unavailable Men?