We Asked Therapists to Explain Why We Attract Emotionally Unavailable People

Shot of an young woman hugging her boyfriend while bonding with him at home

Getty Images / Delmaine Donson

Whether you're currently single or in a loving partnership, it's hard to deny that the modern dating world is full of considerable difficulties. Dating apps have emphasized digital connections, and ghosting has become an easy out in place of an actual breakup. In many ways, this can be said to have lowered our sense of responsibility to treat others with kindness and consideration. Considering these factors, if you're one of the millions braving the online dating trenches, you have probably encountered an emotionally unavailable partner at some point.

In thinking about the past few relationships (or even situationships) you've been in, were those partners open about their feelings for you or their feelings in general? Did they make it clear what their commitment to you was? Did they make a proper effort to be consistent with date nights, texting, or calling you regularly? If the answer to these is "no," you might want to evaluate the potentially toxic cycle in which you may have found yourself. Attracting emotionally unavailable people, while a tough issue to confront, can majorly affect our emotional health.

If you've found yourself connecting with people in this category repeatedly, it may be time to check in with yourself. Ahead, experts break down why we attract emotionally unavailable people and how to move on from those cycles.

Meet the Expert

Why Are Some People Emotionally Unavailable?

Emotional unavailability is usually a sign someone isn't in the healthiest place to date others. But, you might be wondering, what makes a person emotionally unavailable?

"A partner might be emotionally unavailable for many reasons. They may have recently ended a serious relationship, they're afraid of getting hurt and avoid deep relationships, or they struggle to be vulnerable and show their emotions with others, allowing themselves only to have superficial relationships," says licensed clinical psychologist Jaci Lopez Witmer, Psy.D. "They could also be in a serious relationship, partnership, or marriage, such as an open relationship where their emotional availability is reserved for their primary partner. Or, they could be cheating on their primary partner by entering into a secret relationship in which they cannot be emotionally present." 

Why Do You Attract Emotionally Unavailable People?

Finding yourself in a cycle of attracting avoidant, emotionally unavailable partners doesn't happen in a vacuum. It tends to arise from our earliest relationships and their psychological effects on our development. "This usually happens because we are unconsciously repeating patterns familiar to us," says licensed marriage and family therapist and AASECT certified sex therapist Emily Jamea, Ph.D., LPC, LMFT. "In other words, people who attract emotionally unavailable people tend to have grown up in homes where one or both parents were also emotionally unavailable. In IMAGO therapy (a form of relationship counseling), we refer to this as the 'Triple P Effect.' People pick, perceive or provoke characteristics in a romantic partner reminiscent of unresolved wounds they may have had from a primary caretaker growing up." 

If an important adult figure didn't nurture or care for you in the way you needed, you might be facing a subconscious tendency to choose partners who do the same to you in adulthood. "While some folks may be fully aware they had unemotionally unavailable parents, a deep, wounded part of themselves attracts similar romantic partners. Our unhealthy patterns as adults aren't usually 'adult' at all; they result from the wounded child within us," Jamea says.

Lopez Witmer agrees the root of this cycle often stems from childhood and often causes us to question our worthiness for love. "This is complicated, but usually when there is a pattern in which someone is mostly attracting emotionally unavailable partners into their life, the person believes on some level that they have to work for love," she says. "As they grew up, they didn't believe love was something they deserved just for being them. And so, the person may attempt to rewrite history, repeating this pattern with romantic partners and hoping subconsciously or unconsciously for a different outcome. In psychological terms, we call this repetition compulsion." When you continue to call in partners of the same nature and hope for different results, you continue risking further damage to your confidence and ability to trust yourself. 

Beyond the earliest origins of this self-destructive cycle, Jamea explains how we perceive ourselves can also majorly impact the partners we tend to choose. "Another reason someone might attract someone emotionally unavailable is because they have low self-esteem. For whatever reason (body image issues, experience of being bullied, job instability, addiction, or mental health issues), they may not believe they are worthy of love and commitment," she says. 

How To Stop Attracting Emotionally Unavailable People

For as many issues can be caused by attracting emotionally unavailable people, there are just as many ways to confront that pattern in yourself and begin to heal. Depending on what you find to be the root of this cycle in your dating life, Lopez Witmer recommends you start with self-love above all. "I would say the most important thing you can do is deepen the relationship with yourself first and foremost," she says. "Explore these patterns with a therapist, journal on your own, and approach yourself in a non-judgmental, compassionate way to gain insight and self-awareness." Being gentle while examining the reasons behind your dating behavior is key to rebuilding a healthier relationship with yourself.

As Lopez Witmer notes, consulting with a therapist about these issues can help you start to unravel the common threads between them and your past. "I would highly recommend therapy to begin doing the inner work on why you may be attracting emotionally unavailable partners," she says. "An Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist may be helpful for working through this particular issue." Therapy can also help to equip you with healthier dating habits and ways to detect when you're falling back into old, unhealthy patterns again.

Another critical step in rerouting your dating life is gaining clarity on what aspects of a partnership you do want. Learning the difference between an emotionally available person and those you might have been attracting can help. "You have to be clear on the qualities and characteristics inherent in emotionally available people," Jamea says.

Although taking these steps can undoubtedly bring about awareness and a better understanding of how your past trauma and psyche impact your dating life, the work continues far beyond that. While dating, especially if you're entering a new relationship, it's still critical to check in with yourself from time to time regarding your approach to your relationships (even when they're going well). "It's not uncommon for people to graduate from 'picking' emotionally unavailable people only to start 'perceiving' emotional unavailability that isn't there and/or doing things to 'provoke' or push away an otherwise emotionally available partner. It's important to be aware of these pitfalls in your healing journey," Jamea says. 

Above all, getting to the root of and progressively working toward healing the internal causes of your draw toward emotionally unavailable partners is the most important step you can take. Trying anything that works for you—like therapy, journaling, or meditation—is a responsibility you hold for yourself and others around you. "I love inner-child work," says Jamea. "While this is best done with a therapist guiding you, there are things you can do on your own. For example, try writing a letter from your 'functional adult self' to your 'inner child' expressing everything they needed to hear but didn't while growing up. This simple exercise can heal deep wounds."

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