Why We Want People Who Are Unavailable


My first was Uncle Jesse. (Well, my first human. I had a questionable interest in Aladdin before that.) I’d grow up to have many more: Clarissa Explains It All’s Sam, Boy Meets World’s Shawn, Zack Morris. I’m talking celebrity crushes (though my definition of celebrity is apparently as questionable as my affinity for animated characters).

Our culture has long celebrated kids having these pseudo relationships with pop culture’s poster-children – it’s why lunchboxes plastered with the Jackson 5 were a thing; it’s why I tucked my school papers into a Justin Timberlake folder. As a result, we grow up comfortable with fantasizing about people who are out of reach—it’s ingrained in us.

No matter our age, there’s something consistent about this frame of mind: we’re able to disassociate from reality because we’re not ready for The Real Thing. The difference is that, as children, we’re not old enough to understand love and the sacrifices it requires. If we understood the devotion it takes to love someone, do you think we’d ever consciously launch mental warfare on the person who carried us in their womb for nine months?

Eventually, we figure out that we’re not owed love, not in a familial or romantic sense. We meet people who weren’t lucky enough to have someone to unleash their hormones on, people who drive us to apologize to our parents for being insane monsters. After coming to the understanding that love is a challenging and rewarding experience that we’re not entitled to, we’re better equipped to give and receive. And after that, if we’re lucky, we get to fall in love for the first time.

(It’s funny that we call it Falling In Love. When I think of falling, I think of getting hurt. Perhaps that association isn’t accidental.)

So finally, you’re thinking about someone else in a real way. There’s no airbrushing, no retouching. There’s no distance. Bit by bit, you’ve revealed who you really are to this person—you’ve allowed someone to go beyond the exterior. You’re done fumbling around on a surface level. Someone sees you the way you see you, and vice versa. Surprisingly, they’re still on board. Surprisingly, you’re still on board.

Which is why it’s heartbreaking when one of you jumps ship.

What then? Do you immediately open up again? Take another chance by revealing the plankton of your soul to someone new? No. You want some caffeinated, fizzy version of the thing that just broke your resolve, you want something fake, something shallow and dull that doesn’t have the veracity to penetrate your armor and poke around at what’s inside.

Only, celebrity crushes are too far-fetched to quench your desire. They don’t carry with them the potential of a real relationship, which you’ve experienced firsthand. Instead, you set your sights on someone who is unavailable. They’re in a relationship already, or they live in another country, or maybe they just plain don’t want you. Someone who, for whatever and any reason, you are not allowed to have. A challenge.

Crushes make us feel good. They distract us, give us something to hope for, and occasionally make us smile. When we have one on someone who’s unavailable, it gives the impression that we’re taking a stab at moving on. “Hey guys, look at me! Feelin’ feelings again!” But placing ourselves in situations where we don’t have a fighting chance–situations where our pursuits might actually be punished–isn’t fooling anyone, except maybe ourselves.

It’s possible we choose people we can’t have not because we want a challenge, not because we actually believe that we belong with them, but because we can keep them at arm’s length. There’s something that keeps them from getting too close, and that’s what we want, and sometimes, what we need. In this regard, the ones who claim they want a challenge actually become the challenge. We understand love like adults and face it with the preparedness of a child.

Perhaps we chase people in hopes that we’ll never catch up. But maybe we chase them because we know why they’re running.

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