How Unrequited Love Can Trick Us Into Holding Ourselves Hostage

Some key pitfalls to watch for and avoid.

Falling in love is an incredible, euphoric, intoxicating feeling. It is arguably the most overpoweringly wondrous experience our human lives have to offer. We have all felt attraction, infatuation, that giddy rush of a new relationship. But that special spark which leads to roaring emotional fires and leaping off emotional cliffs is something on an entirely other level. Sometimes it creeps up on us, sometimes is drops like an anvil.

Sexual attraction, chemistry, and compatibility certainly play a part in it but falling in love strikes at us much more deeply and in aspects of life which have nothing to do with sex whatsoever. Ask twenty different people to describe it to you and you will get twenty different descriptions but the one thing they will all have in common is the certainty you know it when you feel it.

And once we do we owe it to ourselves to figure out the truth of our situation. It would be wonderful if falling in love always led to happily-ever-afters but sadly, as soul-shudderingly powerful as it can be, when it flares in one heart there is no guarantee it will flare in the other. There are times when that spark, along with its flames and leaps, is only one-sided. You know it when you don’t feel it as well. And thus while falling in love can be the most wondrous of experiences it can also be the most torturous.

Some people have hearts which are constantly in and out of love. They ceaselessly bungie-jump from ecstasy to devastation, at times almost daily. Some take that kind of emotional connection and investment very seriously. They are extremely cautious, selective, and once they do form the bond it is imprinted for life making recovery from heartbreak a process which can take years. And there are countless variations between.

I am one of the cautious bond-for-life types, those who don’t date but fall in love with a close friend, and my only experiences with falling in love have been unrequited ones. Both times I have fallen in love it was with a dear friend and I was alone in my feelings. The first friend I fell in love with was straight so it was impossible for him to share or return my affections. The second friend was at least capable of feelings for another man he just didn’t feel them for me.

I can attest to the wondrous and the torturous co-existing simultaneously, the greater the euphoria the greater the torment of knowing it is neither shared nor wanted by the other person. But actually knowing for certain the answer was ‘No’, though painful, was crucial for enabling me to work through it, let it go, and I am still friends with both of them.

That isn’t always possible and in some cases unrequited feelings can wind up being a death knell for a friendship, even a very close one. The confession and rejection of the feelings can generate too much discomfort to overcome or if the feelings go unexpressed they can fester, tormenting us to the point it irrevocably sours our relationship with the object of our affections.

Losing the friendship can add a whole other layer of heartbreak to the situation but not having the other person constantly present in our lives can make the recovery process easier on some levels, freeing us from recurring reminders of rejection or potential resurgence of the feelings.

There are also times when the person is too rooted in our lives and such separation simply isn’t possible even if we wanted it to be. If they are a co-worker career considerations may not leave any room for choice. If they are too embedded a part of our social circle we can feel forced to give up all of our friends, or worse make our friends choose sides. And sometimes, as in my case, the friendship is simply too dear to lose.

We cannot control our emotions. They are visceral reactions which cannot simply be turned on or off like a switch, nor can they be reasoned with. We cannot make ourselves feel something we don’t any more than we can make ourselves not feel something we do. We can, however, control our choices and behavior. We can work at being more aware of our emotions, more aware of the influence they have on our thoughts and impulses. We may not be able to control them but we can strive to keep them from controlling us.

Pain and grieving are a necessary part of recovering from heartbreak. We have to hit the bottom in order to fully process it and move on but we can’t heal if we remain mired at the bottom. Unrequited feelings can trap us in a stagnating cycle of self-torment through small habits and distortions of perception, some of which seem perfectly safe and innocent but nonetheless trick us into holding ourselves hostage at the deepest points of the despair.

Recovering from falling unrequitedly in love can be all the more difficult because the emotions we are dealing with are among the most powerful we ever experience and the grieving process is a painful struggle no matter how self-aware or self-controlled we are. The trick lies in being able to separate the necessary and natural parts of grieving from the pitfalls our hearts try to throw in our path to manipulate us into clinging to the feelings.

We don’t want to let go of the feelings, even if painful, because if we can keep feeling something then the story isn’t over. It isn’t a closed file and maybe, just maybe, if we hold on long enough there could be a possibility for a different ending. There are times when our heart’s desire can require some patience and perseverance, sometimes we do have to fight for it. But there also comes a time when the ‘No’ has to be acknowledged as definitive and, heartbreaking as it is, we have to accept it and do the work to move on.

These are some of the most common pitfalls our broken hearts can drag us into and as much as they differ they also have one feature in common. They are aimed at either finding or manufacturing a justifiable excuse to continue clinging to the idea, and the feelings it inspires, rather than accepting the painful truth and forcing ourselves to let go.

Special Definition-Status

‘We are more than friends, more than siblings…’ It can seem innocent enough. We most certainly are more emotionally invested in them than other people so our relationship with them obviously matters more to us. The danger in assigning a special designation is that it uses our level of emotional investment as the baseline. They may mean more to us than a friend or sibling but they do not share those feelings, that is the whole reason we are struggling with heartbreak.

By giving ourselves license behave otherwise we not only run the risk of making fools of ourselves but it can also lead to nurturing false hopes and having our hearts repeatedly re-broken. If we catch ourselves trying for some special moniker we need to ask ourselves very firmly why. What are we trying to achieve? Does the distinction actually matter to anyone other than us? Are we answering an actual question or are we fabricating and excuse to say it?

If the person is no longer in our lives this can become a recipe for remaining trapped in the past and if we are trying to get the other person to participate in the special moniker we need to be very cautious and take a firm grip of ourselves. A heart looking for any excuse to feel just a tiny bit less broken will interpret any agreement as a reason to keep pining. They have already said ‘No’. Changing the label for the friendship doesn’t change the answer.

“Other People Always Say…”

In a similar vein going out of our way to give other people credit for commenting on the specialness of the relationship is another attempt to change the nature of the thing by changing the name of it. ‘Our friends always describe us as an old married couple’, ‘My parents call them my future spouse’, ‘No one ever knows what to call us’…

This version attempts to add an extra layer of validation by citing other people’s perceptions of the relationship. It’s not just us, other people see it too. The trouble is what other people might or might not see does not change the person’s feelings and more often than not we tend to take comments made once or twice and describe them with terms like ‘always’ or ‘all the time’.

Again, what is being achieved by making the comment? Does the description matter to anyone other than us? Are we describing things as they actually are or are we leveraging other people’s words to paint them how we were hoping they could have been?

Overcompensation

Having strong unrequited feelings for someone who is in our lives can be very difficult. The disappointment, the pain of rejection, the longing for the desired dream are all very real and challenging things to cope with let alone overcome. It takes time and exhaustive use of whatever coping mechanisms work best for us.

Part of what makes getting our heart broken so devastating is that we are not just feeling pain, we feel powerless to do anything about it. We can’t make things turn out the way we wanted them to which then makes us feel like we don’t have any power at all, or at least not any kind of power which seems to really matter.

So in an attempt to regain some sense of personal power it can be all too easy to overcompensate. By leaning into the heartbreak and not just facing it but rather embracing the pain to the point of burying ourselves in it. Or by making an excessive and performative display of how ‘perfectly fine’ and ‘over it’ we are, especially to the key person in question.

In taking the brooding option we build the situation up to be virtually insurmountable casting ourselves as the tragic hero struggling to simply make it from one moment to the next. By painting on our ‘happy face’ we may feel as though we are demonstrating strength but ignoring or denying the pain we are feeling can be just as toxic and harmful as wallowing in it.

Having our heart broken can be incredibly painful and truly devastating taking a great deal of time and work to recover from. If our every thought is focused on how terrible we feel then we are perpetuating our pain rather than working to heal from it. And we if we are performing our‘happy face’ it may seem like an effort to minimize any impact on others, especially that particular someone, but denial will only lead to further pain and disruption later on when the pressure grows too great to contain.

The only way through it is to be fully honest with ourselves, and others, about how we are feeling and to keep our eyes focused forward not down or back.

Conversations About ‘The Conversation’

A closely related, and rather insidious, tactic is to constantly stir up conversations related to the conversation. Reminiscing about how those exchanges unfolded, repeatedly referencing the scenario as a badge of honor marking the uniqueness or your relationship, or perhaps the most pernicious ceaselessly finding reasons to re-examine and re-discuss some specific aspect of the situation often under the excuse of needing it to find closure.

A serious heartbreak can have a tremendous impact on our lives so it will naturally hold a prominent place in our minds. Talking about it will be a necessary part of grieving and recovering but perpetually trying to talk about more often less to do with processing and more to do with trying to keep the topic falsely relevant. If we have truly moved on then there is no need to constantly bring it up again and again and again...

We have to ask ourselves, did someone else legitimately raise the subject or have we pushed it into the conversation? Is a reference to the scenario actually relevant or are we the only one drawing that conclusion? Could we make the point we are trying to make without bringing the subject up at all?

The important truth to keep in mind is that our heartbreak will always loom larger in our minds than in anyone else’s, especially in terms of the person who rejected us. That is pretty much the underlying essence of their rejection. We don’t figure as prominently in their thoughts and feelings as they do in ours. It hurts but it is the truth. Constantly dragging the topic into every possible conversation won’t change that. It will only further torment us and potentially alienate others.

Excessive Clarification

A cousin to the perpetual conversation is the urge to excessively explain and clarify, particularly to the person who has rejected us if they continue to be a part of our lives. This one tends to crop its head almost immediately on the tail of the rejection feeling innocently enough like merely attempting to make sure there are no further misunderstandings for anyone.

That can certainly be important and helpful but there is also the very real danger we are harboring the hope that if the other person understood us better, understood our thoughts and perspectives and feelings better, then they might reconsider their answer. Over-clarifying to our other friends is less direct but still the same pitfall. If other people can see potential compatibility we have our excuse to continue pining.

Much like the others we have to ask ourselves if the clarification we are offering has actually been asked for, is genuinely desired, or are we manufacturing both the need and opportunity for it. Are we clarifying or clinging?

Fixated Gift Giving

A warped combination of the unique moniker and excessive clarifying pitfalls is the propensity for overly focused and imbalanced gift giving. There is nothing wrong with giving gifts to the people in our lives. It can be a lovely way of letting people know we care about them and are thinking of them. But if we are suddenly focusing this on the source of our unrequited feelings to a disproportionate degree something else is going on.

We can remember their birthday or do something for Christmas we just need to make sure it is in proportion with the truth of our relationships. Do we give gifts to all of our friends or just this one person? Has gift giving always been part of our relationship with them or has it only developed around the time our feelings for them did?

Gift giving can be a lovely and generous thing but it can also be an excuse to keep someone fixed in the center of our thoughts and run the risk of nurturing false hopes our gestures might earn, purchase, us a chance for a reconsidered answer. Or worse yet, it can quietly build an expectation of a changed answer because we start to feel like we are owed one.

Dedicated Caregiver-Protector

It might seem likely we would instantly cast someone who has broken our heart as the villain in our personal story but in a bizarre twist we can often find ourselves instead becoming their greatest supporter and protector, especially if they are an ongoing part of our lives.

Wanting to look after the people we care about is natural and falling in love with someone is the very pinnacle of caring about them so wanting to support and protect them is also natural. We just, as always, need to be mindful of our wounded heart’s potential for trying to manufacture alternate connections to the object of our affections.

You can read my thoughts on the whole ‘friendzone’ phenomenon here but essentially we need to make sure we are not letting our wounded feelings push us into searching for alternate ways to cast ourselves as closer to them or into manufacturing opportunities to try and change their perceptions of us and perhaps eventually their answer as well.

The self-checking questions remain the same. Is this something that has always been part of our relationship with them or is this something new since the rejection? Have they asked for this or are we assertively, or aggressively, volunteering it all on our own? Are we actually trying to help them or simply insert ourselves more into their lives under a different pretext?

A lot of this may sound as if I am laying out a case for not trusting yourself and to a degree I suppose I am. When our heart is broken the pain we feel can drive us to desperation. We wanted something so desperately simply hearing ‘No’ does not suddenly make all the feelings disappear. It hurts and we are fully allowed to want the pain to stop.

We just have to make sure our efforts are aimed at healing, recovering, and moving on rather than staying locked in place twisting and hurting and waiting for the answer we wanted to hear. We fell in love, they didn’t. It’s awful and painful and fair or not we are the ones who have to work through it and let it go. It will take time and effort and some tears but we and we alone are the ones who have to do it.

We can’t control our emotions but we can control our thoughts, what they focus on, the tone they take, and we can control our actions. The pitfalls are all spawned from very real emotional pain but are attempts to try and force the rest of the world, and especially that particular someone, to stay in fixated on those feelings with us. If we can make them hold onto it allthen we are allowed to hold onto it too.

It’s a natural impulse, who wants to let go of the idea and dream of love? But trapping ourselves in a brooding cycle of torment won’t bring the dream any closer and the only person it will torment is us.

Written by

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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