The first time my heart was broken, my mother, who’d never read a single self-help book in her life, passed me a tissue, and informed me that no man in the universe was worth one of my tears. I was going to wallow, write tormented poetry and spend six months in my pyjamas. After two days, she parted my curtains, flung open the windows to let in some fresh air and declared, ‘It’s enough now,’ adding various assurances about there being many fish in the sea.
With the equanimity and grace of what is really inescapably now my middle-age, I understand it was love – not cold-heartedness – that drove her insistence on steel reinforcements for the sandcastles of my heart. Being a romantic by nature, I’d probably still be mooching over a lost love were it not for my practical mother who wears sensible shoes and has superlative time management skills.
To love and be loved are the greatest human needs, as deep as hunger, as primary as thirst, as necessary as oxygen. Romantic love is of course the queen of love with delicious promises of gropes beneath the sheets and tingles down under. But there’s also good old platonic love, love-at-first sight, arranged love, the ‘love-that-dares-not-speak-its-name,’ long-distance love, maternal love, and the biggest bitch of them all, unrequited love.
Some of the greatest literature, including the Roman poet Catullus’s poetry lamenting his passion for Lesbia, Goethe’s The Sorrow of Young Werther and Rostand’s French play Cyrano de Bergerac has been inspired by love-unreturned. While it certainly plumbs the darkest depths of emotion, and therefore appeals to artists seeking out extreme experiences, there are few better ways to torture ourselves (other than perhaps with an eating disorder or a relationship with a married man) than engaging in the masochistic torments of unrequited love.
Nothing drains our reservoirs of self-worth and snuffs out the hope that we are, despite the occasional bad hair and acne, worth loving, quite as effectively as falling in love with someone who doesn’t return the favour. Only those with unchecked hubris or Jewish parents can remain steadfast in the conviction that they are lovable in the face of indifference or rejection.
The first time it happened to me, I was nine. No-one warned me you could suffocate from heartache, which I very nearly did when the last episode of Chips was screened. And that was it for me and Erik Estrada. Over at the final credits. I then went through a series of similar unrequited affairs with Christopher Reeve, John Travolta, even Tom Selleck (look, moustaches were in back in the eighties). I was mad about Rod Stewart and planted soppy kisses on a poster of Peter Gallagher from the Idolmaker, all of which got me nowhere.
Then in high school, I was crazy about a boy with a lisp and shaggy hair, convinced he was my soul mate. He in turn had no interest in me whatsoever. I confided in a friend who offered to ‘put a good word in’ for me. I got back from school holidays only to find out that what she ‘put in’ was probably her tongue in his mouth because she and he were going out.
For years, I watched in torment from the sidelines, waiting, certain that someday he would realize that in Taylor Swift’s words, he belonged with me. I remained friendly, cheerful and fun to be around, but it tore me up inside whenever he held her hand. I once saw him kiss her. It felt like a fist to my belly. He never did fall in love with me. The bruise his indifference left on my heart still aches dully, more than twenty-five years later. I realized, back then, with agonizing self-awareness that I just wasn’t pretty enough for him. That was indubitably a low point in my life, and I might have gotten stuck there were it not for a huge spunk of a rugby coach who fell in love with me shortly thereafter, teaching me the important lesson that there are no feelings of inadequacy that cannot be cured with a six-pack and enormous biceps.
I’ve been there. So I’m sympathetic to those suffering the agonies of unrequited love, which induces, as a website on how to cope with it states, ‘low self-esteem, anxiety and mood swings between depression and euphoria,’ making it sound more like a mental disorder than a state of the heart.
James Fenton’s poem ‘Nothing’ spells it out:
…I know that I’ve embarrassed you too long
And I’m ashamed to linger at your door.
Whatever I embark on will be wrong.
Nothing I do will make you love me more.
I cannot work. I cannot read or write.
How can I frame a letter to implore….
…Nothing I give, nothing I do or say,
Nothing I am will make you love me more.
Unrequited love robs us of all the joys of real love – sharing, intimacy, communicating, giving, receiving and forging trust, not to mention the screaming fights and the make-up sex. It is a private obsessive affair, much like an ablution though experience has taught me that it’s probably easier to exact pleasure out of a visit to the ladies room.
So why do people go there in the first place? I suspect that this is a much more interesting question about ourselves, rather than about love, and the answers, I’m convinced, are to be found by looking inwards, not outwards at the object of our affection.
Perhaps it’s precisely the unconsummated nature of unrequited love that makes it so attractive, especially for perfectionists or those terrified by the exposure real intimacy demands. A man I know believes unrequited love is love at its most uncontaminated and pure, remaining forever elusive and tantalizing. Real relationships, he claims, lead to domestic arrangements, hair in the sink, complaints about toilet-seats and uncapped toothpaste tubes. This man is 76 years old and still lives with his mother, so obviously that philosophy is working a treat for him.
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But for those who want to move from fantasy into an apartment together, the agony far outweighs the ecstasy. Being secretly in love with a friend who doesn’t feel the same way we do or being in love with someone who is emotionally, sexually or physically unavailable is like being stuck at an airport terminal, without ever getting a seat on a plane.
There are, it seems, only two options: wait it out or confess.
Personally, I’m not very good at waiting, and have been known to curse the winter despite the Ecclesiastic assurance that to ‘every thing there is a season.’ Women are socialized into waiting, which is nothing but meekness dressed up in bras and frills. We’re all so terrified to make the first move, as if we were an arachnid and the fella, Miss Muffet. Apparently stating what you want is unladylike, even slutty. I’ve seen too many women wait. For Valentine’s Day cards. For dates. For marriage proposals. I’m all for exercising patience in the right context, but at a certain point waiting becomes less like the seasons and more like concrete. It sets and we find we can’t move. There is ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.’ Waiting is no way to live. We grow pale waiting. Ovaries dry up. Lust becomes moldy. There’s an expiry date on sitting on an egg waiting for it to hatch.
Fear of rejection is paralyzing, only slightly less terrifying than actual rejection itself. But this I know: you can get over rejection. It is easier to move on from a clear NO. The heart has a plasticity. We can fall in love again. Unrequited love keeps us stuck in a place of incomplete regret. We become hooked, sentient, like a fly in a spider’s web, endlessly trapped and only alive enough to feel the pain.
I once told a man I thought he was lovely and sexy hoping he’d say I was lovely and sexy too. He blushed and ran away. A few years later he came back. He’d never stopped thinking about my confession, while I barely remembered it.
Equally, I’ve endured some brave confessions. A friend once shared his sexual fantasies about me in a poem in way too much detail and I really had to decline. The other two were from women. I couldn’t have been more alarmed discovering I’d been the subject of one woman’s obsession for years. YEARS?? I couldn’t believe she’d wasted so much time on me and I assured her I wasn’t worth it, not to mention that I have a heterosexual habit I am rather attached to. She ended up hating me, which is okay. At least she’s moved on.
While we can force people to pay taxes and follow the speed limit, we haven’t yet worked out how to force people to love us, which is probably just as well. Bribery and manipulation are passion-killers. Pity isn’t the emotion we want to induce in a lover. Threatening suicide isn’t a turn-on. Being a creep, as Jack Jordan, Uma Thurman’s ‘stalker’ found out, won’t get you the girl. He sent her a card stating, ‘My hands should be on your body at all times,’ and she called the police.
Stalkers and bunny boilers believe they’re ‘in love’ with the person they’ve objectified and put on a pedestal, creating an impossible distance of emotional geography real intimacy cannot negotiate. Unrequited love may be many things – projection, obsession, lust, addiction, but is it love? Perhaps it is an apparition of love, but its teaching is one about self-love.
It is no crime for someone not to love us back. Love cannot be cajoled, commanded or kept. If someone doesn’t get the message that we’re in love with them, there’s a message in it for us.
If love could be expressed in dollars, we might expend our devotion more judiciously. For example, whenever I’m in my local newsagent, I’m tempted to buy a lotto ticket. Twenty million dollars would substantially ease my day to day existence. For starters, I’d hire a cleaner. Over the years, I’ve probably spent the equivalent of an airfare to Europe on lotto tickets. I’ve never won the lotto, not even when the prize is a trifling one million dollars. At some point, I must acknowledge that by saving ten dollars a week in a jar under my bed, I’ll probably get to Paris sooner.
Similarly, if we spent a fraction of the time loving ourselves as we do on someone who doesn’t love us back, we’d be a lot closer to the kind of love that gives back and doesn’t only ache.
A patient once told a doctor, ‘Doctor, when I press my toe, it hurts.’ The doctor replied, ‘Don’t press your toe.’ Which is just what Eleanor Roosevelt meant when she said: ‘No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’
Unrequited love has a lot to teach us about how to love ourselves. Self-love, you’ll notice, is never unreciprocated.
Published in Vogue, Australia under the title ‘Return to Sender’
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?