Unrequited Love, and Why We Can't Break Free of It
Psychotherapist and author Jeanne Safer analyzes the power of intermittent love.
Posted Oct 04, 2016
Jeanne Safer is a New York City-based psychotherapist whose latest book, The Golden Condom, (Picador, 2016) is a beautifully written, well-researched look at one “addiction” most of us have experienced—the pursuit of an unavailable partner.
I loved this book, and related to it. Though my marriage and divorce were essentially joint decisions, I can trace, throughout my romantic past, the experience of remaining attached to someone who lacked reciprocal ardor. In divorce, many of us struggle to fully let go of our emotional connection to our former love, even if the relationship has become one-sided, or is being conducted largely in our heads. Being overly focused on someone who isn’t really there for you can bring a myriad of problems—and make it hard to move on.
As the Publishers Weekly starred review said about Safer’s book:
“Thought-provoking and deeply useful…For anyone dealing with the intense pain caused by unrequited love, false friendships, or romantic obsessions, this book offers comfort and solid coping strategies.”
WP: You say that almost everyone has experienced unrequited love. How does this relate to divorce?
Jeanne Safer: I think unrequited love is almost endemic to divorce. There are so many fantasies involved with marriage. When you start to realize it’s not working out, it can feel unbearable to know that. There can be the feeling of, “What’s wrong with me that I can’t make it work? Why can’t I get him to respond to me?”
You’re trying—desperately, passionately, relentlessly—to change a person who doesn’t respond to you or who only responds to you sometimes into someone who really responds to you. That’s the fundamental insight I had about unrequited love: you can’t stand facing the limitations of that person, which are very often total.
There’s some profound way in which you don’t feel loved here, but it’s very hard to be able to say, “You just don’t give me what I need. Or appreciate me. Or know me.” Or, “It doesn’t feel good for me to be with you.” It takes a long time to accept that how you feel about that is legitimate, and that the implication is that you don’t belong with this person.
WP: I’ve absolutely had the experience of not crediting my own feelings in a relationship, even in my marriage. Like, “Well, someone else would be happy with this. I should be happy, too.” What’s that about, that inability to really accept your own dissatisfaction?
JS: I think it’s insecurities. It also can be your family background. My mother stayed no matter what. I don’t know how many affairs my father had, she still stayed. And she was not a dishrag. After my father died, she really sprouted wings. Men were flocking to her. She was 68. She went all over the world and she started working.
I had the experience of being utterly and desperately in love with a man. I might have married him if he’d asked me. It was so much about not being able to give up because it felt like a failure, or like I was unlovable or had no power. The power you’re seeking is to make that person love you, to get the response you need. The moment when you really take in that it’s not possible to do that is the moment that you’re liberated.
WP: What if someone has gone through a divorce and still hangs on to a fantasy about an ex, hoping to reconcile, thinking that he’ll really change this time? Or a fantasy about another unavailable person—maybe “the one that got away?”
JS: The first thing you have to recognize is that this comes from someplace in you. It’s not just that this guy is a jerk. You found him and you accepted him, even though there were signs that it was bad. You have to look at your own history, and at your parent’s marriage. It could come from your history, not in a knee-jerk way, but in a very subtle way. Look for the connection and parallel and identification. Ask yourself, “What in this relationship looks like my parents’ marriage at its worse? Even if they stayed together and it wasn’t so bad, how I am reliving their problems? Where did I get the notion that I can’t leave, or that nobody else will love me?”
WP: You also talk about the opiate-inducing experience of inconsistent reinforcement. Can you elaborate on this?
JS: Inconsistency is what keeps people going. There’s something about the idea that maybe, if I just hang in there or I just change myself or just appreciate this nice stuff I get, I’ll get it all the time. But an intermittent relationship tends to be an intermittent relationship. I have never seen a relationship where somebody is on again/off again, and then is suddenly on all the time. In the very beginning, sure, but over time, no.
Staying involves what I call “relentless hope.” It’s holding onto something when there really is no hope, because you can’t bear to know that.
Maybe you can’t undo the fact that there was someone who didn’t love you in the past, that you couldn’t make love you. So you pick an unloving person or an intermittently loving person and you turn them into the person you want to love you. I think it is really revelatory. You’re going to convert it rather than mourn it.
WP: How did you get past this addiction to intermittent love?
JS: I think everybody should seek some therapy, in some way or another. You need another point of view. Divorce is a time to really consider your life deeply, and therapy gives you a leg up in doing that. In any real transition in your life, it can change everything. How you see the past, how you see yourself. I’m a big fan.
I believe in the concept that I call “the affirmative no.” There are all kinds of ways you can become yourself and stand up for yourself, often by not doing what you’re supposed to do. This concept is about will. I think it takes gigantic courage to leave a marriage, in so many ways. It takes enormous courage and it takes will. I think will is something that is underrated in our life. To say, for example, “I am leaving this marriage. It is not right for me. Even though he is not a terrible man.”
You ought to have pride for doing that. You have to grow into that pride. It’s doing what you need, regardless of what others expect of you. It’s being centered in yourself and your own needs.
I had two types of cancers in two years. I had breast cancer and then this very exotic form of curable leukemia. I was determined that I would not lose sight of myself psychologically in the hospital. I saw patients in the hospital. The notion of, whatever happens to you, you can put your stamp on it, and do it your way. I’m hoping there is a way to do that with death.
To read more of Jeanne Safer's work on Psychology Today see The Last Taboos
For more insight, inspiration and help on getting through a break-up and moving on, check out my divorce wellness website, Splitopia.com. Order the book, Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well here.