The Ecstasy of Surrender

The secret key to manifesting power, happiness, and success: letting go.

Are You in a Relationship With an Unavailable Person?

Learn the signs, and know what to do next.

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In my book, I discuss how a "soul mate" must first be willing and available to have a relationship with you. If he or she is not, then he or she is not your soul mate, at least at the present time. A confusing aspect of being attracted to unavailable, commitment-phobic people is that the emotional or sexual chemistry can feel so strong, leading you to accept behavior you’d never tolerate in friends.

Why?

The electricity can feel so incredible and rare, you mistake intensity for intimacy. You make compromises you wouldn’t typically consider in order to give the relationship a chance. Still, connection or not, you must take a sober look to determine if someone is truly available for intimacy. Know this: Not everyone you feel a connection with, no matter how mind-blowing, is your soul mate. You can fall for someone who is totally wrong for you, as unfair and confounding as that reality can be.

For a relationship to work, a connection must go both ways. Even if the intuitive bond you feel is authentic, it can remain unrealized. And just because someone might have been your soul mate at a previous time, it doesn’t mean he or she is right for you today. Perhaps the person can’t or won’t reciprocate or is simply oblivious, a frustrating irony you must accept. Don’t put your life on hold for unrequited longing. Meanwhile, keep your options open.

How do you avoid getting entangled in dead-end or delusional relationships where you see someone in terms of how you wish them to be, not who they are? Here are some red flags to watch for. Recognizing even one of these should warn you to be careful. The more that are present, the more danger exists.

12 Signs of Unavailable People

  1. They are married or in a relationship with someone else.
  2. They can’t commit to you or have feared commitment in past relationships.
  3. They have one foot on the gas pedal, one foot on the break.
  4. They are emotionally distant or shut down, or can’t deal with conflict.
  5. They’re mainly interested in sex, not relating emotionally or spiritually.
  6. They are practicing alcoholics, sex addicts, or substance abusers.
  7. They prefer long-distance relationships, emails or texting, or don’t introduce you to their friends and family.
  8. They are elusive and sneaky, frequently working or tired, and may disappear for periods.
  9. They are seductive with you but make empty promises—their behavior and words don’t match.
  10. They send mixed messages, flirt with others, or don’t give a straight answer—you’re always trying to “de-code” what they really mean.
  11. They’re narcissistic, only considering themselves, not your needs
  12. They throw you emotional crumbs or enticing hints of their potential to be loving, then withdraw.

At first, some signs may be more obvious than others. It’s tricky: We typically tend to show our best selves in the honeymoon stage of a romance. It can take time for someone’s unavailability to emerge. One patient lamented to me, “I need a crystal ball. The first few months of a courtship, a man is so attentive, caring, passionate.” Partially, she’s right, but it’s also true that we tend to see what we want to see. That’s why it’s eye-opening to look at a partner’s relationship history—it can reveal volumes about their capacity for intimacy now. And beware of rationalizing that, “I’m different. This person would never be that way with me.”

No matter how mightily someone blames the horrors of an ex for a past relationship’s demise, this person played a role, too. Being able to admit that, or at least trying to understand the reasons for making such a bad choice, is a positive sign. Playing the victim is not.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many perplexed patients, helping them uncover why they keep holding a torch for unavailable, commitment-phobic partners—and how to retire this sabotaging pattern. Most of us aren’t purposely drawn to these kinds of people—their mixed messages combined with our particular susceptibilities, conscious or unconscious, can lure us in. Also, it helps to understand that unavailable people rarely choose to be that way. It’s an unconscious defense, perhaps against trauma or some past emotional wounding of the past. Research has shown that many people are afraid of being clung to or smothered, which could stem from having had a controlling, engulfing, or abusive parent. Commitment-phobic men, in particular, may just prefer sex without love. They are afraid of being controlled by feminine energy, though they don’t know that or couldn’t admit it. Rather, they see themselves as macho dudes who think women always need more than they can give. Thus, they prefer to play in shallow water, not go deep. Commitment-phobic women also fear intimacy and want to keep a distance.

If being in a relationship with an unavailable person feels like love to you, I urge you to look closer. 

To find true love, ideally you want to avoid getting involved with anyone who can’t reciprocate your affections. If you are in a toxic, abusive, or non-reciprocal relationship, it may be the right choice to withdraw, even when your passion is strong and says, "Stay.” It may feel excruciating to let go when you don’t want to, or if you’re still hoping against hope that the person will change, but as my Daoist teacher once told me, “The heart knows when it’s enough.”

Judith Orloff, M.D., is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and the author of Emotional Freedom.

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