Why are emotionally unavailable men so damn desirable?
1. They are shiny and beautiful and attract us as a lure beckons a fish. They may seem coached in appearing perfectly desirable. Whether rugged or preppy, they are well dressed (and this doesn’t mean dressed up, it means dressed in a manner that is attractive and sexually intriguing to women, usually in quality clothes but with a relaxed, “I do this every day” kind of vibe). They carry an uncontaminated air about them, appearing clean and well groomed. They manifest a removed energy where they are present in body but not so much in terms of actually interacting with others. They only interact at the smallest degree necessary for the situation at hand. This emotional removal is part of their control of all things in their lives. They never let anyone see them sweat and so do not get too involved with detailed discussions of logistics or events. The “aloofness factor”—looking desirable, in control, and yet, not being fully present—that unavailable men carry leaves the observer (typically a woman) feeling she has discovered an exotic jewel of wonder, and it leaves her wanting to come closer and to know more about him.
2. They provide intermittent reinforcement. In behavioral psychology a “reinforcement” is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will reoccur. You would think that if you were reinforced with $10 every time you did something kind for a person, you would do kind acts all of the time. It turns out intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful way to increase a specific behavior. So if sometimes you are given $10 for kindness and other times you are given nothing, you are more likely to act kind in hopes of getting that $10 payout. It is similar with emotionally unavailable men; even with the “aloofness factor,” every now and again they throw warm engagement, special treats, or romantic gestures to the women who love them. For the woman involved this feels as if she has hit pay dirt, finally all of her work to know him has paid off! She is beyond thrilled and revels in his special attention and affection. When the fun ends, she goes back to the work of pulling him out of his shell and trying once again to get his favorable attention. And just when she is about to give up, he throws another reinforcer at her (likes her pictures on social media, suggests they take a trip, initiates a deep conversation, buys her exotic flowers), and with that she falls back into the pattern.
3. They allow for the fantasy of the “perfect” life. Life is hard. Whether a person is divorced and trying love for the second time, or has never married, imagining how to form a contented adult life—with friendships, children, work—is daunting for most. A physically desirable and ultra-in-control man provides a canvas on which to fantasize about all of life’s loose and frayed ends being joined. A woman may fantasize that through him the perfect life will become manifest and her perpetual struggle to get what she wants will fall away.
4. They medicate the self-esteem deficit. As a psychologist, women often tell me they are attracted to “alphas.” By this they mean dominant men who are powerful. They experience his sense of control, financial resources, or influential work endeavors as signs that he is somehow a better-equipped human being than the rest of the male population. This isn’t inherent snobbishness on the part of the woman, but more likely develops in direct proportion to her own self-esteem deficit. For women who do not feel generally positive about themselves and their ability to get what they want out of life, male kindness and reliability feel scary and alarming. They may say non-alpha males are not “manly enough” or not strong enough to carve out a path of dominance. In reality many of these women have difficulty seeing themselves positively, and when a man is inconsistently available and difficult, his lack of respect for her is a match for her own negative self-image.
5. They provide a reprieve from intimacy issues. Another “perk” about emotionally unavailable men is they give an official pardon to any intimacy issues a woman may carry. If you struggle with being yourself and opening up to the men in your life, you no longer have to work on this because the unavailable man doesn’t want the authentic you, will not ask about the deeper you, and in fact will avoid anything that has to do with the you that is messy or complicated. He only cares about the “you” who is in the service of his needs, schedule, and desires. Even if at some point you try to be your true self with him or open up on some deeper level, he will evade and dodge your overtures.
Imagine attempting a lifetime partnership, or raising children with the unavailable man. He will never be there for you in a reliable way, and you will do all of the work to maintain your life together.
A much more rewarding approach to true love and commitment is unconditionally knowing and loving another person and feeling this in return. No matter how shiny a new prospect appears, the only way to discover men who will feel comfortable, kind, funny, and warm toward you is through real-to-life interactions with those who consistently show they actually want to get to know you. As I describe in Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, (link is external)you can’t sidestep emotional intimacy and expect a meaningful and reciprocal romance.
Jill Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in Washington, DC and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships(link is external).