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Ambivalent Men, and the Women Who Love Them

Here's why you'll never win with someone who's emotionally unavailable.

Source: auremar/Shutterstock

The non-committal, emotionally unavailable man pairing with an overly attentive female willing to hang in there, no matter what, is a surprisingly common type of relationship.

Why, in this scenario, does a woman stay true to such a man? It may be because she believes his very aloofness makes him a more desirable catch. If she hangs in there long enough, he will eventually commit, and it will mean so much more because he was so ambivalent about her in the beginning. She sees a chance for self-validation in earning his attention when others couldn't.

Women caught in this thinking rarely experience a happy romantic ending. Instead, they're typically left feeling as if they're not good enough, and frustrated that they cannot have their needs met. This manifests to the partner as emotional neediness—“Where are you?”; “When am I going to see you?”; “Are you seeing other people?”; “Are you attracted to me?”; “Who are you texting?”—that confirms his belief that women are burdensome. But this behavior also puts attention on him and gives him a sense of importance he may not be capable of achieving in any other way.

As I describe in my book, a woman who chronically pursues ambivalent men only lives out one small part of what it means to be female. She tunes into her nurturing, caregiver self to such a degree that she forfeits a strong core sense of who she is separate from her relationships with others.

As for the emotionally unavailable man, he may hold so steadfastly to a rigid male stereotype that his experience of himself also becomes stunted.

This pattern often falls along typical gender roles because of the way many boys and girls are socialized. While boys are taught that being a man is inherently linked to shunning emotionality in favor of autonomy, no matter the cost, girls are conditioned to overly attend to the needs of others to ensure they are "friends with everyone" and "liked by all." When girls and boys are not offered healthy buffers to such cultural influences, these tendencies go into hyper-drive. This is problematic because women who do not have partnerships with men who are "partners" in the true sense of the word have difficulty excelling and achieving, both professionally and personally. This is particularly true when they are also parents and responsible for small children.

Meet Samantha

The connection was easy and natural when Samantha, age 28, first started dating Rob. As she recalls their first year together, she smiles and remembers how ardently he pursued her. She felt as if he was always surprising her with plans and a desire to spend all of his time close to her. Samantha began to see her girlfriends less and less. She put her other interests on the back burner to spend more time with Rob.

But something happened at about the one-year mark: Rob began to pull back. He became consumed with other pursuits, and Samantha often felt as if she was at the bottom of his list of priorities. When she would bring up the idea of taking their relationships to the next level, Rob would become cagey—“I am not ready for that"; “I don’t know if I ever want to get married"; “Can you stop being so serious?” Now that she had arranged for her life to revolve around him, she had nowhere to go and no one to lean on. She felt lost and told herself that she had already invested so much time with Rob that she needed to hang in there—“Maybe he is just going through a phase.” But weeks turned into years of feeling as if she was never getting a straight answer about what he wanted or if he wanted to be with her. She became more emotionally intense and, ironically, although Rob was less available to her, she was more dependent on him.

I have seen in my clinical practice—working with young and middle-aged adults—that a dynamic such as this can still result in marriage despite all. Often the man eventually tires out or sees his cohort maturing to the next level of commitment. He fears being left behind and commits to the last person he finds in his arms. This can bring a feeling of relief to the woman involved—initially. But as the marriage progresses, unless the ambivalent male has worked to better understand his more vulnerable self, the ambivalence continues. The wife finds herself with an unreliable partner she cannot depend upon for the logistics of life, let alone her emotional needs.

Think Big Picture

It is not about getting a man to commit or to step up to the plate. It is about forming a mutually pleasurable, emotionally safe relationship with someone with whom you can be a real partner for the long-term. Longstanding social-science theories suggest that for women, self-image, self-esteem, and identity are tied to having harmonious relationships, in ways that are not as true for many men. And without healthy, equal partnership, it is hard to fully excel and achieve other important pursuits, particularly for women who plan to have children.

For the ambivalent man, the inability to commit in an emotionally valid way may, paradoxically, reflect an emotionally vulnerable self that he is afraid to recognize out of fear that it will overwhelm him or make him less of a man. In therapy, ambivalent men oftentimes recall feeling humiliated at some point in their young childhood for crying or being too emotional. They recall making a silent vow to never again display such weakness. For them, the sad result is they numb the emotions needed for deep and intimate attachment. Living in this emotional fog eventually brings discontent because this man never feels known by others or never feels he can be his true self, vulnerable feelings and all. Men who have at least one person with whom they can feel safe expressing their true emotions are generally emotionally stronger and have more pleasurable life experiences.

Trying to get an ambivalent player to commit is a losing proposition for most women. As I describe in Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, the more you know and accept yourself, the more likely you are to attract healthy partners who value the real you.

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