Unrequited love

The lovely Kitty Drake recently asked me to answer some questions about unrequited love for a piece she was writing for VICE. Your can read her whole article here, and I’ve put my thoughts on the topic below. Having spent my entire adolescence in this painful state it felt good to revisit the topic with what I know now.

Meanings of unrequited love

Like pretty much everything in life unrequited love will mean different things to different people, and at different times in their lives. However it can certainly often function as a distraction from the difficult stuff of life, as well as being a projection of something of ourselves – or something that we long for – onto another person.

In this way unrequited love is quite similar to erotic or romantic fantasies more broadly. These frequently stem from the difficult times of our past, and reveal a lot about what we fear and long for. We often use them as a way to distract ourselves from the hard stuff of our lives. But, like unrequited love, they offer another possibility – we could tune into them and use them as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves: what we value, what we dread, and how we relate to others. There’s more on how to do this in my zine about erotic fantasies with Justin Hancock.

Treating people as things

The risk with unrequited love is that we treat it as something that ought to be requited, and focus on pursuing the object of our affections instead of tuning in to what these strong feelings have to tell us about our selves. Unrequited love is rarely actually about the other person – frequently we simply don’t know them well enough to really know that they are all of the things that we think they are. Also there is generally a large amount of objectification going on – we want them to be something for us, rather than loving them in their full humanity (more about the dangers of this approach in my book Rewriting the Rules). Putting people on pedestals is rarely kind – they often end up falling off and being hurt by the experience. Why would you do that to somebody you love?

There’s also often something in unrequited love about hoping for a rescuer or saviour: ‘The One’ person who will come into our lives and make everything better: A manic pixie dream person. Again this isn’t a cool thing to do to someone, and if somebody does requite that kind of love then it’s worth being very careful because you may well find yourself in the drama triangle (playing out the roles of rescuer, victim, and persecutor – not a good recipe for happy relationships – again see Rewriting the Rules for more on this).

Tuning into ourselves

However hard it may be, I would encourage people feeling unrequited love to leave the other person alone and to tune into themselves – perhaps with the help of a professional and/or self-care practices. It may well be that this person represents important sides of yourself that you have disowned or repressed in your life. What the love feeling is telling you is that you need to embrace those parts of you in yourself, not in another person (see my zine – Plural Selves). If you can do this then you may well find that you feel a lot better in yourself, and that you’re capable of better relationships because you’ll be bringing your whole self to them in future.

It’s a hard path for sure, but the way to go with this is to try to stay with these heady, intoxicating feelings and to tune into what they’re telling us about the ways in which we’re unhappy with our lives. Then – ideally – we can start the slow process of shifting and changing those things ourselves – with the support and help of friends, communities, and others – instead of wishing for somebody to land in our lives and do that work for us.

 


Meg-John Barker is the author of a number of popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including Queer: A Graphic History, How To Understand Your Gender, Enjoy Sex (How, When, and IF You Want To), Rewriting the Rules, The Psychology of Sex, and The Secrets of Enduring Love. They have also written a number of books for scholars and counsellors on these topics, drawing on their own research and therapeutic practice.

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