3 Ways to Be Happy in Unrequited Love
Anyone who *hasn’t* experienced the heartache of unreturned love?
Posted Nov 18, 2015
By definition, a non-reciprocal love is one-sided. But the experience itself doubtless embodies two sides. On the upside, you’re enthralled, enchanted, charmed and captivated by the beloved. The intensely glowing passion you feel is spectacular, exquisite, sublime. And indescribably exhilarating. The “in love” high is unlike anything you’d ever experienced (unless—hauntingly—you’ve been there before). As one writer opined: “If only the strength of the love that people feel when it is reciprocated could be as intense and obsessive as the love we feel when it is not, then marriages would be truly made in heaven” (Ben Elton).
Of course, the downside of unrequited love is every bit as intense, replete with agonizing feelings of isolation, misery, hopelessness and despair. And the torturous feelings of being “all alone” in your ardor can in a flash send you down—way down—from your glorious high. When, with incredible force, you’re struck with the mournful realization that the one you adore is not—and will not—make themselves romantically available to you, you can be overtaken with dismay.
So what if there were some way you might actually retain the awesome highs of your passion while obliterating—or at least softening—those terrible lows? That’s what this post is all about, and I’ll describe three ways that could help you free yourself from the torment of non-reciprocated love.
1. The Spiritual Path: Many of my ideas here are derived from the writings and lectures of Robert Thurman, a Tibetan Buddhist philosopher and professor at Columbia University, who was also a personal student of (and ordained as a monk) by the Dalai Lama. His notions about love and intimacy represent the highest ideal. And though it may be unrealistic to think that you could unreservedly apply these understandings to thoughts about your beloved, it’s definitely something to aspire to.
I’ve long believed that most psychological maladies relate to one’s self-absorption, and Thurman’s key contention is that you can liberate yourself from emotional suffering only by transforming your focus from “self-preoccupation” (equivalent to my preferred term, “self-absorption”) to “other preoccupation.” Here you no longer, egocentrically, devote yourself to pursuing your personal happiness, but the welfare and happiness of the beloved.
Ironically, it’s all a matter of finding yourself in others—empathically expanding your consciousness (or self-centeredness) so that you can better identify with another’s perspective. As Thurman puts it: “At the heart of Buddhism is “the second noble truth . . . that the source of all of our suffering comes from excessive self-grasping and self-focus” (from “Enlightened Intimacy: An Interview with Dr. Robert Thurman on Buddhism and Relationships,” Part 1).
Moving toward enlightenment is about altering the center of your attention toward the reality of others. Not only is this the route to altruism—which relates more to a shift of consciousness than to performing charitable acts as such—it’s also the road to happiness. Your focus is on how you can serve others (broadly defined); how you can become more aligned with them. In Thurman’s own words: “If you want to be happy effectively, then think about other people’s happiness and you will be. Think about your own happiness only, and you will always be dissatisfied because you will never have enough.”
Note, too, that the oppositional relationship between “selfish” (obsessing on what you want) and “selfless” (focusing on what others want) disappears once you understand how the two life orientations can, paradoxically, be fused. Consider this Thurman quote: “The Dalai Lama likes to say, ‘If you want to be successfully selfish, which means you want to be happy yourself, at least be wisely selfish [!], which means be unselfish, because being unselfish is what makes yourself happy and therefore fulfills your selfish interests.” And—what’s essential for this post—such advice also pertains to loving someone romantically, regardless of whether the beloved wants (or is able) to return this love. For, as Thurman adds, “If it’s perfect love [something that the great majority of us can only aspire to], then one is happy just in the loving and in seeing and wishing and hoping for the happiness of the beloved [emphasis added].”
In Buddhist thinking, intimacy disappointments come about only when our positively attending to the other is less than complete—when, that is, we’re still inflicted with the desire to use them as objects or agents of our happiness, to subordinate them to our desires. It follows, then, that it’s never really the beloved that “sources” our misery. Rather, it’s our self-centeredness that underlies it—whereas if we could just stay focused on and concerned about the beloved’s well-being, their wants and needs, this altruistic other-centeredness would, paradoxically, “secure” our happiness, too.
In the end, “true love” in Buddhism is nothing more than (as Thurman puts it), “wishing for [or “willing”] the happiness of the beloved.” Writers have frequently reflected that in romantic love the one so-smitten puts the desires of the person they adore above their own. And it should be clear how such “re-prioritizing” dovetails with fundamental Buddhist beliefs about true love.
2. The Earthy Route: If, realistically, the road to happiness for you (and yes, even when you’re dealing with unrequited love) can’t be found through spiritual transcendence, this alternative will doubtless feel much more practical. It mostly revolves around, well, fantasy; “make believe.” And—strangely complementing the spiritual alternative—this strictly “imagined” remedy for solving your romantic dilemma might be viewed as another, more erotic form of transcending reality.
Restrained only by the limits of your imagination, you can visualize what you’ve come to realize can never actually take place. And the success of your fictional portrayal of happiness with the beloved will hinge on your ability to create a parallel universe in which all conditioned inhibitions and constraints (both practical and ethical) that might apply—both for you and the person you so treasure—simply melt away. “Vanquishing reality,” as it were, can enable you to see in your mind’s eye the two of you making the most unbridled, passionate love to each other.
Totally immersed in such a wondrously conceived idyllic creation, nothing need get in the way of your—however vicarious—fulfillment. For the romantically utopian universe you’ve devised is perfectly suited to the fullest possible realization of your love (and quite possibly lust as well!). Daydreaming this exquisite intimacy, one that’s not only physical but also mental and emotional, can provide you with precisely that ecstatic romantic experience you’ve so desperately longed for. Without the slightest assistance from reality, you’ve generated a narrative (or fairy tale) that, although fictional, can yet engender a gratification that, in reality, can never be.
You might well argue that when your amorous interlude is over—or maybe once you’ve successfully self-pleasured yourself to a surreal, fantasy-assisted orgasm—your feelings of desolation or despair will return in full force. But what’s crucial here is that, even as you’re suspending the reality of your hopeless situation, you’re yet able to do so within the broader context of fully accepting your beloved’s unavailability (or even rejection). That is, you’ve already recognized, and come to terms with, the practical futility of further pursuing your beloved.
And while such a “letting go” may not be easy to achieve, it’s only in completely accepting that the one you adore can never be yours that enables you to be happy in what you also recognize can forever be yours—though only in flights of fancy. Still, if in your “mind’s eye” you can picture your love and caring as returned, then (at least during your blissful daydreaming) it is real for you. It’s all akin to circumventing your disbelief when you ‘re totally immersed in the “reality” of a well-acted play or movie. In such instances, however “made up” the actors’ roles, their lives and yours still intermingle.
I remember when I was a kid watching a cowboy Western on the big screen and how I’d exit the theater, chest all puffed out, still “adorned” with the remains of my fancied illusion that I was Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, or the Lone Ranger. Even then, I vaguely recognized that this was only “pretend”—but, nonetheless, the fabricated bravado I’d taken on felt just wonderful. I’d granted myself a vacation from my far more humdrum reality, and it was infinitely more exciting than the actual one I inhabited.
And so can it be with fantasies of the beloved. You can imagine pouring your heart out to them and their being “seduced” by your tenderness, caring, warmth, and sincerity. Or—also spectacularly— they might come to recognize that, secretly, they’d been harboring loving feelings for you, too. Or . . . and so on, and so on.
3. Combining the Sensual with the Spiritual: Your ability to accomplish this feat will depend primarily on how much self-detachment—or self-dis-interestedness—from your beloved you can muster. How much you can leave your ego-centered desires behind and altruistically focus on their happiness and well-being. To do this, you have to fully embrace the fact that your two life paths simply weren’t meant to cross. You must move beyond your self-absorbed wants and needs and genuinely wish them the best of everything—totally for their sake, vs. your own.
Obviously, to the extent that lacking a loving partner has left you feeling achingly empty, or your very neediness precludes your valuing their needs above your own, genuinely accepting the one-sidedness of your love will be impossible. But if you can learn how to be “enough” for yourself, you can continue to love them, painlessly, from afar, and make that sufficient for you. And in this case, you can actually count yourself fortunate in having someone to eternally, joyfully, and erotically idolize—unless, that is, “persevering” in such a love negatively affects your present-day relationship.
Remember, it was your self-absorbed, egocentric focus on the beloved that led to your frustration and misery in the first place. So the adjustment (transformation?) necessary for getting out of the trap you set for yourself—because of your unruly, grasping, and possessive ego—doesn’t require any change from the person you love. It’s what’s inside you that has to change. Ultimately, what made you “captive” wasn’t your beloved but your uncontrollable longing for them. So the way to extricate yourself from your self-constructed prison is to move beyond your longing to a simple existential “embrace” of what is.
Many spiritual teachers have postulated that, in essence, we are all one—and that seeing yourself as separate from everyone else is purely an illusion, causing you much suffering. For it prompts you not to compassionately serve others. and derive your happiness through such service, but to attempt to subjugate them to your unquenchable, ever-covetous will. Which, ultimately, is an exercise in futility.
So, finally, if you can see your beloved and all that attracts you to them as in yourself as well—and begin to love that self as you do them—you will have set yourself free from the unhealthy desire to “objectify” the one so very dear to you. In the end, the happiness you’ve been questing after is already here, as long as you mindset can transform from getting what you don’t have to fully accepting—and participating in—your life as it is, right now.
. . . And once you can triumph over your ego—and fall in love with life itself—that love is one that will be returned.
Note 1: I've long been fascinated by the emotional intricacies of unrequited love, an experience that virtually all of us have suffered through (and somehow survived). So here are some posts that complement this once: "Have You Ever Carried a Torch for Someone?", “The Blissful Torture of Unrequited Love,” “Most Memorable Quotes on Unrequited Love.” "What Makes Romance So Romantic (and So Doomed)?", and "Can You Be Fulfilled by Desire?"
NOTE 2: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad range of psychological subjects—click here.
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.