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I am a 34-year-old single writer-actor-bartender living in New York City, and for as long as I can remember, I have almost exclusively wanted men who are unavailable to me.
I know that this is not a super-original problem. Maybe it’s kind of a cliche. And it’s easy to say “Stop doing that,” but I’ve been aware of this for years, and it feels like the more I try to break the pattern, the more I perpetuate it. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like I cannot trust my instincts: I almost think, if I am attracted to this person, it must actually MEAN that they are unavailable. Which leaves me at a dead end. How do I change who I am attracted to?
To give a little more background, I am an artist and an altogether determined person who has been working for years to edge my way into an extremely difficult professional field. I bartend at night so I can write and audition and apply during the day. Since I’ve gotten out of grad school, it’s been a struggle, but I would never give back the ecstatic highs I’ve experienced to avoid even the most shattering lows. Now I write plays and screenplays that I’m trying to get produced, and when I audition for things, it’s always for work I really want to be a part of. I’m applying for fellowships and meeting with potential producers of my work. I’ve fought through anxiety, depression, and extreme poverty to come to a place where I feel good and healthy enough to really put myself and my work out there and make a mark on the world. This is and has always been my priority, and I for the first time (maybe) truly believe that I will be successful.
But love has proved elusive. Over the years, I’ve tended to do one of two things: cultivate extreme romantic fixation on close male friends who aren’t actually interested in me (and with whom I never have a physical relationship, to my devastation) or sleep with people whom I am not all that attracted to (thinking some condescending nonsense like “Beggars can’t be choosers”) and/or don’t actually see much potential with. Essentially, separating sex completely from intimacy.
A few years ago, after ending a five-year one-sided romantic fixation with one of my closest friends and sleeping with a few people I didn’t feel much of a connection with, I realized I was doing this, that it wasn’t making me happy, and vowed to stop. As a result, I was celibate for two years. (It didn’t stop me from developing a romantic fixation on another friend who ended up not wanting me, but at least I tried to take a break.) At the end of this period, I dated someone for a few months, and though I felt like I was pulling teeth the whole time to get him to be around me, it seemed like a step to legitimately date someone. But since then, I’ve noticed myself falling back into my old pattern: I’ve had two intense crushes on friends I work with (mostly artistically) that are fueled by mutual interest and witty repartee and their eagerness to spend time with me — these friends were, however, about to move to another country and with someone else, respectively. I know, I know. But the feelings seem so REAL. I also had a couple of meaningless sexual flings with people I had a feeling I would never see again — what has changed as far as that was concerned is that at least, those times, they were with men I respected. Still, I am so frustrated.
I have been in much therapy. I am aware of certain mechanisms. Maybe I do this because my dad (whom I’m extremely to close now) wasn’t physically around when I was a kid. Maybe I do this because I had a volatile, co-dependent relationship with my mother growing up and am actually afraid of true intimacy. Maybe I look down on men who want me because deep down I hate myself. But all that seems so boring to me. And if it is true, and even if I examine it — which I have — it doesn’t seem to bring me closer to changing who I want.
Though sensitive, I am not socially weird in other ways. I have amazing friends, street smarts, and a quick wit. I can be a powerful presence in a room. And though I certainly have body image stuff and pretty much perpetually wish I were 10 pounds thinner (like so many women in our fucking fucked-up culture), I know that I am attractive.
So you know, one of the worst things about this tendency is that these inevitable rejections work to negate everything I said in the above paragraph, and to promote a narrative that I’m constantly working to fight off: You are Fat, You are Dumb, You are Uninteresting, and Unlovable, and Past Your Prime, and you Shoot Out of Your League.
I do want love. I do want a partner. I always have. I don’t actually hate myself. Would love to hear your thoughts.
One of the hardest things to do is to give your love to someone who is looking right at you. One of the easiest things to do is to give your love to someone who doesn’t care at all. It’s so easy to love someone who doesn’t love you, or isn’t attracted to you, or isn’t interested, or is too busy to care. And when you’re doing the easiest thing, even though it hurts you, that’s a sign that you have to start doing hard work in order to feed yourself, respect yourself, and give yourself room to grow in the absence of big distractions (like unavailable men and unwanted lovers).
I used to believe you had to be fucked up to obsess as much as I once did. But lately I feel like obsession is just what animals do. It’s as if we’re trying to replicate the feeling of being HUNGRY using only our minds. Because in some ways it’s nice to be hungry. One of the best things about exercising a lot is feeling really hungry for great food: “Only something insanely delicious will do!” you say to yourself, even though you don’t have the time or the money to secure such food. Now that I’m older, I’m not always hungry like that, unless I work out a lot. When I don’t work out, I can be meh about food. And what kind of bullshit is THAT, right? I know this just means I’m an animal like everyone else alive, but GODDAMN I LOVE EATING. Being less hungry means fewer opportunities to shove spicy Korean pork rice and milk tea with boba into my face.
When I exercise, I also have more ambition. I cultivate my inner world more, instead of just riding a roller coaster of neuroticism and blame. I listen to new music more. I have more hunger for life in general. Everything seems fun. I know you think I’m digressing, but this is about you, Unrequited. When I have a big appetite, when I’m hungry, when I’m excited, I enjoy my time alone. I believe in my instincts and my ideas. I follow my odd digressions more. I’m more interesting to be around. I take myself seriously as an artist — which requires calling myself an artist, which requires taking (and tolerating!) an enormous, pretentious-sounding leap of faith. But I want to believe! I feel inspired! I want to tell my good friends everything. But I don’t need to. I can also write it all down, happily, with some black tea. Taylors of Harrogate Assam Black Tea is the best goddamn tea, did you know that? You add milk and it tastes like cream. The flavor is rich and full.
When I’m hungry, when I’m curious, when I’m excited, when I’m chasing the world down and laughing at how many amazing things there are to enjoy in life — great music, great sex, great books, great food, dogs with great personalities, friends who make you laugh your ass off — that’s when I’m open to everything that comes my way.
Obsession, or getting fixated on people who don’t love you, or pushing away people who do like you: These behaviors don’t represent real hunger or real inspiration. You do these things when you can’t feel anything and you want to feel something, so you try to THINK your way into feeling something. You obsess because you’re trying to feel. You can’t feel your feelings without blaming yourself for them. You’re not present. You don’t want to show up and be vulnerable. (In your letter, you call the possibility that you’re afraid of intimacy or you hate yourself “so boring to me,” suggesting how deeply you want to identify as tough and associate vulnerability with weakness and becoming dull and needy.) So when you’re feeling something “bad,” like loneliness, like melancholy, like longing, instead of pouring that into your work, or bringing that up in conversation with someone who’s actually listening and cares, or mulling it over while you cook something new at home, all by yourself, without blaming yourself for feeling those “bad” feelings, you pour those bad feelings into your obsession. You can’t say “I feel melancholy because I’m a complex animal and I’m an artist and melancholy has so many uses, what should I use it for?” Because that would give you too much power. That would put too much emphasis on you, and you would rather disappear into someone else. HE holds the answer. HE could fix this, if he were here, if he liked you at all, if you were more attractive and more special!
You think you want the target of your obsession to want you, thereby making you feel rich and full and magical, thereby giving you that hungry, engaged, excited feeling that you can’t conjure around an actual person who really does want you. But really, you’re thinking your way AWAY from yourself when you obsess. You’re telling stories with your brain instead of daring to feel everything you have inside right now and daring to remain present to that, just for yourself and no one else. You’re giving yourself an excuse for feeling “bad” things. Instead of owning your melancholy, you’re assigning the cause of your melancholy to someone else, so you don’t have to look at yourself. You’re telling a very old story: “Everything I feel, I feel because of this one unavailable dude.”
What if you told a new story, with your own appetite for life at the center? If you could do that, you could probably tolerate someone “unattractive” (i.e., attracted to you) listening to that story. I’m not saying no one you sleep with is truly unattractive. I’m just saying you are never attracted to anyone who is attracted to you. That’s not about how objectively hot these people are; that’s about how you’re only able to feel things when people are ignoring you. You’re only able to feel things for people when you generate a lot of excitement and create some mythology around that person from a great distance. Once they see you and want something from you, your feelings go dead.
It’s not hard to understand how that happens to someone with a co-dependent mother. You’re a kid, but your mom needs you, and you know it’s not healthy. Kids don’t want to be parents. You associate attention and intimacy with someone who needs you too goddamn much, because there’s something deeply messed up going on with her. Someone wants you and you’re turned off. You feel smothered. You can’t breathe.
You want to feel hungry instead. I would start by cutting all sex out of the picture along with all repetitive obsessive thoughts. Don’t go down those old corridors. Instead, get back in touch with your sensuality, your gut-level desires, your belief in your inner world. Keep a journal and write in it (obsessively!). Encourage feeling at every turn, but don’t tell the same old stories about feeling. Celebrate your feelings, both good and “bad,” and work hard to create from them. Stop looking for love and rejection, and just cultivate love for your own experience. I will personally guarantee you that this is the central trait of every single unavailable man you’ve fallen for: He believes in his own world. He believes that he brings energy and light into every room. He’s an artist, he fills the air with electricity, he takes up space, he always has somewhere better to be.
Write down how you would describe these guys you are obsessed with. And then, think about how you could become just as hungry as they are. Think about how you might be as obsessed with your work and your art and your life and your brilliant creations. Think about how you could fall in love with the whole goddamn world if you could just focus and believe in your importance the way these guys do.
Don’t chase them. Become like them.
And if you find yourself surrounded by male admirers, don’t assume that you’ll never be attracted to any of them, just because they’re right there, looking at you. Don’t assume that they’re not good enough for you just because they’re interested. Wait and watch. Take it slow. Stay present; stay in touch with how your body reacts to them without your brain deciding everything for it. Don’t rush anything. Don’t assume anything. Tolerate attention. Remember that your art and your heart are the most important things. Stay open. Remind yourself, every minute, that attention doesn’t always signal that someone is weak and needs you too much. Men can love you and sometimes need your love and still not engulf you completely or object to your setting healthy boundaries. This will leave room for your own hunger. This will leave room for the feelings you don’t want to feel, but you need to feel. This will leave you room to give energy to your creations and your inner life, instead of giving it all away. Stop giving your magic away. Keep it. Treasure it.
Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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