“But that afternoon he asked himself, with his infinite capacité for illusion, if such pitiless indifference might not be a subterfuge for hiding the torments of love.” ~ Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
With Valentine’s day approaching, I was recently challenged to answer the following writing prompt in one of my writing groups:
Did you ever experience unrequited love, where you really felt you loved someone and they simply didn’t love you back? What were the circumstances? Did it last for a long time?
Whoa. Did they know who they were dealing with? I was the queen of unrequited love.
Unrequited love was probably my only version of love until D. I don’t say that lightly. In fact, my very first unrequited love was most definitely my dad. I loved him with all my heart and he wanted very little to do with me. My mother would explain what love was: “It’s when someone cares about you and wants to spend time with you and likes to talk with you and share with you.” And then I would compare that with how my father treated me—he would ignore me, he rarely talked to me or spent time with me, he never showed up for important events, and he belittled nearly everything I said. And so, I would say to my mom, “Dad doesn’t love me.” And my mother would always respond the same, “He does love you. He just loves you in his way.” This mixed message was my foundation for love. It set the tone for all future relationships. I would fall for someone whom I was crazy about and they would not love me “in my way” or even in the remotely conventional, standard definition way. But, I would convince myself that this was still love; it was just their love. And their love would coincidentally parallel my father’s. They would ignore me or be unavailable or treat me poorly or not take me seriously. And as frustrated as I was, at least it is what I recognized and what I knew.
My first crush lasted three years and it was one-hundred percent unrequited. I was madly in love with my neighbor M, who was an Italian kid one year older than me. I met him—or I should say I first saw him when I was in sixth grade. I was 11 and looking back, it seemed fairly standard to love someone from afar at that age. Not many of us (aka not one of us) at eleven or twelve were in a healthy romantic relationship.
My first boyfriend-love was at age 16 and it was eighty-percent unrequited love. His name was B and I was crazy about him too. I would literally do anything to get his attention. He would throw me a scrap here and there and it was the most divinely delicious scrap.
In Jillian Keenan’s book Sex with Shakespeare she quotes the character Helena as she chases after Demetrius, her indifferent lover, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
“Use me as your spaniel—spurn me, stroke, neglect me, lose me. Only give me leave, unworthy as I am to follow you. What worse place can I beg in your love (and yet a place of high respect with me) than to be uséd as you use your dog.”
Basically poor Helena is begging for scraps and Demetrius’ response is, in a nutshell, “I don’t love you.” Whether I consciously or subconsciously thought like this I don’t know. What I do know is that something in me believed in my utter unworthiness. And so, all my chasing of B was mostly in vain yet equally thrilling. While I did lose my virginity to him and did have sex with him a time or two, in the end he rejected me. One afternoon, I went to his house with my journal to let him read a sex story I wrote about him and me. I wrote sex stories about him incessantly as part of my attempt to feel a connection to him. Anyway, I can’t remember if he said it was good or not but I do remember that he said, “Why don’t you chase after someone who really loves you?” Ouch. Talk about a blow to the heart. But, it was the crushing truth I needed to hear to begin the process of letting go. It was hard. Unrequited love, to me, was a valid form of love and to have to let go of B was like letting go of the edge of a cliff you’re hanging from. The fall into the abyss was shattering.
Eventually, I put myself back together and got over him ( years later I hooked up with him again and by that time, due to experience on my part, I noticed that he was really bad in bed and so, it was easy to walk away. Plus, he was just as avoidant as before. Funnily, I am now FB friends with him and every time he pops up in my newsfeed, I remember him fondly. Go figure!).
From then on there were varying degrees of unrequitedness that I accepted in my relationships. There were the “normal” guys that truly liked or loved me but lived in foreign countries. There was P who was too young to truly be available. And there was R, my first husband, who was both unavailable for a time because he lived in Europe and then, when we married and lived together, he was chronically avoidant, neglectful and emotionally abusive (physically abusive in the end).
After I divorced, there was G who was available in the beginning but after eight months, he became increasingly unavailable to me to the point where we went a year without sex. At one point we were booked to go to the Caribbean for a five-day vacation and he never called or contacted me the entire week beforehand. I was crying in my room, doubled over in pain, wondering if we were even going or if he dumped me. Finally, I called him the night before, my dignity in a heap on the floor, to ask him if we were still on for the trip. He was stoned out of his mind and utterly ambivalent about going anywhere, let alone an island in the Caribbean that was supposed to be romantic and adventurous. You would think that I would have dumped him right on the spot and gone on this trip alone (I was the one who paid for both tickets, by the way). But no. I was so desperate for the connection to G that I guilted, begged and ultimately dragged him to the airport. A warm body was clearly better than no body.
The last of the unrequited loves came in the form of S (see The Break-Up Journal), a guy I had a crush on at work years before. I flirted shamelessly with him for three years, fantasized about dating and having sex with him and tried in vain to hook up with him a time or two. Nothing. And then, nearly 15 years later, long after my divorce and shortly after G, we connected and he was interested. It was simply too good to be true and I thought my days of unhealthy, unreciprocated love were over. For six or so months we were mutually “in love.” He wrote me love poems, we had fabulous sex, we dated, we traveled and we even talked about moving in together. And then, it happened. I started to notice little lies. He wasn’t always available like he’d been, he needed what he called “S time,” time by himself. The reciprocity of our love started to break down and then, long story short, he came over one afternoon to have a serious talk and told me, flat out, and rather unemotionally, “I don’t think I ever loved you.”
Cliché as it was, my whole sense of self evaporated. I felt like I’d been shot in the gut. Our whole relationship was a lie.
As cool and calm as possible I asked him to leave. I was so ripped to shreds that I cried in my bedroom for four days straight trying to put myself back together. This falling apart at the realization that my unrequited relationships were over was my pattern. It happened in varying degrees every time. This time, though, S took the cake. His narcissistic, unemotional bail out was devastating. I thought I had come so far, when in reality, I had taken a monster step backwards.
I would like to say I wanted nothing to do with him after that, but that’s not what happened. I continued to feel drawn in by him. I continued to reach out to him (albeit in painstakingly non-emotional ways, like, “Hey, what’s up? Yeah, I’m all good. How about you? Wanna grab lunch?”) I was trying to send the message that I never really loved him either and was totally cool with the break up. Meanwhile, I was choking back tears 24/7, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat and hated myself about as much as I hated S. More importantly, I was desperately holding on to this life long idea that unrequited love was still love, it was still valid and real. It was all I had.
And yet, at the same time something in me shifted.
While it was the same story again and again that brought me right back to my dear old dad–How could you do this to me? You’re my dad. Why don’t you love me? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not worthy?–it was also different. I was stronger, angrier, smarter, less tolerant of this crap version of everyone else’s love.
S loved me in his way and for a while I convinced myself it was good enough. Just like my dad, I felt I had no choice. As with all the guys I’d dated or married before I had forced myself to swallow their skimpy version of love too. But what about my version of love? What did that even look like? Where was that buried in me, if at all? And if I didn’t have a defined version of love, how could I even begin to create it when all I ever knew was unrequitedness?
Scratch those questions. It‘s too simple to say that by the time S left me I had no clue how I wanted to be loved and thus, needed to learn right then and there at age 40. I was learning all along. Heck, I knew how I wanted to be loved since childhood. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, nor the confidence. And I just didn’t know how or where to find it. And I mostly didn’t know there were men out there who had the capacity to reciprocate my love.
…This is how much time I need to spend with someone. And this is how much time I need to myself. And this is how I wish to communicate. And this is how much sex I’d like. And this is what I’d like us to do on our days off. And this is the way I’d like us to touch and connect. And this is the way I’d like us to try and resolve conflicts and negotiate time, space and energy. And this is how much I’d like to laugh or listen to music or dance or pray. And this is what I am capable of giving you. And this is what I need…
And when I was able to answer those needs within me I was able to see who could meet them and who couldn’t. Not that I would get all my requests met in the exact way I wanted them met, but it was a starting point. A better one than where I’d come from.
I don’t think I need to mention the obvious, but I will. This story ends well. I eventually found true love. D and I just celebrated our 10-year anniversary with a new ritual we recently discovered–writing to each other, almost every morning. Writing, to me, is essential to who I am and for me to be connected to someone who can do that with me, well, it’s reciprocity at its finest. And even without that, I am in a relationship where every day I feel loved, respected, valued. Again, that is not to say I get everything I want. It is to say that I am grateful for everything I have. Because, plain and simple, it’s good. D loves me the way I want and need to be loved and I think he feels the same. He requites me.
(Is that even a word?)