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Is There Such a Thing as Unrequited Love?

Pining after our own inventions.

Burak Kostak/Pexels
Brokenhearted robot
Source: Burak Kostak/Pexels

Goethe's Werther from The Sorrows of Young Werther commits suicide when Charlotte does not return his love. The long-nosed Cyrano de Bergerac from Rostand's eponymous play is madly in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane, but she fancies another man. Literature is full of such tales, and it seems, so is life. While you probably don't know of any real person who committed suicide because of a broken heart (though it's said sensitive young men in Goethe's day and age did), you likely know many who have stories of unrequited love, and perhaps, you have such a story yourself.

But the ubiquity of unrequited love is only apparent, or so I am going to argue. In going along with tales of unilateral love, we accept the account of the lover. Forlorn lovers, however, are often mistaken, not about whether they love but about whom they love: While they may be heartbroken, the person they pine after is frequently a fiction, a figment of their own imagination. Before I explain why, let us consider requited love.

When love is reciprocated, each lover knows who the other is, the real other, and it is that real person — the person the other is — that's an object of love. The two lovers are attracted to each other physically as well, but their love is not mere physical attraction. It's the other way round, in fact: Whatever role physical attraction may have played in the genesis of love, in mature love, we yearn for the body because we love the person. This explains why no other body — however attractive — is an adequate substitute for the beloved's body. It is also why love doesn't vanish — and may even grow stronger — when the beloved's body is marred by sickness or accident.

But whom is it that we love with an unrequited love? Who refuses to return the affection?

Very often, I wish to suggest, the object of allegedly unrequited love is a fiction, or rather, a fictionalized version of a person. This version of the other, being altered, has multiple qualities that the real person does not possess. For one thing, he or she is the sort of person who could be happy with us; who could care about the things we care about, and who wants just what we have to offer. The real person, by contrast, is not a good match. That's precisely why he or she is rejecting us. So the object of our unrequited love — the fictional person — is not rejecting us since that person is an excellent match. And the real person who rejects us is not the person we love.

It may help to look at the issue from the other side, that of being the object of affection you cannot reciprocate. It's probably happened to you: Someone claimed to love you, but you felt nothing. You may have thought then that the other is mistaking physical attraction for love, or is simply wrong about who you are and what you need in a partner. In the other's mind, the two of you can be perfectly happy together, but you know that this is impossible. You may have even gotten flustered when the other made declarations of love; those sounded hollow to you. And in some sense, they were, not because they lacked depth necessarily but because they were meant for someone else, someone who looks like you and sounds like you, but who has different tastes and preferences: A fictional version of you.

Sometimes, we ourselves contribute to the creation of fictional versions of ourselves. This happens when we misrepresent ourselves, letting another fall in love with an unreal version of us. One frequently hears stories about relationships that started well but came to an abrupt end. The person whose romantic interest broke up with them often feels caught off guard. Why is today so different from yesterday when everything was love?

What happens in most of these cases, actually, is that the end of the relationship is only abrupt from the spurned person's point of view. The other misrepresented his or her actual feelings and preferences all along. He or she didn't really want to see that movie or to meet those friends. The words on that Valentine's day card that he or she wrote for the soon to be spurned lover did not come from the heart.

This person knew, at least at some level, that the relationship was bound to end. For if you didn't enjoy a few weeks or months spent with another, if you didn't want to go to the movies with them or meet their friends, how could you possibly believe the other is your soulmate? You don't, not really. That is why the breakup feels abrupt only to the one who was in the dark as to the true significance of everything.

Upon occasion, love starts without any misrepresentation on anyone's part, but one person's needs and preferences change, and consequently, so does the person. If the partner's feelings remain unchanged, this type of case may seem like a good candidate for the label "unrequited love," since the love began without fictions. But that's not quite right either. For while the spurned lover is not enamored with a fiction, his or her affection is directed at the other's past self. That self was real once but no longer is. People change.

I should point out here that there could be unrequited love between parents and children. A father may love his daughter though she doesn't love him back, and a son may love a mother who resents him because she never wanted children. Filial and parental love differ from romantic love, because in those cases, we don't love the other for who they are. Our parents and children may have qualities we appreciate, and those may strengthen our bond, but that is not the full basis of our love. If the neighbor's spouse is a better match for you than your own, you may be tempted to leave your own and make away with the neighbor's, but if the neighbor's mother or child is better than your own, you would feel no such temptation. You don't want anyone else's parents or children, no matter what qualities they have. You can love your own parents and children almost unconditionally. This is why you don't need to project on them qualities of your own making.

There are two more points I would like to note. First, the love a person may feel for a fictionalized version of another is not, in virtue of that, unreal. Feelings can be real whether or not their object is. That's certainly true of love and of heartache, but it is true more generally. It is just that the reality of our feelings does not confer existence upon their object. A snake-shaped tree branch does not turn into a snake simply because it makes us fearful. Same with love: The love of a fictionalized version — tailor-made to suit us — of another, however deep and abiding (if it is), does not bring that version of the other into existence. We lack the power to will another into being with the depth of our love.

Second, there may sometimes truly be unrequited love. This may happen, for instance, when the love is fully based on what little we know of the other, without illusions. That may be the case of Victor Hugo's Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Quasimodo, a man with a physical deformity, falls in love with Esmeralda, who does not return his love.

Now, Esmeralda is a strikingly beautiful woman while Quasimodo is a deformed man, but Quasimodo's love for Esmeralda is not mere physical attraction. Esmeralda is the only person who has ever shown human kindness to the hunchback; she brings him water when he is dying of thirst after being flogged and publicly humiliated. Indeed, Esmeralda so fully captures his heart that after she is hanged for a crime she has not committed, he goes to the cemetery, hugs her body, and never lets go until he dies of starvation.

There is no question but that Quasimodo's love is deep — and deeper than most any love we know. More importantly for present purposes, the object of his love may be the real Esmeralda, not a fictional version of her. He falls in love when she shows compassion toward him, and her compassion is genuine. That's all poor Quasimodo needs.

But Quasimodo's case is unusual. For the most part, we do not fall in love like that, because of a single act of kindness. In our imagination, the beloved has many different qualities. What I have been arguing here is that in the case of so-called unrequited love, some of those qualities — and from here, the object of our love — are inventions. The love is real, but not the object of love.

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