Why do we develop this bad habit of wanting what we cannot have?

For simplicity’s sake, I refer to hetero6exual women in this post, but what I discuss here definitely applies to hetero6exual men and non-hetero6exual individuals as well.

Many of us are familiar with this scenario: Mr. Nice Guy is cute, sweet, interesting, smart, and available. Even better, he is interested in a relationship with you. The only problem is that you just aren’t that into him. Mr. Bad Guy, on the other hand, is on your mind 24/7.

Like Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Bad Guy has a lot of good qualities, but he is either unavailable for a relationship in general, or unavailable for a relationship with you because he just isn’t that into you. Despite his continual rejection, however, you cannot seem to get him off your mind.

The more he rejects you and the more forcefully he indicates that he doesn’t want to be with you, the more interested you seem to become. 

Why do we develop this bad habit of wanting what we cannot have? Why do you always love someone who can’t love you back? In other areas of life, it seems that we can adjust our preferences to fit the situation. You may have once flirted with the idea of becoming a Hollywood star. But when you discovered you couldn’t act, you let go of that dream (I hope). So why can’t we let go of people who continually reject us?

According to Helen Fisher and her colleagues, the reason romantic rejection gets us hooked is that this sort of rejection stimulates parts of the brain associated with motivation, reward, addiction, and cravings. Using functional MRI, her team looked at the brains of 15 college-aged men and women who had recently been rejected by their partners but claimed to still be intensely “in love.”

During the scan, the research subjects looked at a photo of the person who had rejected them. They then completed a math exercise, such as counting backward from 4,529 by 7. The exercise was an attempt to distract participants from their romantic thoughts. Finally, they were shown a picture of a familiar person they were not interested in romantically.

The team found that participants’ brains were more active in areas associated with motivation, reward, craving, addiction, physical pain, and distress when they looked at the photo of the person who had rejected them than when they looked at the photo of the neutral person.


The study, published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2010, shows that people in this situation are really suffering from a drug addiction, and the drug is the person rejecting us, leaving our love unreciprocated. But the results do not give us insight into why we respond to romantic rejection in this way, and it doesn’t answer the question of how we have developed this troubling tendency of wanting people we can’t have.

You might think it is a matter of heartbreak and grief. But that cannot be the full answer either because in some cases we haven’t lost anything that we can grieve the loss of. We can be madly in love with someone who doesn’t want us and never wanted us, but the situation can sometimes be as painful as someone breaking up with us.

Part of the rejection pain we feel when love is unreciprocated may be caused by an evolutionarily grounded repulsion to social rejection combined with a social stigma associated with breakups and divorce. But that, too, does not explain why we often want only those individuals we cannot have.

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