This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Ask VICE is a series where readers ask VICE to solve their problems, from dealing with unrequited love to handling annoying flatmates. Today we’re hoping to help a reader who can’t stop thinking about someone who might be taking advantage of them.
For three years now, I’ve been obsessing over someone who doesn’t want me back. Rationally, I know that I should stop, but a little bit of attention, a message or a hint of friendliness from A. sends me back into a loop I can’t even explain.
A. is one of my closest friends, we talk for hours on the phone, we regularly go out together in larger groups. He’s usually the centre of attention and finds it difficult to maintain relationships for more than six months.
He knows how I feel about him – I even confessed it to him once. He said that had he known sooner, things may have been different between us, but at that point he was with someone else. This was three relationships ago.
A couple of times, after a few too many drinks, we’ve even kissed and almost ended up in bed together. At other points, I’ve had to mute his social media and avoid contact after he was being evasive.
Many of our mutual friends have gone from saying, “There’s clearly chemistry between you two” to “stop playing into his game”. I thought that, sooner or later, I’d fall for someone else and stop thinking about A. that way. That hasn’t happened.
I’m tired and frustrated. At times, I think it’s a personal obsession, but I also have the feeling A. is taking advantage of me. How can I get out of this situation once and for all? I’m 25, I should be old enough to understand that if someone doesn’t want me, that’s just how it is.
Therapists Federica Micale and Giulia Amicone, who specialise in relationships and have recently co-founded a therapy service called Apsicologa, are more than happy to help with your one-sided love dilemma.
“When we desire a relationship with someone who doesn’t want us back, an involuntary mechanism is activated in our brain,” they explained over email. “It’s called the ‘Zeigarnik effect’.” Named after the Soviet psychologist who discovered it, this effect describes how our minds recall unresolved or pending activities more easily than completed ones. “It’s as if we’re constantly receiving a message urging us to finish what we’ve started – that’s why we stay in non-relationships that don't satisfy us.”
In your letter, you say you’ve been left feeling tired and frustrated by the situation. This is very understandable – you’ve been stuck for a long time. “Admitting it means breaking your cover and becoming vulnerable, which usually happens in times of great distress,” the experts said. It also means “recognising you’ve settled in a situation you know is not ideal, but that keeps giving you hope”.
It all seems very confusing for you, especially because A. keeps sending you mixed messages: attention, quality time and even the occasional make out session. These things give you both an adrenaline rush and put you in a state of emotional turmoil. Even if you hate it at times, that combination has become a kind of safety blanket for you.
Micale and Amicone think that your question about whether A. is taking advantage of you – consciously or otherwise – is a step in the right direction. For instance, you should think about whether he has benefitted from your help in the past but not offered the same support when you needed it. “He might ask for big favours, but not return them as easily,” the experts wrote. “He might need you to be available at short notice, assuming you’ll do anything to be there.”
On top of that, A. might be avoiding to clarify your status because “his need for attention outweighs their respect for the other person”, the experts continued. As you said yourself, A. likes to be in the limelight. Besides, you’ve made your feelings clear to him, but he still refuses to give you a straight answer.
Since you are in love with this person, these red flags probably feel more ambiguous. You might be clinging on to small things, like him liking your photo on Instagram right away or calling you to hang out, trying to see a deeper meaning in them. Maybe you think they’re proof that there’s something there, a relationship that corresponds to what you want but that doesn’t truly exist.
Next time this happens, you should try to “look at things from an outside perspective”, the experts said. Only then will you realise that “you are actually in a co-dependent situation that does not benefit you”. The second step after accepting this is to “give yourself time”, they continued. You can start by “not changing your plans if he asks you to”, for instance. You’ll be surprised what a difference a change of mindset can make, little by little.
As far as you not falling for anyone else in this period, it’s certainly possible you haven’t met anyone you seriously liked yet. But you should also consider whether you haven’t given past flirtations a chance to flourish. In fact, waiting for someone for too long can lead you to develop low self-esteem. As a result, “when we come across someone who appreciates us and thinks we are enough, we might question ourselves and end up finding it easier to stay in the comfort zone”.
Just to be clear, the experts aren’t suggesting just going for a random rebound, but using the space you’ve given to this idealised love for a more concrete experience. In the meantime, “it could be useful to simply concentrate on your interests and share them with other people close to you, like friends”.
And, to avoid relapsing, you should work on your self-esteem, perhaps with the help of a professional. Eventually, when you feel like you’ve healed, you could consider clearing things up with A. “It could be really liberating and complete the process of gradual detachment,” Micale and Amicone added.
One last word from the experts: you should avoid beating yourself up because you’re in this position at 25 years old. “In life and love, there are no scripts or protocols to follow,” they wrote. “It’s not your age that counts, but your emotional maturity and the phase you’re going through. Everyone has their own experiences and realises things when the time is right.”