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How to Deal When the One You Love is Taken

What can you do if the person you want is already taken?

It’s an interesting phenomenon that what people often desire most is the thing that is most forbidden. There’s something about wanting what you can’t have that can be seductive. However, when you’re crushing on someone that is already taken, or someone with whom you work, etc., it can be helpful to remind yourself that wanting what you can’t have is what makes the crush that much sweeter. And if you’re flirting with someone who’s already taken and they are flirting right back, you might want to ask yourself if you’d be happy with a partner who expresses interest and is flirtatious with other women. Track records show that a person that cheats on one partner is pretty likely to cheat on the next one.

1. Limit the Exposure

Just like when you’re on a diet or trying to stop a bad habit, it can definitely be helpful to limit the “exposure time” you have to the verboten crush. However, for some of us, when we try to “stop thinking” about something, it seems that our brains don’t listen and head us right down the path we should avoid. However, limiting the “triggers” (seeing our crush in virtual time or real-time) can be helpful—and even better is making sure we are actively engaged in activities that we enjoy.

2. Keep a Safe Distance

Fortunately, as adults, we don’t really “owe” explanations to others for the things we do in life. If your crush works where you do, make an effort to avoid their part of the building or their cube. If you can’t avoid being around this person, be careful to keep conversations focused on the job and the business at hand. If they live across the hall, or if you run into them on your way out the door, just say you’re running late and keep moving. If you see them when you’re on your way into your place, just say you’re expecting a call. Being pleasant, but not overly friendly, is the best way to handle interactions. If you see your crush at the gym, change up your routine and work out at a different time or on a different day. And if you’re really doing a good job of limiting interaction, there’s not going to be an “awkward moment” where you’d need to create a cover story or “spill the beans” about your feelings.

3. Don’t Give in to Temptation

It’s always important to set clear boundaries for yourself with others and when you “know” you’re playing with fire, it can be essential to set up boundaries that will protect you from making choices you might later regret. It’s a good idea to imagine how you would be feeling if you were in a relationship with that person and they were behaving that way with a potential rival. If you feel like you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing, then you probably are. If you let your self-respect get sidelined by a fleeting flirtation, it might be hard to earn the respect of people whose respect you would want.

4. Be Prepared for a Touch of Heartache

Unfortunately, our heads just can’t govern our hearts, as much as we’d like them to do. Any romantic break-up can generate significant heartache and it can feel like the most crushing pain you’ve ever felt. Even though a “crush” isn’t quite the same, our hearts can still ache for what might have been. Luckily, time really does heal most heartaches and the continued exposure to the object of your unrequited love will eventually get easier to bear. There’s no magic cure, but focusing on other relationships or finding a new passion can sometimes help make the healing period a little shorter.

Unattainable crushes can offer protection from heartache, but they also can keep you from recognizing a good thing when it’s right in front of you. Remind yourself that just going out with someone isn’t promising them a lifelong relationship. Remind yourself that dating and social activities are about having fun and that’s a lot better than obsessing about someone you can’t have.

5. Practice Thought Stopping

When our brain starts traveling down the road towards an unhealthy obsession, we may have to work really hard to reign it back in. Every time you think about the crush, you should mentally tell yourself to “Stop!”

“Thought stopping” is a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy and its purpose is to help you become aware of your unwanted thoughts and then take control over them by telling yourself to let those thoughts go. When our brains get hooked on a romantic thread, however, this is one of the hardest patterns to break! Luckily, once the novelty of the crush wears off, our thoughts usually become less clouded by fantasies and we can begin to focus on the present and not the unattainable fantasy-filled future.

Why “Forbidden Fruit” is So Attractive

Sometimes people are attracted to “forbidden fruit” because it serves as a protective mechanism. If a person lacks self-confidence in their romantic attractiveness or suffers from low self-esteem and they choose to crush on people that are unattainable, they are probably protecting themselves from potential failure and from being hurt.

On the flip side, there are some people who love the chase more than the actual relationship and will choose partners that are off-limits just for the thrill of the challenge.

And What Can be Done About It?

When it’s a confidence issue, seeking help from a counselor might be advised—until a person is able to recognize their worth, they may feel incapable of being able to build a healthy relationship with a partner. Friends can sometimes be helpful by providing positive feedback and encouragement to their less romantically confident friends. Inviting a friend to an informal get-together or setting up a low-stakes/ low-pressure blind date for a friend can also be helpful in building self-confidence for someone who doubts their ability to attract a partner.

If you’re always choosing the “off-limits” crush, you need to ask yourself what is keeping you from setting your sights on someone that might actually be available for a genuine relationship. Self-exploration can be a really positive step towards being prepared for an honest relationship.

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More from Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.
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