There’s a curious thing about unrequited love that I’ve never really understood. Why in the world is it considered so romantic? Untold poems and novels have been written about it, countless movies have made us shed sympathetic tears. But if you think about it, the admirer, the one whose heart is filled with love for another who doesn’t feel the same, is in a f**k ton of pain. Deep, intense, debilitating pain. The kind that robs you of the ability to sleep, or eat, or sometimes even breathe. Anyone who’s suffered the hell of a broken heart can sympathize. So again I wonder, why for time immemorial has unrequited love been considered romantic?
I think back to the first time I read Wuthering Heights. Poor, unappreciated Heathcliff. Low social standing, uneducated, and dark-skinned “like a gypsy.” He loves the beautiful Catherine but she’s unattainable. Their class differences are far too disparate to allow them to be together. I guess technically Wuthering Heights isn’t wholly unrequited love in the classic sense because to some degree I think Catherine does love Heathcliff. Nonetheless, they can’t be together, yet his heart is completely and utterly hers. He’s tormented over it, in absolute agony and seething with jealousy when she married Edgar Linton. Perhaps I’m just overly sensitive to broken hearts, but when I think about Heathcliff suffering in silence over the desire he has for Catherine that can never be returned, I feel genuine sorrow. I’m not caught up in the romance of it, I’m just reaching for the tissue box, very happy that my name isn’t Heathcliff.
Perhaps the appeal is the idea of someone loving us so deeply and so completely; an all-consuming attachment to just one person. The pursuer is relentless, devoting endless time and effort toward the object of his affection. The ideal of utter devotion being directed toward us could certainly be flattering. Think about someone obsessing over little ol’ you! Except here’s the thing: for me romance is and always will be a two-way street. You love me, I love you. It’s gotta go both ways. And sure, there are obstacles and conflict and challenges along the way. If there weren’t we romance authors would have butkus to write about. Smooth sailing doesn’t make for a compelling read. But to have someone possess intense feelings of love toward someone else, and for that love to be unreturned or even shunned … well, that’s just sad.
An interesting article in the New York Times talked about the fact that the admirer in a one-way love situation isn’t the only one who suffers. Findings by researchers published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that the rejector sometimes feels as deep or even more emotional pain than the admirer. Curious, right? Apparently, after a period of initial flattery, the rejector feels bewilderment, guilt, and eventually anger at the relentless efforts of the admirer.
My other issue with unrequited love – beyond sympathy for the pain of the pursuer – is that it can turn toward dark and bad places. Desire overtakes reason and turns into obsession. The admirer becomes a stalker. There just isn’t any good that’s going to come out of that. Ian McEwan’s incredible novel Enduring Love deals with this issue by bringing two men together in an unforeseen circumstance that leads to one of them developing a blinding, all-consuming obsession with the other. And the outcome of it? Not good, my friends. Not good at all.
So there we have it: emotional pain, heartache, misery, bewilderment, guilt, all feelings associated with “romantic” unrequited love. I say, no thanks. I’m more than OK with a romance where initially one person has affection and desire toward another who isn’t quite there yet, but to make me heave a romantic sigh I need to see the one being pursued gradually feel stirrings of emotion in her breast that evolves into the giddy, euphoric ride of burgeoning love.
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