Why do I want to be with people I can’t have?

Dearest Fortune Cookie, When it comes to dating it seems like I want what I can’t have, and what I can’t have always wants me back… Why do I want to be with people who are already otherwise involved; and furthermore, why do they want to be involved with me?

Asking for the impossible should cause the least disappointment, not the most. And yet it does.

04-12-13-24-45 / 17

Hello Diner. I completely understand. All you want is to have a simple romance with someone available and compatible, but your desires say otherwise. You just want that person. Yes, the one on the left. The one already in the relationship.

What you experienced might have happened at this very restaurant tonight. As you sit down and open a menu, steam from another table catches your eye. It billows from a bowl full of deep green, bright red, and rich brown. It’s the reason this other table came here tonight. The steam carries a symphony of aromatic notes to your defenseless nose. These Diners dig in with big, shiny metal spoons and scoop heaps onto their plates.

You have no idea what it is or whether it has a translatable name (it doesn’t), but your nose, eyes, mouth, and stomach all instantly agree: I want what they’re having.

Before you realize it, your senses conscripted your arm into their manic coup, and it waves the waiter over like a spastic marionette. Now your mouth betrays you. “I want what they’re having,” you say.

The waiter first gives you a quizzical look and smiles at your adventurousness–you brave soul.

With a menu full of options, why that dish? Research shows that the same thing happens with attraction. [1] Your mind efficiently deduces that someone’s partner is probably good mate-material. The theory at work is called “mate copying.” Your brain literally decides, “I’ll have what that person is having.”

The harder question is “why do they want to be involved in me?” There are so many possible reasons. There is research that shows people content in their relationship are less likely to look for (and even notice) something outside of their relationship [2], but really: why wouldn’t someone be attracted to a person who is single and well…attractive?

But, why does it matter? Maybe you just wanted to shout that frustration into the void. But unlike the void, Fortune Cookies answer back, and we are–if nothing else–pragmatic.

Understand that I’m not trying to get out of fulfilling your Order, Diner. You asked a question; you’re right to expect an answer. But in the end, those answers should all be necessary ingredients for happiness. If that person is unable, or worse, unwilling to realize this passion for you, would knowing their motivations make you happier? I sincerely doubt it.

Happiness may look a lot like the person attached to your rival, but in the end happiness is a collection of ideas, experiences, and lifestyle; not a specific person. Look for someone else who is all that and available. They do exist; they just need a little more patience to find–for now. Good luck, Diner.


[1] Place, S. S., Todd, P. M., Penke, L., Asendorph, J. B. (2010). Humans show mate copying after observing real mate choices. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 320 - 325.

[2] Miller, R. S., Simpson, J. A. (1990, August). Relationship satisfaction and attentiveness to alternatives. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Boston, MA. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED326793.pdf