The Blissful Torture of Unrequited Love

Have you ever felt the joyous hurt, the teasing torment of unreturned love?

Posted Mar 19, 2015

"Two Dragons . . . or more," DeviantArt, used with permission
Source: "Two Dragons . . . or more," DeviantArt, used with permission

Whether fast or slow, it comes on hard—as powerful as a bludgeon, but one covered in the softest velvet. And it’s two-faced as well, like an optical illusion. Gestalt psychologists might view the phenomenon as “figure and ground.” It’s also supremely ironic. For how can unreturned love create such a spectacular, sublime feeling in the first place? As one writer put it: “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)

When this boundless love is front and center for you—that is “figure”—its focus is almost blinding. And its impact can be so overwhelming that nothing else on the horizon is discernible. Admittedly, the prodigious feelings of ardor stirring inside you almost always incorporate a certain lust. Yet, in their glowing intensity, they feel totally romantic.

In such scenarios, either you’ve already tried to share your adoration with the person you cherish and—sympathetically or maybe coldly—been rebuffed. Or maybe (every bit as likely and for any number of reasons) you felt obliged to keep your euphoric, yet solitary, one-way “attachment” hidden deep inside you, choosing this option even though you desperately longed, even craved, to tell your beloved how you felt. And doubtless, had repeated fantasies of doing so.

Still, as I articulated in my earlier post “Most Memorable Quotes on Unrequited Love,” “An ‘untried’ love is virtually without limits precisely because, never really having begun, there’s been no time for disillusionment to set in. The beloved—frequently distant, uninterested, unavailable, or unapproachable—can remain an object of indefinite idealization.”

All the same, at any unpredictable, unbidden (and terribly unwelcome) moment, everything can invert itself. Figure can become ground, and ground figure. Then, in your mind’s eye, what’s staring back at you as figure—hauntingly, horrifyingly—is how agonizingly alone you are in all this. Mercilessly, you’re bombarded by the stark realization that a love affair for one isn’t really a love affair at all. That the extraordinarily sweet feelings that have been so warmly enveloping you aren’t shared, aren’t mutual. Your rapturous and oh-so-intimate thoughts and fantasies of the beloved exist in a vacuum. And your continuing to “nurture” them—as figure—is simply rehearsing an illusion.

In a word, you perceive yourself to be a fool.

At such a moment you discover that your passion, your merely imagined ecstasy, has taken leave. That it’s now only a dim recollection of what (maybe just a second ago) was so substantial—so quiveringly real that it seemed to ignite every cell in your body. As concrete and massive as a towering mountain, its dimensions had been so enormous that you could barely make out its apex. And, in fact, there is a certain infinity in unrequited love. Unrealized, it has no boundaries, no end point.

But now it’s as though your rapture has locked you up in a cage and you can’t find the key to escape. Even if you could, you’re not at all sure you could persuade yourself to use it. And, in your ceaseless frustration, it may even occur to you to reflect on the paradoxical double meaning of the word “captivate.”

Here’s when despair replaces your illusional (or self-delusional) hope—though, still, you can’t help but entertain the notion that at some indeterminable moment figure and ground will do another about-face. For then, once again, you’ll be basking in the wondrous sensations of immeasurable (dopamine-releasing) love/lust.

"Beautiful Face," Flickr, used with permission
Source: "Beautiful Face," Flickr, used with permission

And—whether it’s in a second, minute, hour, or day—your distinct-from-reality love obsession does return. Dynamic as no other obsession could ever be, your imagination runs riot anew. Almost feverishly, your mind insatiably charms itself with innumerable variations on the overriding theme of possessing—or romantically “devouring”—your so treasured love object. Intermittently, you may try to distance yourself from your all-too-controlling obsession. But it regularly comes back, first maybe as an echo, then an ever-encroaching drumbeat, then finally a sonic boom impossible to ignore.

Refusing to remain “ground” (or background) any longer, demanding that it be “figure” once more, it makes a repeat performance, up close and throbbingly personal. Dominating and dwarfing all that’s unrelated to it—that is, your daily obligations and responsibilities, the life you were engrossed in before falling hopelessly in one-sided love—your amorous thoughts and feelings hold you spellbound. And they’ll continue to do so until the spell is broken... But before then, your infatuation will be a distraction beyond anything you’ve ever experienced (unless, that is, this has all—happily/sadly— happened to you before).

Not only inconvenienced by the time and vital energy that unrequited love robs you of, but also exhausted by the emotional pain inevitably accompanying it, at times you’ll wish that your head could take much better charge of your love-struck heart. But your deepest feelings have absolutely no intention of being overruled by mere reason. And besides, you may not really know just where your heart resides. Is it somewhere in your chest, or might it be considerably further down (perhaps, between your legs)? For your adoration at times seems almost spiritual—after all, the object of your love is also the object you worship. Yet, at other times your love may feel predominantly sensual, the most burning carnal desire you could ever dream of.

But one thing is for sure. Your rational faculties haven’t been idle in all this. Rather, they’ve been hijacked by another part of your brain that literally (and ironically) can’t resist one “idle thought” after another. Such as: “Might it be at least possible that the one I so adore could eventually love me back?” “Might I be able to do something that would somehow “inspire” her [or him] to return my love?” “Might he [or she] secretly love me, too, but (just like me) be hiding it out of doubt or fear?” (And this is a common habit of lovers: to willy-nilly project onto the beloved feelings identical to their own. For in their rapturous fantasies, they’ve visually “witnessed” this miraculous phenomenon many times.)

"Male faces," Pinterest, used with permission
Source: "Male faces," Pinterest, used with permission

“Hope against hope” is the theme here, the game you play with yourself. It may be an exercise in futility but, as your make-believe life overrides your better judgment, such imaginings can still be a wondrous turn-on. For in this rarefied atmosphere your declarations of love are successful, the power of your sentiments do move the one you revere to see you in a different—and far more idyllic—light.

And so, though it’s all imagined, you’re somehow able to experience the only fulfillment possible in this situation. Fantasies of reciprocity, though in most cases completely unrealistic, can nonetheless be irresistible. Not that your more logical mind doesn’t have its own force and won’t strive to push itself forward from the “ground” position it’s again been relegated to. But good sense and heartfelt sentiment remain clearly at war with one another.

And if reason does finally prevail, it’s only because, sooner or later, the harsh truth of your position is inescapable. At some point you realize that your dreams have overtaken your reality, and it’s time to re-adapt to the real world.

Which you do . . . but oh-so-wistfully.

Let me close by including two of my favorite quotes on the subject:

“Let no one who loves be called unhappy. Even love unreturned has its rainbow.” (James Matthew Barrie)

“You never lose by loving. You always lose by holding back.” (Anonymous—and since I’m wary of absolutes, I can’t completely agree with this. Yet . . .)

Note 1: Here are links to four complementary posts on this subject: "Have You Ever Carried a Torch for Someone?",  What Makes Romance So Romantic (and So Doomed)?", Most Memorable Quotes on Unrequited Love” and "3 Ways to Be Happy in Unrequited Love." 

Note 2: Additionally, another post I’ve written, which hits many of the same bittersweet chords as this one, is entitled “Nostalgia: On the Wistful Presence of Absence.”

Note 3: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of topics—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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