Authors: Lisa A. Phillips
For Bill and Clara, who requite
I am not resigned to the shutting away
of loving hearts in the hard ground.
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
I WOKE UP BEFORE DAWN. I WANTED TO
hold on to the blankness of sleep, but thoughts of B. crept in too quickly. It had been a long time since I’d been able to think of anything else.
I’d imagined my future with B., and now there was no future. Time moved forward anyway, excruciatingly, every moment proof of my abandonment. He wasn’t with me, not this minute, not the next. And he was supposed to be. I knew he was supposed to be. He was asleep in his own bed, a ten-minute walk away, in his studio apartment on the ninth floor of the Morrowfield, the tallest apartment building in Squirrel Hill, our Pittsburgh neighborhood. I couldn’t reconcile the immensity of what I was feeling with his faithfulness to his
girlfriend, a struggling actress who lived four hundred miles away, a woman he felt responsible for but didn’t seem to truly want.
I hurried to the Morrowfield in the dim morning light. I stood in the lobby with its worn art deco tiling, slouching in front of the security door. I rummaged through my pockets, acting like a tenant who’d lost her key. Someone walked out and, asking no questions, held the door for me. It was easy to get this close.
I took the elevator to the ninth floor. I knocked softly on B.’s door. No answer. I kept knocking, letting the raps get a little harder, a little louder. The man in the next apartment opened his door. “Just checking to make sure it’s not for me,” he said.
“Did I wake you?”
“Nope. I get up early. Sounds like you’re trying to get him to do the same.” I nodded. “Well, good luck. Seems like a sound sleeper.”
The man assumed I had every right to be there. I clung to that notion, his trust that I was just some tired student with bloodshot eyes waking up another for an early class.
I kept knocking. I counted, letting myself have five at a time until the total reached twenty, then thirty, then I lost count. I went out to the rooftop. It was November, two days before Thanksgiving, and gray. The wind whipped around me, and I thought back to that summer, of the warm nights B. and I had spent watching the sky, drinking bourbon and talking.
I went back and knocked again. I could do nothing else. Who would reject this kind of desire, desire that walks through security doors and knocks and knocks and knocks, refusing to go away? Isn’t this what we all dream of, feelings so strong they allow us to flout the rules? This moment would be a story for later, when we told others how our romance started: “I couldn’t get him off my mind, and one morning I just showed up at his apartment—”
B. opened the door a crack. He wielded a baseball bat in one hand and the phone in the other. “Phillips, get out of here,” he said. “I’m going to call the cops.”
I WAS IN
love with an unavailable man, an old, sad story. When I first started to fall for him, months before, my feelings gave me pleasure and hope. I would wait for him, as lovers had waited for each other since the beginning of time. But as the months passed and he didn’t come around, something inside me shifted. My unrequited love became obsessive. It changed me from a sane, conscientious college teacher and radio reporter into someone I barely knew—someone who couldn’t realize that she was taking her yearning much, much too far.
How did this happen to me?
Years later, long after my obsession ended and I found someone else, married him, and became a mother, I promised myself that I would try to understand this bizarre transformation, which overtook me the year I turned thirty. I delved into the history and literature surrounding romantic obsession, courtship, and love, taking in everything from Renaissance medical treatises to contemporary advice books.
I surveyed more than 260 women online about their experiences of loving someone who didn’t love them back. Most revealing were the more than thirty in-depth interviews I did with women about their experiences of unrequited love. Their stories became the heartbeat of this book.
I also immersed myself in research in psychology and neuroscience, which confirmed what I observed all around me: It’s common for women (and men) to be in unrequited love, and to have intense emotional and physiological reactions to it. They may obsess to the point of being able to think of little else. They may take the feelings out on themselves, acting in self-destructive ways. Or
they may act out, emotionally and even physically,
to hurt the person who’s rejecting them.
Though unrequited love can get out of hand, it doesn’t have to. I found in my interviews and in historical accounts of women’s lives abundant evidence of the powerful
of unrequited love. It can move us in unexpected and important ways. And if we can gain enough distance from the pull of obsession to be able to understand it, unrequited love can be a highly meaningful state of mind, offering us insights into what we really want in life and love. Almost inevitably, it’s
the person we’ve been fixated on.
WE LIVE IN
an era of romantic practicality. The prevailing attitude toward the lovelorn, regurgitated again and again in formulaic advice books, is: If someone doesn’t love you back, just move on. Yet research suggests that moving on isn’t so easy. Unrequited love is a near-universal experience; in one survey,
93 percent of respondents had been rejected by someone they passionately loved. Both men and women experience unrequited love, and
there is no clear evidence that one sex is more vulnerable to it than the other.
I decided to focus on women because society judges women in unrequited love more harshly. At the same time, it seems to understand them less. This tendency to dismiss the unwanted woman may come from the belief that women have more at stake in the mating game. They are the ones, with their time-bound reproductive systems, who are under more pressure to find a partner sooner, particularly these days.
The median age of marriage is rising and marriage rates are falling;
at last count, just 51 percent of adults eighteen and older are married. These demographic shifts have made finding a spouse in time to make a family together a competitive sport, with a thriving Dating Industrial Complex featuring speed-dating events and expensive personal
relationship coaches. In this revved-up, commercialized, and markedly pragmatic mating arena, a woman preoccupied by impossible love is a pariah, indulging in a massive waste of time.
However, many women experience unrequited love when they’re not in the dating market—they’re already married, say, or have no intention of marrying or having children. Or they’re too young or old to feel the pressures of the mating game. I believe there’s another, more profound reason why we grapple uncomfortably with the idea of a woman who’s consumed by unrequited love: There is something disturbing about the stubbornness of romantic obsession, about its unbridled conviction of rightness. The object of unrequited love doesn’t choose to be loved. So unrequited love, even when endured in secret, without overt pursuit (the case with many of the women I talked to) is a form of rebellion—an uncontrollable (at least for a time) state of
that persists no matter how the beloved feels and what common sense says. Unrequited love isn’t sensible, obedient, or practical. It doesn’t follow the rules.
We’re far more comfortable, and, historically, more familiar with the idea of women as the
of desire and pursuit. Self-help books advise women to yield to the fundamental male need to chase if they wish to find a committed mate. To win at love, women are supposed to make men feel as if
in unrequited love, at least for a while.
This attitude targets more than just how women behave. We must not only refrain from pursuit, we must also tamp down what we feel
The typical prescription for getting over rejection and unrequited love is:
Face the fact that he’s “just not that into you” and forget about him ASAP. For today’s woman, romantic obsession is dysfunctional and should be replaced by a relationship crafted by rational negotiation. Priscilla Chan may have moved three thou
sand miles to Palo Alto from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be near billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but not because she couldn’t help herself. She made the journey only after carefully working out an agreement that every week he would spend “a minimum of a hundred minutes of alone time” with her and take her on a date. The arrangement apparently worked. After Chan graduated from medical school,
the couple married.
The headline photos of Chan in her Claire Pettibone wedding dress contrast starkly with the dismissive stereotypes of women who get hung up on men who reject them. Unwanted women are tagged at best as pitiful neurotics whose lonely lives have become emblems of failure for their more disciplined and crafty sisters. At worst, unwanted women are freakish aberrations we’re quick to call “bunny boilers,” a term that alludes to Alex Forrest, the spurned woman in the 1987 film
who leaves her ex-lover’s family pet rabbit in a pot of boiling water;
the expression has endured as slang for jealous exes and overzealous aspiring lovers.
Alex—the “most hated woman in America,” according to one tabloid cover—is one in a long line of sexy, relentless movie villainesses (
Possessed, Play Misty for Me, The Crush
) who tempt and then terrorize the men who spurned them. The media regularly feast on stories of real-life viragos: the astronaut Lisa Nowak; Betty Broderick, the divorcée who murdered her ex-husband and his new wife; and “Long Island Lolita” Amy Fisher, who at seventeen tried to kill her lover’s wife.
The intrigue of these women seems to come from how extreme their behavior is. They allow us to indulge in illicit fantasy—for men, of untamed female desire, and for women, of unstoppable female revenge. Quite often they also make us laugh, becoming fodder for late-night talk-show jokes and snarky tabloid headlines. Female stalker films are often produced with an unmistakable
camp aesthetic. When Beyoncé’s Sharon tells Lisa, Ali Larter’s stalker character in
“I’m gonna wipe the floor with your skinny ass,” it’s hard not to laugh. But these cartoonish stereotypes give us little understanding of the painful experiences of women caught in the grip of unreciprocated love—and its impact on their targets.
Compare these stock impressions to cultural representations of men who yearn for a remote other. We know them historically as inspired and noble figures: the knight with elaborately romantic courtship rituals, the troubadour who sings of love and longing, the explorer who sets off into the wilds of Africa with his beloved’s photograph
wrapped in oilskin next to his heart. Great works of art have sprung from the heroic anguish of male longing: Dante’s
La Vita Nuova
; Leoš Janáček’s “Intimate Letters” string quartet; the many paintings and sketches Van Gogh made after Kee Vos, a cousin by marriage, rejected his affection. When men become aggressive and invasive in their pursuit of unrequited love, we don’t mock them. We fear them, and we take action. In 1989 a wave of stalking murders of women in California—including the killing of television actress Rebecca Schaeffer by Robert John Bardo—shocked the nation and
led to the passage of anti-stalking laws throughout the country.
Our understanding of when unrequited love is fuel for creativity, when it is romantically ardent, and when it turns creepy will always be clouded by some degree of subjectivity. Depending on the context, a love poem could be slipped innocuously under a beloved’s front door or published in
The New Yorker
or become one more horror-show missive from an obsessed stalker. But when men are the pursuers, the line between romantic and threatening is more distinct. We don’t question that men will want to initiate and pursue love interests, so we are more aware
of the need for legal and social sanctions to keep these desires in check. This idea is rooted in what psychologists call the “chivalry norm”: the notion that
because men should be protecting women from harm, male aggression against women is a more serious transgression than female aggression against men.