It can happen without warning, or it can be a slow and awkward build, but realising you are attracted to a friend, colleague or acquaintance and that attraction is not (or probably) not shared is a fraught situation and not one that resolves itself quickly. So what should you do if you find yourself yearning for someone who simply can’t be yours? We asked Daily Life counsellor Elly Taylor.
Unrequited love sometimes feels like an impossible problem to solve. It’s easy to become fixated with anything you know you can’t have, particularly someone you are strongly attracted to. What is the best way to break the cycle?
Firstly to recognise that it is a cycle, particularly on an emotional level, when we swing between the anxiety of uncertainty, the depression of rejection and the hope of possibility. It can be an almost exquisitely romantic pain. But the problem with romance is that it’s often based on fantasy, not reality, and it doesn’t last. Long term love takes mutual commitment and effort; it’s the reciprocity that keeps the momentum going.
Is blocking your unrequited love out of your life completely i.e, removing them from Facebook and disengaging from friendship groups they are in ever a good quick-fix solution?
I think it’s good to do this in the short term when we’re vulnerable, especially if we’re doing emotional work to get over them. The biggest cost of unrequited love is to our self-esteem, so we’re better to conserve our energy and keep our focus on doing things we love and spending time with people we love and who know how fabulous we are and recovering ourselves as a priority.
Can consistently having experiences of “unrequited love” be a sign of other emotional problems?
Therapist and author Harville Hendrix’s Imago theory has it that we are drawn to potential partners who embody both the best and worst traits of our parents and we are drawn to them as adults so we have the opportunity to work through unresolved emotional issues from childhood. So, for example, if someone grew up with an emotionally distant father, they might find themselves continually attracted to someone who is in some way unavailable. Or it might be another reason. I would be having an honest conversation with myself (or a therapist) to see what might really be going on and perhaps ask the questions:
What’s the big picture of my life right now?
How am I feeling about other areas: work, family, friends?
Might there be concerns that this relationship is distracting me from?
Or am I pining for someone I can’t have because I’m not ready for a new relationship?
Am I avoiding something? Afraid to commit?
Is there the possibility that they could be interested but I’m not brave enough to actually put it out there?
Or is it something about them that attracts me even if they aren’t interested or I can’t be with them? Often we’re attracted to people that embody (or we think possesses) a quality we actually want for ourselves or in our life. What do they represent to me? Excitement? Confidence? What might I be drawn to that I am trying to gain by association? What other ways are there to bring out this quality in myself or in my life?
If there is a small chance the person may feel the same way is it ever a good idea to confess the way you feel? What is the best way to do this? And what coping mechanisms should you have in place if it doesn’t go the way you hoped it would?
Absolutely! One of the most common relationship pitfalls is that we make assumptions about other people (based on what we think and feel) and then act on those assumptions as if they were somehow true or correct without checking them out first. I the early stages of a new relationship it’s particularly important not to fall into this trap so I would approach this in the same way as any potential relationship: go slowly. Put a small amount of info “out there”, a compliment or a casual over-the-shoulder “we should have coffee some time” and see how it’s received. If negatively, you haven’t risked too much. If positively, then take another step and see how that’s received and if it’s reciprocated. This is the way we actively create a relationship rather than just assuming there is/isn’t interest and reacting to that assumption.
When you discover your unrequited love has started dating someone else it can shatter many personal fantasies and feel similar to a real break up. Is it a good or a bad thing to indulge in “mourning” the end of your fantasy relationship.
Whether we want to or not, at some level we will feel the loss but we can choose to pay attention to it or ignore it. But losses can accumulate, so ignoring them can lead to ‘overreacting’ to future losses. This is why it’s important to create the time, space and focus to ‘mourn’, to experience all the emotions that come up , to make sense of them and find healthy ways of expressing them. It’s through this process that we recover.
Can unrequited love be a healthy experience? What emotional lessons can we learn from going through this experience?
Feelings of loss contain a lot of lessons about ourselves that we would miss if we didn’t allow ourselves to go there. What are you mourning, what is the loss? What does it mean to you? Is it tapping into an old disappointment or loss (perhaps with a parent) that still needs some emotional work to heal? All our emotions are signals and as John Grey says, “we need to feel to heal”.
Is it possible that there some people you will never get over? Even when you move in to a happy relationship?
People are complex mixes of different aspects, so I think it’s entirely possible to miss a particular aspect of someone or what they brought to our life. Again, what is that quality, what does it mean to me, are there other ways I can bring that quality into my life? For example, if it’s a person’s quirkiness you were attracted to or their openness, there might be a deep yearning for you to be those same things. Work on those aspects of yourself and then you can bring it into your new relationship.
Is rekindling an old friendship with an unrequited love dangerous territory?
It depends on the work you’ve done in between. If you’ve asked the questions and worked through the answers then even though the other person hasn’t changed, you have. You might be left wondering what you saw in them in the first place.
Elly Taylor is a clinical member of the Australian Association of Relationship Counsellors (http://www.aarc.org.au/ ) and author of the book Becoming Us, Loving, Learning and Growing Together.