The Unrequited Problem

In a world where nearly everyone is searching for love, why do do many of us end up infatuated with someone we can’t have?

Love is blind, so we’re told. It’s one of those casual little cultural lies to which we all subscribe. In reality, it isn’t blind at all. If anything, love is ignorant. We see the people we want only too clearly on the surface, and that informs our choices in ways that we often don’t take the time to understand. I’ve been tossing the notion around that love doesn’t exist at all, that it’s actually a form of self delusion based on convenience and gratification. That may be an over-simplification of complicated emotions, but there might be something to it.

We are inundated with love in our culture, from Nicholas Sparks novels to romantic comedies to entire aisles at the store filled with cupids and hearts slapped on cheap plastic. The concept of love is so pervasive that most of our lives are spent in search of something called a “soulmate,” as if such a thing exists outside the realms of mythical creatures and fairytales. “There’s someone out there for everyone,” we’re also told, the implication being that if you’re one of the majority who hasn’t yet found yours, then you’re not looking hard enough. And the loop continues.

We talk a lot about what we want in someone; caring, compassion, sacrifice, among others, but many of us are drawn to people who treat us like shit, use us and throw us away when they’ve exhausted our value. If love is truly blind in these cases, it’s willfully so to the people as they are beneath the surface.

At least in those situations, however, there is a tangible relationship, however awkward or difficult it may be. The worst byproduct of our love-obsessed culture, though, is the unrequited kind. I’m not referring to the creepy, stalker-types who don’t even know the object of their obsessions. That’s not love, more like straight-up mental illness. When I say unrequited, I’m referring to situations where two people have a connection, and feelings ensue but unevenly. One side sees someone they could be with forever but the other is perfectly happy to just be friends.

Keeping our emotions under control isn’t always the easiest thing. When faced with unrequited feelings, many of us hold on, hoping the object of our passions will come around. We’ll sit and listen to them complain about the people they choose to pursue, give them a shoulder to cry on, while we keep our feelings bottled up. We watch the person we want throw themselves at people who manipulate them, lie to them, hurt them with impunity and play the role of the steady advisor, just wanting to ease their pain. But our pain is far deeper. We can’t help but think “why not me?” as we watch them bounce from user to user when all we really want is to hold them up, get them to see the person we see. Eventually, those unexpressed feelings come out, when the frustrations and the longing become too much. Despite the fact that we know rejection from the ones we want most awaits the broaching of the subject, we do it anyway, hoping beyond reason that this will be the time they truly see us.

But they never do. They care about us, they say, but “our friendship is too important to risk.” That phrase is like a gut punch to the unrequited. First, it’s nearly always a lie. It means they want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want the emotional support you bring but in doing so, they inadvertantly devalue your feelings. They chase after dead ends in failed relationship after failed relationship but never give a thought to trying with the person who’s always there for them. Eventually, you end up being the one who patches them back together so they can leave you home alone while they find someone new to break them all over again.

In this narrative, you’re supposed to just swallow your feelings and be satisfied with 30% of what you want. Otherwise, they get upset. The other part of the lie is that, if they do find someone who gives them the emotional support they use you for, that friendship that was too important to risk will be over in a matter of weeks anyway. What it really means, far too often, is your friendship is too important to risk when they don’t have a ready replacement for it. Once they do, however, you’re out and left only to wonder what you did wrong.

They never realize the damage they inflict, because that line is really about them holding on to just the parts they want and puts the honus on you to ignore feelings they find inconvenient to that narrative of your friendship they’ve constructed. And even when they’re gone, they never really go away. They might vanish for months, but one morning there will appear a text message saying “I miss you.” Maybe you’ve just spent three months trying to forget them, grasping to make sense of a world where your feelings have no meaning, matter only to you and weren’t enough for the one person in the world you wanted them to be. But once you get that message, it all comes flooding back, bursting through the barriers you’ve built up just so you don’t implode from the feelings of loss and inadequacy. You find yourself wondering if maybe something went wrong, maybe they feel your absence as keenly as you feel theirs. So you reply “I miss you too” and try to arrange a meeting. Sometimes, even though they first contacted you, they don’t reply to this at all. Other times, they make excuses about being busy but assure you that you’ll do it soon.

Again, it’s a lie. Little more than a residual emotional reflex. Maybe they had a fight with their significant other that morning and fell back to you because you’ve always been there to hold them up. But by the afternoon, they’ve smoothed things over and you’re back to being forgotten or left behind. The whole brief experience is just enough to set you back to square one, forcing you to start rebuilding the barriers.

“The Friend Zone” may be popular fodder for television shows and romantic comedies where the protagonists just have to be persistent and sweet to break out of that box. In real life, it’s a prison and anyone who finds themselves trapped within its stone walls and steel bars has a life sentence. There is no parole in the Friend Zone. Being persistent only gets you pushed away. Being sweet only gets you used, and then pushed away somewhere down the line.

There’s an old adage that you can’t make somebody love you and it’s very true. But loving someone who knows what your feelings are yet still subjects you to the ins and outs of their failed relationships, someone who drags you out to bars where you end up sitting alone, drinking too much too fast just to numb the heartbreak you feel watching them fawn all over other people is its own particular slice of Hell.

So why do we continue to do it? Why do so many of us subject ourselves to the torture of being so close to what we want but with no chance of achieving it? We like to sit around and blame them for not loving us, condemn them for playing fast and loose with our feelings. But it’s not all their fault. Certainly, there are those who will take adavantage of our feelings, but mostly they just don’t see us as an option and their actions reflect that. They feel the way they do, there’s no requirement in life to love someone back just because they love you. And chances are, they’ve been honest with us about it. We’re the ones being dishonest, continuing to act as though just being friends is enough when it’s clearly not. In those cases we’re the ones faking it, not them.

Put the blame where it lies, on ourselves. Maybe we lose a good friend in the process, but our feelings have already cost us that friend, we just don’t see it yet. They’re only still around because we deny those emotions. Any sane person would walk away from a situation where their feelings get crushed every time we’re around them. Yet we continue to hope, we continue to seek out that crack in their denials that could open the door to what we want most. Worst of all, we find ourselves hoping their other relationships fail. Ask yourself, what kind of friend is that?

If we truly love them, we can’t want them to be miserable for our benefit. We need to suck it up, wish them the best, pick up the tattered pieces of our hearts and move on. Maybe we can rejoin that friendship somewhere down the line when our feelings aren’t so raw. Maybe not. But continuing to act one way and want something else entirely isn’t good for anyone, us or them.

I think we get in these unrequited relationships because, somewhere deep down, we don’t feel like we deserve to be loved. We may actually seek out situations where our feelings are guaranteed to not be returned. That way, we can carry on our personal torment, punishing ourselves for whatever perceived slights we feel. But really, we’re just window shoppers, standing outside with our face pressed on the glass staring longingly at what we tell ourselves we want most in the world while ignoring those who pass behind us on the street, some of whom might actually be the person who could or would return those feelings.

The only real answer is to walk away. We don’t want to lose them but eventually, as we all inevitably must realize, they are already gone.

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Published in: on September 16, 2013 at 7:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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