UNREQUITED LOVE …
Love, desire and sexual attraction weave stories of bliss when they’re reciprocated, but what happens when they’re not? As much as we may wish it to be otherwise so, some people may not want to “play” with us in the way we want them to: as a date, a boyfriend, a partner, a wife.
What do we do when the person we want doesn’t want us back?
Early on, children have to endure the sad, frustrating lesson that certain children may not want to play with them. They may not get invited to a classmate’s party and the child who they have a crush on may not like them back. In fact, the crush may even be convinced that the child in question has the cooties.
As we grow up, we continue to learn this difficult lesson. We may not get a Valentine’s card shoved in our desk from the one person we hoped would send their love. The person we pine after may be taken and unable to play, romantically or sexually, in the ways that we hope. The kiss we offer may be greeted with a turned cheek rather than the lips – or worse, an awkward wave goodnight.
Or we may be taken and someone else may not be able to reach out to us, even if we want them to carry us away with kisses and dreams, or even a mundane Sunday spent doing the laundry and rubbing each other’s feet. The list goes on: he may not, as the book and movie say, be that “into” you. She may like you “as a friend.” He may want you only as a booty call and not as a soul mate. She may want you only as long as you do X, Y or Z.
These moments of unreturned love or lust may be tough. Scratch that – they may feel gut-wrenchingly sad, confusing, bare, lonely, and vulnerable. And yet they are a tough reality of togetherness and separateness. Sometimes the person you most want to play with – to love, to touch, to kiss, to bathe with – doesn’t want to play your game. Sometimes it’s even harder: they may choose to not even talk to you anymore.
And yet we can’t control what other people decide to do with their lives. Not only can we not control it but sometimes the kindest, most compassionate response is to acknowledge that whatever the other person chose is perhaps best for them at the moment. Maybe they are not trying to be cruel. Perhaps they know themselves quite well and they’ve decided that they can’t look into your eyes, take your phone calls, or come home to you anymore. Sometimes people won’t play with us and we are forced to be okay with it, especially if it’s what helps the other person to move on with their life. The Universe may be forcing us to GROW.
There’s no doubt about it: unrequited love and lust are hard. Research has shown how different an experience it is (in terms of brain activity) compared to love that’s returned. Not that most of us need a scientist to tell them that: if you’ve loved and loved back, and another time loved and been left in the lurch, you know all too well what the difference is. You know how endings or break ups feel. And you may also know that moment in time when you decide it’s okay that you or they decided to leave the relationship. That it was okay to move on, to not always be there for the other person or to stop taking their calls so often or listening to their longing for you.
Unrequited love is love that is not openly reciprocated or understood as such, even though reciprocation is usually deeply desired. The beloved may or may not be aware of the admirer’s deep and strong romantic affections.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines unrequited as “not reciprocated or returned in kind.”
“Some say that one-sided love is better than none, but like half a loaf of bread, it is likely to grow hard and moldy sooner.” Others, however, like Nietzsche, considered that “indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.”
The inability of the unrequited lover to express and fulfill emotional needs may lead to feelings such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety and rapid mood swings between depression and euphoria. A universal feeling, by some estimates affecting 98% of all people during their lifetimes, unrequited love has naturally been a frequent subject in popular culture. Unfortunately, movies, books and songs often portray the would-be lover’s persistence as paying off when the rejector comes to his or her senses. The presence of this script makes it easy to understand why an unrequited lover persists in the face of rejection’.
‘Platonic friendships provide a fertile soil for unrequited love’. Thus the object of unrequited love is often a friend or acquaintance, someone regularly encountered in the workplace, during the course of work or other activities involving large groups of people. This creates an awkward situation in which the admirer has difficulty in expressing his/her true feelings, a fear that revelation of feelings might invite rejection, cause embarrassment or might end all access to the beloved, as a romantic relationship may be inconsistent with the existing association.
In terms of the feelings of the hopeful one, it could be said that they undergo about the same amount of pain as does someone who is going through the breakup of a romantic relationship without ever having had the benefit of being in that relationship.
‘There are two dark sides to unrequited love, but only one is made familiar by our culture’ – that of the lover, not the rejector. In fact, research suggests that the object of unrequited affection experiences a variety of negative emotions on a par with those of the suitor, including anxiety, frustration and guilt.
As Freud long since pointed out, ‘when a woman sues for love, to reject and refuse is a distressing part for a man to play’, and vice versa. The role of the rejector will often force them to ‘feel morally repugnant and guilty’; and whereas the unrequited lover may always retain some hope, ‘the rejector’s potential outcomes are nearly all bad’.
Unrequited love has long been depicted as noble, an unselfish and stoic willingness to accept suffering. Literary and artistic depictions of unrequited love may depend on assumptions of social distance which have less relevance in democratic societies with relatively high social mobility, or less rigid codes of sexual fidelity.
Nonetheless, the literary record suggests a degree of euphoria in the limerence associated with unrequited love, which has the advantage as well of carrying none of the responsibilities of mutual relationships: certainly, ‘rejection, apparent or real, may be the catalyst for inspired literary creation…“the poetry of frustration”‘.
Eric Berne considered that ‘the man who is loved by a woman is lucky indeed, but the one to be envied is he who loves, however little he gets in return. How much greater is Dante gazing at Beatrice than Beatrice walking by him in apparent disdain’.
That’s not to say that one should always give up: there is something to be said for insisting someone talk to you, for asking for a second (or tenth) chance, for getting on a train or a plane and saying “I want to try” or coming home and saying “I know sex is out of the question, but can I just hold you? Can we kiss?” But how to tell one from another? Now that’s the mystery of love and of lust, isn’t it?
If you’re moving on from a breakup, a divorce or other relationship heartbreak check out How to Survive the Loss of a Love.
If you’re trying to figure out how to re-connect with someone you love or lust after or are trying to come to a middle ground with your two very different sex drives or levels of desire, check out Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
Debby Herbenick, PhD, MPH is a research scientist at Indiana University, a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, and the author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
Her personal blog can be found at MySexProfessor.com.
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