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Why is the Unattainable so Hot?

Potential affirmation, idealization and mystery

Wikipedia Commons
Source: Wikipedia Commons

We desire things we can’t get, including unattainable romantic partners. Why is the unattainable so hot? Here is the standard answer: The unattainable is in some sense rare. Rare things are valuable. As we value what we know is valuable, we want that man or woman we can’t get.

All this may be true. But I think there is more to it. A number of factors play a role in making us so obsessed with getting what we can’t get. Here are the top three.

Potential Affirmation
If only you could get the guy or girl that you and no one else can get, you would be very special.

The Unattainable Leaves Room for Idealization
What stays at a distance is easier to see in a positive light. You are not exposed to the real person with all of his or her flaws.

The Unattainable is Mysterious
We crave what is mysterious. It arouses us and fascinates us. In that respect, the unattainable is similar to horror. Think of Halloween’s Michael Myers appearing in the doorway of Linda van der Klok’s bedroom. Lynda is filing her nails, patiently waiting for her lover to return with beer. Myers is covered by a white sheet and is wearing Lynda’s dead lover’s glasses. Or think of the final shot in The Blair Witch Project where Mike is standing in the corner, facing the wall. Even though these scenes are terrifying, we like the feelings they generate in us.

What is it about horror that is so fascinating? I think it’s the fact that we cannot interpret the horror movie antagonists in normal ways. Standard theories of mind don’t apply. Horror movie antagonists are generally uncommunicative. They don’t say a whole lot, and they often have no facial expressions (e.g., they wear masks). We see them only briefly. They prevent us from assessing their intentions and emotions. We cannot interpret their facial expressions. We don’t know what they are going to do next. They are unpredictable and unreliable. It’s the fact that we can’t place them in our ordinary schemes for interpreting people that inspires anxiety and fear. They puzzle us and allow our brains to dwell on them in order to try to understand them, thereby fueling our attraction.

Berit Brogaard is the author of On Romantic Love

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