“You tell me.”
My unrequited love and I were standing outside a party when I’d finally mustered the nerve to ask what we were. He briefly turned away, so I prompted him again. After five months of a casual…thing, of daily talk and instantly gravitating towards one another any time we found each other in the same room, he finally fessed up to what I’d suspected in the couple weeks he’d grown distant: there was someone else. He didn’t want me.
This, as Lisa A. Phillips would describe — she’s the author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession and a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz in New York — is the soft version of unrequited love. Apart from a slight cry and week-long aversion to food not covered in cheese, I let the situation be. I avoided him, really, until I felt I could be around him (and his girlfriend) again. Phillips, on the other hand, compulsively called her unrequited love B. after he’d rejected her. It all came to head when B. threatened to call the cops, cutting off any lingering ties.
“That was mercy,” she told Medical Daily. “I was so exhausted and I was ready to listen.”
Since then, Phillips made good on her promise to understand this bizarre transformation. She dove into the history and literature on romantic obsession, courtship, and love, as well as surveyed more than 260 women online about their experiences of loving someone who didn’t love them back. To her surprise, unrequited love is incredibly common. It's also more of an opportunity than we realize.
An Unwanted Pursuit
Unrequited love can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, where the hieroglyphic sign for love translated to “a long desire.” Though it wasn’t until medieval times the unrequited lover started to view his or her situation as a mission. Take Italian poet Dante Alighieri and Beatrice Portinari, for example. Phillips found Beatrice never requited Dante’s love proving unrequited love is much more about the lover than it is about the beloved. It may feel submissive, but it’s also egocentric; it’s about what extreme feeling for another person can do to transform the self, she said.
“One of the things we know from history is unrequited love is a great source of inspiration in science, some processes of creativity, art, and problem solving,” Phillips added. “The thought process overlaps with the process of feeling and seeking passionate love. When you think about it, they are parallel…When you’re ready, you can make use of this. It can lead to personal transformation: What is this teaching me? Where do I need to be?”
This folds into what Phillips calls the “not yet relationship.” Whether we barely know the person, or know them very well, we endure a stream of questions upon imagining a potential relationship: What will he/she be like? What will I become? We use the unknown to feed this dream version of ourself, which, scientifically, is known as a narcissistic linking fantasy.
Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy told Phillips it’s a common element in the passionate beginnings of love, in which “you feel like you’ve never felt this way before, that this is the most special relationship, that you share an idealized sense of a future together.”
The Science Of A Broken Heart
A 2012 study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science found physical and social pain have a lot in common. Researchers compared the brain activity of those who experienced social rejection to those who experienced physical pain and found similarities between the two images. This suggested something like a broken heart is processed in the same part of your brain that handles the sensory component of pain.
What’s more is a study published in Molecular Psychiatry found the brain’s natural painkiller system responds to social rejection in the same way it does to physical injury. Researchers also found people who scored higher on a personality test for resilience received the highest amount of natural painkiller activation.
“I have seen that people who are higher in resilience tend to naturally make more adaptive interpretations to rejection,” Dr. Ben Michaelis, a clinical psychologist and speaker based in New York City, told Medical Daily in an e-mail. “Those who are lower in resilience may need more help in interpreting these experiences and that's where Phillips's work and good cognitive behavioral therapy [CBT] can come in to help.”
As defined by the Beck Institute, CBT is one of the few forms of psychotherapy that has been scientifically tested and found to be effective in hundreds of clinical trials for many different disorders. It’s based on the cognitive model: “the way we perceived situations influences how we feel moetionally…it is not a situation that directly affects how people feel emotionally, but rather, their thoughts in that situation.” CBT can also help patients identify their distressing thoughts and evaluate how realistic their thoughts are.
“Unrequited love keeps you in a reward cycle of passionate love. It gives you a little satisfaction that can trigger a craving for more,” Phillips said. Eventually, she added, you have to redirect your brain from emotional action. CBT can help here, but so can your friends. Phillips found women especially benefits from taking a class or hanging out with their girlfriends.
“I don’t want to make that sound easy; it’s brutal. It’s so hard to do this, and that’s why it’s a good idea to get professional help, especially if it's interfering with your daily function and you’re doing things you know you shouldn’t do.”
Your Personal Transformation
Obsession, stalking, and violence: the benefits of unrequited love are a hard thing to sell. But there are, in fact, benefits.
“Unrequited love can be a helpful, even critical part of people's journeys. The road of personal development and the creation of a healthy, reciprocal relationship is a process, which requires learning about who you are and what you need in order to be happy,” he said. “Putting yourself out there for someone and not having your feelings reciprocated is often a tremendous opportunity for learning about yourself and what you truly need.”
Yet, a more important lesson to learn in the matters of unrequited love is how to interpret it. Phillips said people who try and fail to pursue another person is seen as a failure, as having messed up, especially with regards to women. There are persistent ideas women are supposed to be passive when it comes to love, she said — so society tends to be harsher on women, belittle them, when they “get out of control.” But succumbing to this idea of failure makes matters worse.
“If you have a negative romantic experience and interpret it to mean that you are somehow unworthy of love and that you will never receive the love you want, you can create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Michaelis said. “If, on the other hand, you look at it as a learning experience and take that new knowledge back into the world, both you, and the world are better served. You need to believe in something before you can encounter it.”
It Takes Two
Here’s the thing: unrequited love, a lot of the time, isn’t what happens when you imagine that “not yet relationship” with the attractive stranger seated across from you on the subway. Both Phillips and Michaelis have found it’s a result of two people who’ve already connected on some level, even been been romantic, and one partner (as I experienced) suddenly grows distant.
"I was embarrased at my age to be so overwhelmingly hungry for love," Phillips said. "I was embarrased as a feminist, a writer, someone with a career; it felt really simple." Eventually, when she was ready, she learned this wasn't the case. Unrequited love can be useful.
But when she sat down to write this book — a sort-of unrequited love-awareness campaign — she had to grapple with the fact she was a journalist, not a psychologist. She found, however, the stories couldn't go untold. They were powerful, and for women, it's like having company.
All of this is why Michaelis chooses to focus on the interpreation of unrequited love each time a broken-hearted patients finds their way to his office. The availability heuristic, he said, suggests that we will use the information that is available to us to understand the world around us. The heuristic is a type of mental shortcut people take that involves basing judgements on information and examples that immediately come to mind.
"You are, of course, around yourself all the time so you will tend to assume that things didn't work out because of something you did or didn't do, not because of the other person or that you just didn't connect," Michaelis said. "In my practice, I often help my patients try to see the bigger picture and learn to interpret these experiences in ways that will be useful to their learning and process."
If you're still not convinced, just think of artist Sam Smith. The partner who never requited his love earned him a handful of Grammys. He is literally gold, and you will be, too.