When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
It’s very likely that, at some point in your life, you’ll suddenly develop an inexplicable attraction to/longing for someone you shouldn’t. Maybe it’s your best friend’s boyfriend, or your partner’s slightly-better-dressed sibling. Perhaps it’s your direct boss, or a coworker who works excruciatingly closely with you. It could even be your therapist or a trusted teacher. Whoever they are, the most sordid, unasked-for crushes involve someone you can’t imagine avoiding or dating.
If regular crushes are supposed to give you butterflies in your stomach, the ones from unwanted crushes feel like they have lead wings. You don’t just experience the usual nerves: You might also be hit with a heavy mix of guilt, shame, confusion, or anger—all while having to pretend that everything’s completely normal because there’s NO WAY you two are making out (no matter how many dreams you’ve had about it). You know you have to urgently rid yourself of this emotional affliction—you just have no idea how (otherwise, you would have immediately).
As uniquely chaotic as it seems, this predicament isn’t weird or unusual, and there are ways to cope.
1. Be kind to yourself (but still cautious).
It can be easy to beat yourself up for “messing” up a perfectly great platonic relationship by deigning to have Feelings.
“It’s important to acknowledge that sexual and romantic attraction are normal physiological responses to attractive stimuli,” said Suzanne Degges-White, a licensed counselor and professor of counselor education at Northern Illinois University. “We don’t consciously tell our brains to generate attraction to particular people.”
You didn’t intend for this to happen—it just did, and it sucks that this crush is one that causes you distress rather than genuine excitement. That said, while you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it, Degges-White cautioned against fully following your feelings and pursuing said crush. “While it isn’t easy to avoid these instinctual reactions, it is definitely within your control to avoid acting on these reactions,” she said.
2. Instead of fantasizing about the crush, redirect your mind to all of the negative emotional consequences that could result.
“No relationship happens in a bubble—there are collateral people and relationships involved,” said Degges-White. Every time you’re tempted to flirt with someone off-limits, remind yourself of the brutal aftermath actually acting on your crush would bring. Thinking about the more realistic consequences of a bad-idea entanglement—like sending essay-length apology texts to a betrayed third party, constantly wondering whether this person was worth the sacrifice, or the complicated logistics of maintaining a secret affair—should be enough to thwart you.
3. Casually reduce your time around your crush... but don’t go so far that you end up thinking about them even more.
This is classic crush-squashing advice, but it works for a reason: Taking small steps to see or interact with a crush less often helps take your mind off of them, giving you more room to genuinely lose interest. Ways to give yourself space can extend to the internet, too, like muting your crush on social media, and actively stopping yourself from Slacking memes to them. (You could always send them to yourself instead.) If you're naturally around your crush in person a lot (e.g., if they're a co-worker), avoiding them can require more complicated measures, like dodging them around the office all day or skipping work happy hours.
Proceed with caution here, though: Ironically, evasion tactics can sometimes make your crush more intense. “The things that we are told are ‘forbidden’ are things that we typically want even more because of it,” said Degges-White. If you have to actively exert a ton of effort to not see or think about someone, you might inadvertently make what could be a passing attraction into a much bigger infatuation.
Degges-White said that seeing the object of your affection more often can demystify them. “Most of the time, repeated exposure to a stimulus will actually dull your attraction,” she said. “Novelty wears off and you can begin to see the faults that a crush actually has that are ‘invisible’ during the early stages of attraction.” So go ahead and stay right where you are in the cafeteria if they sit down next to you—they might violently devour their sandwich or be one of those people who hates vegetables, thus quickly ridding you of your infatuation.
4. Find a safe person you can talk to about the crush.
If you’re into your friend’s ex or just someone who isn’t your partner, talk to a therapist. If you’re into your therapist, talk to your best friend. Even if it feels like this crush could complicate your life if the wrong people knew about it, there’s probably someone you can discuss it with—and continuing to treat it like a shameful secret to take to your grave may exacerbate the issue.
“Talking about something makes it a lot easier to handle, and it can often be the fix we need,” said Degges-White. “As a counselor, I’ve had clients who really just want to find a safe ‘stranger’—they feel trapped and overwhelmed by an issue, but opening up about it can actually normalize their feelings and experiences.”
5. Learn something new from what you’re feeling.
As diabolically inconvenient and random as this crush might seem, it can still serve a purpose: teaching you something you didn’t previously know about yourself.
“Sometimes, the people who are most attractive to us are those who have qualities we would really like to have ourselves,” Degges-White said. If you’re into your assertive yet kind employee, you might wish you were better at politely but firmly stating how you feel. If you often fall for people who are already in relationships, Degges-White said, it could mean that you’re subconsciously scared of the vulnerability required to date someone, so you gravitate toward unavailable people, giving yourself free reign to feel the highs of falling in love without risking any of the lows. (This can be a lot to unpack, which is why talking about your crush is so important!)
If nothing else, this crush can help you recognize what attraction can feel like and what other romantic partners could and should look like. Once you know that, it’s much harder to bullshit your way into—or through—a lukewarm relationship. The crush can also help you realize what’s missing in a current partnership, so you can either work on it or move on. You understand what it means to like someone so much, even when they can’t give you as much back. Imagine how incredible it’ll feel when, one day, someone can.
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