An early spring cleaning

By Adam Nelson

Do you like someone who doesn’t like you back? Do you strategically position yourself where you know your crush will walk by, hoping he or she will notice the way your outfit playfully displays your cleavage or makes your eyes sparkle? Newsflash: they never notice. And if you think they do, you ought to curl up with this column for some TLC, because we need to talk about love, and especially about unrequited love. It seems that lately, an inordinately high number of people in my life are suffering due to varying degrees of unrequited love, and given that these people are among the most loveable I know, and that you, too, are also loveable, and also deserve the fruits of real love, this is both a travesty and a quandary worth unpacking.

Let’s start with the concept. Unrequited love is romantic. It has undertones of tragedy and self-sacrifice. Its cultural ubiquity is both glorifying and normalizing. And although it isn’t desirable in our own lives, it’s worthy of veneration in someone else’s; we have abundant sympathy and admiration for the heart that loves unconditionally. But personally, I’m convinced that “unrequited love” must be a misnomer. Surely, love can’t be a one-way street in any of its forms. In my imagination, it’s a grand, tree-lined boulevard, a Summit Avenue between two hearts. Love hinges on mutuality, and as bell hooks writes in All About Love (which is a lover’s Bible), love is and ought to be conditional. I can’t help but think that unrequited love is what happens when your self-concept goes a little awry, when you forget who you are, what’s important to you in a relationship, and what you deserve.

So why do we love people who don’t love us in return, or in the way we deserve, or in the way we’d like? Is it because the pain and disappointment of a constant, low-grade heartbreak is somehow preferable to the more acute heartbreak we risk when loving someone who might be able to love us back? So many of us find ourselves in this position that this must be the case. Are we self-loathing losers? Are we perverse, addicted to drama and rejection?
Perhaps we’re just a little misguided. After all, when desire is at the helm, this is wont to occur. Desire is peculiar: capricious in terms of what it tells us we ought to have, but always predictable in how it makes us feel. Because the variety of desire in question cannot be fulfilled, it will always provide something to want, even when everything else is in question. Unreciprocated love gives us at least one thing we know, for certain, that we want. The habits of people with crushes—thinking about the next time you’ll see him, writing flirtatious nothings on her facebook wall, obsessing over whether to wear the thong or contour pouch brief—tend to reflect a concern for the immediate, the solid, the day-to-day. And all of this minutia is much more fun than sitting back and thinking about what qualities are really important in a partner and about what we can provide for someone else in a romantic relationship. And let’s not even talk about the future. I would need at least half a jug of Carlo to broach the subject.
So, aside from unrequited love as a band-aid masking larger issues of existential angst, there’s still the formidable problem of sexual attraction. Who’s ever had a crush on someone who isn’t cute? No one. It just doesn’t happen. And that’s fine, but lots of people think that whom they find sexually desirable is an indication of whom they should love. But the truth is that love doesn’t always operate through instinct, and especially through sexual instinct. Contrary to popular belief, we are able to exercise some measure of control over our feelings. We are able to choose who we love, although this does entail dealing with the constant trials and tribulations of always learning how to love better. The mind and heart work together, and they must if we’re ever going to experience the kind of love we’d like.

Before we can reject the role of sloppy seconds, we must first choose to enter a state of what SARK (a self-help goddess) calls fertile emptiness, where we relinquish our desires for shiny things and empty out our emotional space in order to make room for something new to grow. This process can be likened to cleaning the closet. If you get rid of those hideous Skechers you’ve had since high school, you can replace them with a reliable pair of clogs or some sprightly ballet flats, and who knows who will think you’re cute once you’re walking around in them. But before you walk away from unrequited love, at least tell the object of your desire how you feel. When you know how someone feels about you in return, it leaves much less room to fantasize and it gives you the agency to pick up and move on, if that’s what you need to do. There’s no reason to live a life of constant broken-heartedness—we’ve simply got too much love to give. Let’s dare to feel something new.