Attracted to Who Abandoned You
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I listened to a podcast awhile back about a guy who lived alone in the forest for 42 days. The first three days, he said, were the hardest, because he felt like he should be doing something or communicating with someone. The more he settled into the rhythms of nature, the more he let go of that feeling. In some ways, being single is like that. For years, I was on and off dating apps. I was in weird, sort-of relationships that usually just left me confused. I tried dating multiple people at once, or even just talking to multiple people at once, but when I did that, I usually started resenting everyone. None of it was very useful, and there's nothing worse than being in a partnership that feels lonely or unhealthy or suffocating, either.
I just started reading The Tender Bar, and underlined this line on the very first page, "While I fear that we're drawn to what abandons us, and to what seems most likely to abandon us, in the end I believe we're defined by what embraces us." J.R. Moehringer.
Moehringer identified a sentiment I'd carried around for years, without the ability to articulate, which is that people are attracted to the things (or people) they cannot have, so it stands to reason that we crave attention, or even love, from those we feel abandoned by. This is one reason adopted kids searches for their biological parents, even if they have a loving home. It's why many people long for a past lover who broke their heart, even if they're with someone else who loves them deeply. And it's why I dated emotionally unavailable men for years. I was drawn to people who left me feeling emotionally abandoned, in a valiant effort to convince them to not leave me feeling that way. In any case, chasing the person that abandoned you is an easy way to feel unworthy of the love you want and need.
According to one doctor, the reason we're attracted to romantic partners who reject us is that it stimulates the part of the brain associated with motivation, reward, addiction, and cravings. Romantic rejection can also mirror feelings of rejection felt in childhood, or we may seek to rewrite past rejections with a happier ending. Let's look into each scenario, shall we?
1. Motivation, Reward, Addiction, & Cravings
According to this study by Helen Fisher and colleagues, romantic rejection stimulates parts of the brain associated with motivation, reward, addiction, and cravings. Using functional MRI, her team looked at the brains of college-aged men and women who had recently been rejected by their partners. They found that participants' brains were more active in areas associated with motivation, reward, craving, addiction, physical pain, and distress when they looked at a photo of the person who had rejected them than when they looked at a photo of the neutral person. The study was published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2010, and it concluded that people in a situation of being rejected are really suffering from drug addiction. The drug is the person rejecting us, leaving our love unreciprocated. This study doesn't answer the question of why we respond to romantic rejection this way, nor does it tell us exactly why we want people who don't want us. It simply tells us that there is incredibly powerful neurochemical factors at play.
2. Mirroring Childhood
Often, when someone rejects us, their perceived value increases. They become more "expensive" or "rare" because they aren't available. Evolutionarily speaking, it would have been an advantage to mate with the most valuable mate, so it makes sense that we become more romantically interested when a person's perceived value increases. But I think a more compelling reason we're often drawn to the unavailable goes a bit deeper. If you grew up in a household with a parent who is emotionally unavailable or worse yet, emotionally rejects you, being romantically rejected is a similar feeling. Since we're more likely to act in ways that are familiar to us, we are likely to seek situations where we should expect more rejection. Our brains therefore think rejection is normal even though we rationally know that it's not normal to seek out scenarios that lead to pain or anguish.
3. Rewriting Past Stories.
Sometimes we try to rewrite history by engaging in similar dynamics, hoping to produce a different outcome. If you were consistently rejected by a parent or caregiver, you might be attracted to unavailable partners in an attempt to create a loving relationship with a person who reminds you of that parent. Most of the time, these dynamics crash and burn. The only way to overcome the need to rewrite a past event is to reconcile the hurt or damage that past event caused.
I realize I'm not offering any solutions here, other than to perhaps point out an unhealthy dynamic. If you need someone to talk to, check out BetterHelp or seek counseling through your healthcare provider.
P.S. Read about how to tell if you're attracted to an unavailable partner, watch Jen Michelle explain why women are attracted to unavailable men here, or read about how to find an emotionally available partner here.