Why We Love People Who Don't Love Us Back
In 2007, a boy came on my tights at a house party and then abruptly stopped talking to me – and I've been obsessed with him ever since.
Photo: Elnur Amikishiyev / Alamy Stock Photo
I’ve been in love with the same person for 11 years. I say love, but it’s not really love, because our last significant interaction was about eight months ago when I trapped him in a loo. It was meant to be a grand gesture: in my mind I was going to ambush him, tell him that I wanted to have sex right-here-right-now-in-this-loo, and he’d be so bowled over by my nonchalant attitude that he’d finally love me back. But what actually happened is that he said no. And then I begged. Then he politely edged round me, unlocked the door and walked out. And the look of perfectly detached boredom on his face as he did it will haunt me until I die.
This boy, who I’ll call Alex, rejected me for the first time when we were 15. He came on my tights at a party in 2007, then abruptly stopped talking to me, and I remember it hurt so badly that the shock of it made me vomit all over my mum's carpet. I'd transformed two snogs, one pair of tights and zero solo-hangouts into a fully fledged relationship. In in his view, we didn’t know each other in 2007.
At 15, sobbing on the stairs with sick all over my face had been a dramatic escape from my otherwise boring teenage life. At 26, though – when you’re still chasing after the same boy (now man) – asking yourself what you’re trying to escape, and why, gets a bit more depressing.
When I switched from low-level enduring love of Alex back to full-on slavish obsession a few years ago, I was seeing a therapist for agoraphobia and general panic. But instead of using the time to talk about not being able to walk around outside, or not being able to get out of bed, or still living with my parents, I turned each session into an hour-long fantasy. I would lie on my back, looking up at the ceiling, and talk about Alex: what he might be thinking and feeling, and why he didn’t love me back. Sometimes I would tell lies – invent nice things he had said to me, or reasons to hope. Sometimes I felt too prickly and ashamed to mention him at all, so I’d talk about the other boys who I felt were rejecting me, and my therapist would say, "Oh, Kitty, I can't keep up!" – and I would feel, in that moment, that my life was pretty wild.
It’s this total abdication of emotional responsibility that makes unrequited love so weirdly pleasurable. Aisha, 27, explains why she has made a habit of pursuing doomed relationships with women who are straight: "Before I came out I was always in relationships with men, and pushing them away," she says. "It made me feel evil – either I was frigid, or I was a psychopath. I was constantly thinking, 'What's wrong with me that I don’t want them?'"
But for Aisha, pursuing straight women, though painful, was in some ways a relief. "If you're chasing someone who you can't have, you think very little about yourself – you're thinking about them. It's that distraction, isn't it?"
The thousand little humiliations of unrequited love – the pleading, the pity, the strangled 5AM Facebook calls, the locked loos – might actually be worth it for the escapism of pouring every disappointment, ambition and insecurity you ever had into one fixed, human point. If this person would just love you back, goes the fantasy, all your existential angst would be solved.
Psychotherapist and sex and relationships specialist, Dr Meg John Barker, tells me that unrequited love is rarely about the other person. "Frequently we simply don't know them well enough to really know that they are all of the things we think they are," they explain. "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." There’s also a certain amount of objectification going on: "We want them to be something for us, rather than loving them in their full humanity. 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?"
It's a vicious circle: you love them because you don't like yourself. And if you did, by some magical chance, trick them into loving you back, you'd probably hate them for it. Another serial unrequited lover, Mia, thinks about her addiction to the one-sided romance in terms of gay shame: "It's internalised homophobia. If I go out with a girl, I want them to be somebody that I'm so proud of. She needs to be unattainable. It's gross, but I wouldn't want to go out with someone second-rate, because I’ve got, like, homophobia about myself."
This is unrequited love in its purest form: when your whole body is taken over with pang-y, throbb-y want, but you can’t even properly masturbate about your crush because you love them so much it hurts to remember their features – and anyway, to imagine them having proper sexual contact with disgusting little you would somehow be to sully them.
The bus is a prime location for this kind of of loving. At 31, Mia still allocates specific journey-time to do what she calls her "scenarios". "I'll find a song I like and do this thing where I imagine me and the girl I love dancing to it and everyone watching us and saying, 'Oh my god those two are so hot.' At the moment it's 'Barking' by Ramz."
If you're born with a tendency to fall hopelessly in love with people who will never love you back, maybe you’re doomed for life. Until you become a more stable, emotionally responsible, shame-free human being, unrequited love might be your crutch. It looks like my fate is to spend the rest of my days fantasising about Alex on the bus.
But one under-appreciated way to break out of this cycle of pain would be to actually have sex with your love. Because the sex will almost certainly be shit. The thing about unrequited love is that there isn't any real sexual chemistry between you because, crucially, they don’t like you back. If there was, you'd be probably be together and putting a deposit down on a house right now. So in bed, you will be shit, because you will be nervous and fumbling and weird; and they will be shit, because they don't actually fancy you and they can smell your desperation. If you were honest with yourselves you would just stop, but you plough on, joylessly, and deal with the awkwardness and the regret in the morning. The excruciating shitness of this sex might just cure you.
Then again, if you are a seasoned unrequited lover, you – like me – will be delusional. In a few days you will have convinced yourself that it was actually "really tender". You'll have forgotten that you didn’t look each other in the eye even once, and be telling anyone who will listen that although you didn't actually cum you were really, really close.