This makes me feel awful. It’s as if she’s saying I’m not good enough for her and that I’m inferior to her partner. I can’t help but think that she’s wrong. Her boyfriend is uneducated, crass, and unambitious. I can’t understand why she won’t leave him. She is fully aware that I have deep feelings for her, yet she continues to taunt me by maintaining a relationship that won’t lead anywhere and will inevitably end. I was secretly devastated when she informed me that she and her boyfriend wanted to make things work. She is willing to put in effort to stay with him but is unwilling to start a relationship with me; again, that makes me feel second-rate.
I think I’m afraid to leave her because I have to live with her for the next six months and I’m afraid to upset her. Also, I often feel unattractive and undesirable, so her attention has really made me feel better about myself. I am paralyzed; I don’t know what to do or how to move on. Should I let the relationship continue for the next few months until I have to leave, or should I end it now?
Big Rapids, Michigan
I hear how confused you are by this situation, and partly that’s because you’re trying to make sense of another person’s behavior without having a better understanding of your own. The more you obsess about the object of your affection, the more easily you can forget that she isn’t acting alone in “maintaining a relationship” with you; you’re also maintaining one with her.
Often when someone is involved with an unavailable romantic partner—one who’s married, in a relationship, or simply keeping you at bay when you want to take things to the next level—the narrative is that something must be wrong with the unavailable party: Why is she leading me on? Why can’t she commit? Why can’t she see what a great catch I am compared with their current partner? Why is she being so destructive by dating two people at once? Clearly this person has issues!
Instead of masochistically ruminating over why she doesn’t want you, the more helpful question to ponder is: Why do you want her?
I’m not referring to whatever it is about her personality or appearance that you find appealing. I’m talking about the elements of your own psychological makeup that draw you so strongly to someone who is unavailable, and has been from the day you met.
Sometimes people choose unavailable partners because they’re afraid of intimacy themselves. Maybe they’ve been hurt in the past, and as painful as it feels to be with a partner who won’t commit, the situation is also safe. After all, when it comes to vulnerability and intimacy, in a way it’s far riskier to love someone who loves you back than it is to love someone who’s not entirely there.
Other people gravitate toward unavailable partners because these partners feel familiar. People who were raised by emotionally unavailable parents might grow up believing that this kind of distance—or the even more confusing mixed message of “Come here. Go away”—is what love is supposed to feel like. Then, as adults, when they encounter a potentially unavailable partner, their internal radar system goes off. Ah, they think (usually subconsciously), I’m home.