Going to the ballet is one of my favorite things to do. After a performance of Giselle this summer, I turned to my friend Jen and said, “There is a common theme here–it’s always love, betrayal, then death of the heartbroken heroine.” The archetypal ballet story seems to be: man and woman fall in love, but man is in fact engaged to another woman (preferably a noblewoman); the heroine discovers this deception and dies; the man follows his innocent lover to his own death, or is saved by her soul. (See: Giselle, Swan Lake, La Bayadere).
So prevailing message seems to be that back in the day, if you loved a man but he didn’t love you back (or just not enough), you could literally drop dead. This formulaic melodrama is the basis of an entire art form, not because choreographers are lazy, but because unrequited love is a universal human experience–and thus deeply tragic. A huge part of our own modern “tragedy” is still loving someone who doesn’t love you back. (Although, made into a ballet, it might be more like, ‘woman discovers his deception, erases his number and unfollows him on all social media; man gives no sign of registering her passive-aggressiveness and disappears forever as if he’s truly dead.’)
Jokes aside, liking or loving someone who doesn’t love you back is deeply painful. What is perhaps most difficult about unrequited love is that it’s rarely completely one-sided: based on words or actions, you were led to believe that this person had feelings for you. This means that the person unintentionally led you on, or his/her feelings have changed, or they’re just not strong enough to get to the next level–which are all more bitter pills than not having any connection/chemistry to begin with.
Like most people, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, for which I’m thankful. Being liked by someone you don’t like, gives you perspective; loving someone who doesn’t return your feelings teaches you humility. I think you need both in order to keep throwing yourself out there (to paraphrase Anais Nin, “like a kite”) without shame or fear. Here’s what I’ve learned about loving someone who doesn’t love you back.
1. Recognize that you’re idealizing the person.
Ever have an experience where you gush about this object of your affection to your friends, and their eyes go all blank like they want to disagree with you? Your friends will try to talk sense into you, but you still think that they just don’t know him like you do, and that he truly is special. While that might be the case, it’s more likely that you are idealizing this person in your mind. According to a study, women who are in passionate relationships are much more likely to idealize their partners’ faces, than women who are in less passionate relationships. Translation: passionate love clouds your judgment–or quite literally, ‘love is blind.’
That feeling of, ‘It’s too bad because this person is just so hot!’ is just your passion taking control of your senses. Soon, the scales will fall and you’ll be amazed at how imperfect this person is!
2. You’ve done this to someone else, too.
Having had the same experience on the other side can give you perspective. Unless you’re so completely new to dating, you’ve more than likely been on the receiving end of unrequited love. With that experience in mind, you can respect someone’s freedom to not return your feelings, or to change how s/he feels without asking for your permission, or offering any explanation at all. Remember that love is always about freedom, not obligation.
3. Take words at face value.
At least twice in my life, I fell deeply for someone who wooed me with a lot of impressive words and zeal. But when it was over, I realized that of all the extraordinary compliments I’ve been paid, I’d never been simply told, “I love you.” That made me realize that people are in general fairly honest in how they represent their true feelings. A guy who lavishes you with good feelings but doesn’t say the L-word is being clear with his intentions. If he is in love with you, he will tell you–again and again. He will sing it in the shower and say it in his sleep and text it between his meetings. On the other hand, there will be people with whom you “click” and have a great time, who will never say “love.” There is no reason to struggle in confusion, wondering “how he really feels.” And don’t expect or ask for explanations, either.
4. But actions speak louder than words.
Sometimes, the problem might be letting go of someone who did say “I love you” and acted in like manner, until things changed. But the same rule applies here, and people are pretty honest through their behavior, as well. If s/he doesn’t act in a loving way, that’s a pretty clear sign. Acknowledging this as fact is painful–but less confusing and torturous in the long run. Accept their behavior as truth, and move on accordingly.
5. It’s still better that you loved at all.
It’s a cliche, but it’s still better that you loved and got your heart broken. You learn something about yourself, other people, and life. You also realize you can stand to be more careful with anyone else’s heart, given to you (really the only way we’ll learn this). And most importantly, you felt something real and powerful–even against your will and judgment. That in itself is worthwhile.
A big step in finding closure in unrequited love is 1) finding value in your experience and 2) losing the sense of shame over it. Acknowledge the positive things that came from it, and let go of the disappointment and shame. There is nothing wrong with what happened, as long as you take something from that experience.
More dating tips: On How to Let Go
Can You Ever Become Friends with Your Ex?
On Being Picky in Choosing a Relationship
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Photo: Kyoko Escamilla via Flickr