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In TBS’ new 5-part series exploring heartbreak, relationship counsellor Hailee Walker speaks to those who help the heartbroken who are looking for alternatives for relief. In part one, Hailee speaks to Lisa A Phillips, author of Unrequited and journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz, about obsession.
Breakups are hard enough when you both agree it is time to part ways. Imagine if you will, how it would feel when the one you love, does not love you back. Unrequited love can be maddening. It can cause us to behave in ways we no longer recognise as part of our normal behaviour.
Why do we become obsessed with someone who doesn’t love us back?
How do we let go of the fixation and move on with our lives?
Who better to answer these questions then Lisa A Phillips, a journalism professor at SUNY New Paltz and the author of Unrequited: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession. In her book, Lisa writes “My unrequited love became obsessive. It changed me from a sane, conscientious college teacher and radio reporter into someone I barely knew.” Through Unrequited, Lisa shares with readers her own story of unrequited love as well as the collective experiences of 260 women that she interviewed.
Can you give a brief overview of how you came to write the book Unrequited so many years after your own experience occurred?
The year I turned 30, I fell in love with a man who was involved with someone else. My attraction to him turned into an obsession. After the obsession ended, I tried to put it behind me. My life became much steadier. I met the man who would become my husband and moved to another state, in part to be with him. Eventually we married and had a daughter. I tried not to look back. I was happy living a normal, sane life as a busy working mom. But I kept feeling like I was hiding something. No-one in my new life knew me when I was obsessed. I decided that I needed to come to terms with what had happened, so I wrote about my unrequited love for the popular Modern Love column in The New York Times.
The column was well received. People in my life expressed surprise that someone so together could have fallen apart over a man. Many thanked me for my honesty. Several told me I gave them hope that their struggles over an unrequited love would one day end. I thought I was done with the topic. But it kept eating at me. I knew other people felt the way I had. I wanted to know: What happened to me? What happens to anyone who experience romantic rejection and obsession?
You talk a lot about the discrepancy between how the world views love and fixation between male and females. Specifically, a man will be praised if he stands outside his beloved’s with a boombox in the rain, whereas a woman will be called a psycho. How have you found this societal judgment impacts the unwanted woman’s experience?
Even though women and men are increasingly on equal footing in school and the workplace, we still hold on to a double standard when it comes to heterosexual romance: men are supposed to pursue and women are supposed to be pursued.That standard colours how we see situations of unrequited love. If a man is hung up on a woman, well, that’s his rightful place, because he’s the one who’s supposed to chase. If he goes too far and stalks her aggressively, society recognises that as inappropriate and something to fear and regulate. With women in unrequited love, society is still not comfortable with the stubbornness of the obsession – it’s this kind of unbridled state of “I want” that’s self-centered and flies in the face of our expectations that women be accommodating and passive in courtship. So that’s why the impulse is to dismiss that theoretical “woman with a boombox” (like a gender-bended John Cusack in Say Anything) as “nuts,” a kind of a joke. Furthermore, when that persistent woman gets too persistent and stalks, it’s easier to dismiss her as a silly psycho – again, something to be mocked and not taken seriously – than to actually see what she’s doing as threatening and disruptive, which is what stalking is – no matter the gender of the person doing it.
At a certain point, he stopped answering, and I left a lot of pleading voice mail messages. One day he picked up and said, “We can never speak again.” He’d never been so definitive. You need that “no contact” rule, and fortunately for me, he imposed it.
With all the women you interviewed in your book, what was the one common thread of their experiences? Was it that they all just wanted closure and to understand? Or perhaps an ingrained inability to let go?
I would say that closure and understanding are common desires among the women I interviewed. But when you’re obsessed, closure and understanding, in as much as you crave them, are very hard to achieve. Every explanation for the rejection – e.g., “I just want to be friends” – leads to more questions and more hunger: “He may just want to be friends now, but if I try hard enough, I could turn it into something more.” Letting go, I’ve found, entails letting mysteries be mysteries. Sometimes you can’t ever understand why something didn’t happen, why someone didn’t love you. You just have to accept that the love isn’t there or can’t be expressed.
The common thread I saw was the infusion of the beloved with meaning. That person represents something more than himself or herself. Creativity, freedom, family ties, security, self-esteem – some larger and more important life goal. Romantic partners, as valuable as they are, are substitutable. However in love you are, you can (or at least the vast majority of us can) fall in love with someone else. But self-esteem is only self-esteem – you can’t exchange it for anything else. So if your self-esteem is tied up in someone else’s love, you have a really intense situation. The need for that person feels dire, like something you’d do anything for.
Studies have been done around the science behind breakups and many times the advice is to go no contact when you are finding it hard to get over someone. Do you see this as a necessary part of the moving on process?
I have to say I do. It’s excruciating to cut ties. But if you’re obsessed and it’s self-destructive and/or invasive to others (and I want to emphasise that a lot of unrequited love is not these things, but some of it is), you have to remove all opportunities for contact, in real life and on social media. Any contact stimulates the reward-seeking system in the brain – you get the kind of little reward that fades quickly, stimulating your desire for more reward. I know this isn’t always possible. If you’re obsessed with someone at work and you need to keep your job, that’s very rough. If you’re 14, it can be impossible not to see the classmate you’re obsessed with and not to see photos of that person on Instagram.
Closure shouldn’t be a goal. It’s possible that your beloved did love you back in all the ways you imagined, but just couldn’t be your partner. It doesn’t matter. What matters is how you are treated, so screw closure, at least in that respect.
What, in your experience both personally and as part of your research, was required to truly get closure after a rejection?
The first step to ending my obsession came from “B.,” the initial I use for the man I was obsessed with. At a certain point, I’d been calling him repeatedly and being very needy. He stopped answering the phone, and I left a lot of pleading voice mail messages. One day he picked up and said, “We can never speak again.” He had never been so definitive with me. He had been very back and forth, one day telling me he was going to break up with his girlfriend and then not doing it – that kind of thing. Once he was absolutely clear, that made a huge difference. I started to feel that I could come out of my obsession. As I’ve said, you need that “no contact” rule, and fortunately for me, he imposed it.
Not long after that last phone call with B., I met the man who would become my husband. A lot of what I’d been chasing in B. – security, the opportunity to have a life partner and family – came to pass. That was the next fortunate thing that happened – but certainly not something that happens to everyone who’s obsessed.
For other women, closure happened by having an opportunity to see the person through new eyes. Time or perspective allowed them to realise that their beloved was flawed, and human, and not worth tearing themselves up over. For others, it was time and/or distance. One woman sold her house and moved to another state to shake her obsession with a man she’d been having an affair with.
The common thread I saw was the infusion of the beloved with meaning. That person represents something more than himself or herself. Creativity, freedom, family ties, security, self-esteem – some larger and more important life goal.
On this matter of closure, though, I do want to add that closure actually shouldn’t be a goal. There are some things you can’t ever get closure on. Life doesn’t always give neat answers, certainly when it comes to love. It’s possible that your beloved did love you back in all the ways you imagined, but for whatever reason that person just couldn’t be your partner. It doesn’t matter what s/he really thought. What matters is how you are treated and whether that person could express and enact love toward you. So, screw closure, at least in that respect. Live with not knowing what was right or wrong about your beloved and his/her feelings. The most important thing is ending a ruinous obsession – or, in some cases, learning to make use of an obsession as a goad: creative inspiration, personal change, a better understanding of yourself.
Did you find in your research that trying to stay friends (in real life, as well as on social media) played any part in the moving on process?
If you want to move on, you probably can’t be friends. If that’s a hard idea for you, just tell yourself – and your beloved – that you can’t be friends now. And let that “now” last a very long time.
And finally, what would be your greatest advice to any man or woman trying to move on or let go from a doomed love?
Remember that obsession happens to many of us. It’s a normal part of the process of romantic love and part of what perpetuates the human species. It’s just rough when we’re on the losing end of this and can’t stop feeling so much for a beloved who can’t return the feeling. But this kind of obsession is also an opportunity. If you can work with your loss and allow it to lead you to change, or greater self-understanding, you’ll know the obsession happened for a reason.
When trying to navigate your way through the emotional minefields of a breakup it is important to remember that it is normal that you may feel distressed at this time. If you are having a difficult time dealing with these emotions and thought patterns please see your GP or a mental health professional. If in Australia, you can call Lifeline 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.