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When the One You Love Doesn't Love You Back

The powers and perils of unrequited love and romantic obsession.

Key points

  • It is estimated that over 90 percent of people have had some experience with unrequited love by their early 20s.
  • Much of unrequited love is about indecision and unwillingness to walk away, despite red flags and warning signs.
  • When a romantic pursuit causes one to compromise their integrity, it's time to step back and get help.
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Have you ever fallen in love with someone who didn’t love you back? Did you stop pursuing or keep pushing forward? And if so, how far did you take it?

Lisa A. Phillips knows first-hand how love can make us do some crazy things. The summer she turned 30, she found herself in the throes of romantic obsession with a man who didn’t love her back.

Instead of turning around and moving on, she found herself sneaking into his apartment building where she wasn’t greeted with open arms, but by a man with a baseball bat who was ready to call 911.

Lisa’s a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz and a former radio reporter who has contributed stories to NPR, The Boston Globe, Cosmopolitan, and Psychology Today. Her own story of unrequited love and romantic obsession was featured in the New York Times Modern Love column, and for her book Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, she spoke with dozens of women caught in Cupid’s crosshairs of one-sided love, digging deep into an investigation of the nature of unrequited love and romantic obsession.

I recently spoke with Lisa for an in-depth interview for the School of Psych podcast (check it out on iTunes). Here are some things we learned about unrequited love, romantic obsession, and breaking free from the bonds of an impossible relationship.

You are not alone.

"Unrequited love is incredibly common," Lisa says. She cites estimates that over 90 percent of people have had some experience with it at least by their early 20s. The good news is that you're not alone, but the bad news is that what you may feel is a uniquely amazing, special, and unique star-crossed love that no one else could possibly understand really isn't. We get it...we've been there, too.

It takes an active mind to stay connected to a passive partner.

So much of unrequited love is about indecision and unwillingness to walk away despite all the red flags and warning signs. Of course, when a possible paramour sends you mixed signals, it can really mess with your head, but ultimately know that your mind can be playing tricks on you and causing also you to look and listen for exactly what you’re hoping to see and hear from your unavailable lover.

“The state of mind of being in an unrequited obsession,” Lisa says, “is that you’re hunting for clues…you’re hunting for signals…you can’t truly listen to the other person anymore.” It takes courage and clarity to walk away from someone who can’t or won’t love you back…and that clarity is hard to come by when you’re caught in the heady and intoxicating brew of romantic love.

Romantic obsession can take you down a dark road to becoming someone you don’t recognize.

Your integrity matters. When romantic pursuits start making you do things that aren’t in your general character and that would make you step back and pause if you ever heard of someone else doing them, it’s a huge wake-up call and a warning sign to take some action and get some help.

This could be over-messaging (texting, emailing all the time), snooping, or even downright stalking behavior. Lisa shares the story of former astronaut and jilted lover Lisa Nowak who drove almost 1,000 miles in an apparent attempt to confront and kidnap a rival for her former lover. "This brilliant career was utterly ruined over unrequited love," Lisa says, "[and] a loss for all of us." If you find yourself caught up in doing something that seriously feels out of character over a relationship that’s not treating you well or making your life better in any way, it’s time to take a good hard look at severing ties.

Finally, unrequited love changes us, sometimes for worse, but sometimes for better.

It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom when you find yourself falling for someone who just isn’t into you. Lisa writes about “the transformational power of unrequited love.” Without unrequited love, we wouldn’t have Dante’s great works or the poetry of Emily Dickinson, she highlights, “it’s a very imaginative process.” The difference between tragedy and transcendence? It's all in how you approach it.

How can you make the most of your unrequited love experience? Sit with your feelings, accept them, grieve them, and ask yourself, what is this feeling telling you, what’s missing, what were you hoping it could do for you, and then ask yourself, “can you get those things in another way, in a real way.” And that can be really hard to do, so don’t be hesitant to seek out personal and professional support along the way.

And if all else fails…

Lisa suggests remembering “what a glorious and harmless revenge living your best life is.”

Get the full interview with author Lisa A. Phillips and more on Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession by listening to episode 1 and subscribing to the School of Psych podcast on iTunes.

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