The Practice of Unrequited Love, Part I

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All love is some form of obsession, although it's important to use that word lightly. Obsession does not mean stalking or an inability to focus on any other aspect of one's life, but it does include those strong feelings of desire that are impossible to describe and equally difficult to tear away from oneself. When someone is the object of your Gaze, you are making decisions upon decisions that you aren't even aware of: could this be my mate for life?

Unrequited love is of course, a form of obsession, but one where the issue of control might be less over the person in question, and more over the entire situation itself. In unrequited love, the person feels as if he or she is the key to the entire relationship and must bear all of the conflicting feelings that unrequited love brings. This is both an admission of failure and redeeming control. With unrequited love, the failure stems from a simple, pathetic feeling: "Why doesn't he/she love me the same way I love him/her?" Our doomed unrequited lover is seeking to impose his own feelings on the beloved, with the tacit understanding that such a feat is not possible. So, the lover finds another way to keep the possibilities open.

This is accomplished with what I just termed "redeeming control." In unrequited love, the lover feels that he/she is the one who must hold onto the idea of a fully realized relationship. Any deviation from that results in disaster and non-fulfillment. By keeping faithful to the idea, that action gives life to the potential relationship and it must be nurtured no matter how difficult the situation is. The lover thinks, "My beloved does not feel the same way, but if I let go of the idea, then it really is over and nothing will ever come of anything." So by keeping faithful but knowing the limitations, the lover bears all of the emotional costs but thinks it's for a greater purpose. Hence, there is a perception that suffering unrequited love will lead to a redemptive act: the two will be together.

There is an element of delusion in all of this, of course. That element is the lover knows he/she cannot control the actions or feelings of the beloved, but instead focuses on the higher purpose. The lover escapes the delusion of a non-existent romance for a potential non-existent payoff. We shouldn't look at the lover as a wretch, though, because so many people go through this emotional roller-coaster, and these are people who could never be described by their friends or families as unhinged. But as love does have an element of obsession and desire to control, these feelings are not outside the bounds of love and into a dangerous pathology. Love is the one difficult emotion that we humans cannot control, no matter how much we try. We can't control with whom we fall in love, to whom we are attracted, and our feelings of deep attachment, even if they're not reciprocated.

One of the most difficult things for an unrequited lover is "letting go." As mentioned above, the lover is not able to let go of the idea of a potential relationship even with the obvious obstacles and finds away around that. But even for the most ardent lover, there is a realization of the futility of holding out. In these cases, the lover admits that he/she must "get on with their life" and tries to find activities or relationships that can distract his/her primary attention from the beloved. And some might be successful at that, where they continue on in their lives but still keep faithful to the idea of redemptive control. It takes a great deal of mental energy to accomplish, but it can be done, even if the end result is a bitter sense of what might have been.

But an unrequited lover will never admit to "letting go." It's a phrase that is an admission of complete and total failure. It symbolizes The End. Instead, the lover will opt for admitting that his/her love is a part of his/her personality, experiences and psychic makeup. Thinking this puts the experience in a special place, protected and meaningful throughout the lover's life. It also makes the disappointment more acute, but here is where the lover appeals to redemptive control: you take the bitter with the sweet and that just makes you stronger because suffering can be redemptive. And so the cycle of conflicting feelings begins anew.

Naturally, there are levels of resentment. Even a faithful unrequited lover will experience intense feelings of anger towards his/her beloved: "Why don't you love me like I love you?" The stark difference in feeling is even more sharply delineated when the lover feels exasperated: "Why can't we even just try?" It's one of the downsides of bearing all the emotional costs of the relationship (and I use that term broadly because there is a relationship occurring, even if it's not with a capital R). The anger and resentment over the beloved's perceived "non-love" can lead to an intensification of neurosis: it breeds insecurity, or compounds existing feelings of insecurity. It also leads to non-communication based out of fear. So the resentment may fester to an unhealthy level, but it can be snapped back when the lover thinks: "Don't do anything to rock the boat and push my beloved away. Take it in stride and deal with it."

That is one of the central failings in the practice of unrequited love. Communication is always lauded as the pivot point of a relationship, but unrequited love requires a great deal of suppression. No matter how strongly the lover feels, he/she cannot communicate fully with his/her beloved. Now, they can have a relationship that is honest and truthful, but there are areas where communication is forbidden. When it comes to the true depth of the feelings the lover has for the beloved, he/she remains silent because they cannot do anything to jeopardize the potential Relationship. So while the lover believes in redemptive control, the beloved is the one holding all the cards because it all depends on the beloved to start the wheels in motion. "I am in love in you and always have been," is the preferred language here and is the starting point. The unrequited lover can empower him/herself to remain faithful and true, but must mask his/her true feelings and not communicate them fully because the Relationship depends entirely on the beloved.

The practice of unrequited love is a difficult process and it puts the lover into situations that most people would steer clear. The unrequited lover is not a pathetic wretch, but someone deeply in love with another. In love, we all make any number of mental gymnastics to justify our actions and prove ourselves to our beloved -- actions that we will later denounce as stupidity or meet with incredulity: "How did I ever let myself do that?" Unrequited love can feel more romantic and thus, for the lover, is deserving of more faithfulness and suffering to the ideal. Yet it can trap the lover into feelings of deep despair: "I want to see you happy, but I want to see you happy with me." If an unrequited lover manages to remain faithful to the ideal but does not become enslaved by it (i.e., he/she "moves on"), the sense of loss is no less palpable: it is the bittersweet memory of what might have been that is taken with the lover to an unvisited tomb.