Have you ever felt so strongly about a lover that you ended up doing things many would consider obsessive, even after it was clear the feelings weren’t mutual? Actions that may be so embarrassing that you’d rather not admit to them? Whether that be excessive texting until you receive a response, stalking their Instagram like a hungry bloodhound, or even worse. I’ve been there and I know there are many that can relate. But why is it that we engage in all of this obsessive behavior, damaging our self-esteem and taking all of our time, when we know we have been rejected?
In Lisa A. Phillips’ nonfiction book Unrequited, she explores how romantic rejection can transform into a nasty, obsessive love. She delves into how, with the proper understanding of obsession, that rejection can actually be a blessing in disguise. I had the good fortune to talk with Lisa about her work.
Can you tell Menders about yourself and why you wrote this book?
I am a journalist and a professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. The year I turned 30, I became obsessed with a man who was seeing someone else. Though he showed an interest in me, he didn’t want to leave his girlfriend, but I couldn’t let him go. My feelings overwhelmed me — I couldn’t think of anything else but him. Early one morning, I snuck into his apartment building and banged on his door until he opened it with a baseball bat in one hand for protection and the telephone in the other hand. He was about to dial 911. This moment — now more than 16 years ago — spoke volumes about how out of control, self-centered, and lost my obsession made me. Though I was eventually able to move on, I kept wondering why unrequited love can be so powerful. I decided to take my journalist’s instincts to bear on the subject, and the end result was my book, Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. I put my own experience into a broader context, delving into the scientific and psychological research, cultural history, and literature of unrequited love. I also include the stories of people from both sides of the unrequited love experience: women who’ve obsessed over someone else and people who were the targets of female obsession.
You chose to include this passage of the poem Dirge Without Music in the very beginning of Unrequited: “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.” How has this passage affected you personally? What purpose does it serve?
Edna St. Vincent Millay is inspiring to me because she was a woman who not only experienced great passion, but also believed in its necessity and its power. Though my book delves into the dark side of unrequited love and is unsparring in its criticism of behavior that becomes invasive and abusive, I defend the essence of unrequited love as a force that has the potential to enrich us, move us to new places in our lives, and help us understand ourselves better.
Throughout your work, you refer to your unrequited lover as B. Why?
I call my unrequited love “B.” for several reasons. I wanted to keep him anonymous. Also, the initial, a partial way of referring to someone, suggests one of the core truths of unrequited love: It’s never really about the beloved. He (or she) remains mysterious and ultimately unknowable. The longing is about the person who’s doing the yearning and what (not who) they are yearning for: love, a sense of possibility, personal growth, and other core human needs that become stubbornly “linked” to the beloved in a situation of romantic obsession. Also, there is a tradition in nineteenth century literature of referring to characters by their initials as a way of underscoring to the reader that the characters are inventions of the author. Incomplete beings, if you will. And though B. is definitely real, the experience of loving him so ardently and with so little payoff was very much about what I fantasized — what he would be for me if only he loved me back.
How important was it for you to include historical roots in Unrequited?
Where we’re coming from historically almost always has a great bearing on where we are now. For much of human history, the male unrequited lover was seen as a hero on a quest for what was rightfully his, but the female unrequited lover was a figure of shame and derision. Neither gendered assumption gets it right, of course, but by looking at history we can see why we’ve struggled as a culture to have an honest conversation about the nature of female longing and female pursuit. Shaming silences us — it’s why it took me years to face my own experience of unrequited love, and then only from the socially validating position of being a wife and mother — a “wanted” woman instead of the unwanted woman I had once been. I wanted this book to take what I call the “unwanted woman” — the woman who yearns and is not yearned for in return — out of the shadows.
You say that once you’re able to step away and understand your obsession, you can gain insight into what you actually want in life and in love. You then followed with, “Almost inevitably, [what one wants] is not the person we’ve been fixated on.” What would you say to those that are still hopeful that things someday their unrequited lover will requite?
The patterns I saw in my interviews include:
The beloved represents professional or creative possibility. One woman I interviewed could not hold down a nine to five type job because of mental health issues, but still craved creative expression. She took an art class and fell madly in love with her professor. Both of them were married. She eventually realized he represented the kind of life path she should have taken — and that idea what what she was really obsessed with, not him. Another woman, an opera singer, held a torch for the conductor whose commanding presence helped her turn a flaw into a triumph onstage. He represented the elite opera world she so badly wanted to enter, and it wasn’t until she came into her own as a performer that she could let him go.
The beloved represents the unconditional love that the unrequited lover didn’t have from her family of origin. One woman, a lesbian, described her love for her gay friend precisely this way — it wasn’t sexual. She wanted him to “be her family” because status in her own family of evangelical Christians was so fragile.
The beloved represents what’s missing from the unrequited lover’s marriage or relationship. One woman told me that she dreamed of a love without boundaries, where everything is shared, and she knew her marriage could never give her that (and probably no marriage could be that totalizing). But she regularly fell into unrequited love as a way of keeping that dream of a perfect union alive, even though it was unrealistic. Another woman was feeling restless and unloved in her privileged stay-at-home mother role. So when she saw an intriguing looking woman working out at her gym, she fell head over heels in love with the excitement and escape the woman seemed to represent.
The beloved represents the dream of an idealized future with a committed partner. This is probably the most common situation, and it makes all the sense in the world. As human beings we have a drive to experience deep romantic love, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s important to eventually be able to step back and acknowledge that the beloved isn’t able to be that person — and the fixation on him/her, if it goes on too long, interferes with the quest for real, enduring love.
Based on your online survey, about a third of the women “responded that their unrequited love experience changed my life for the better.” Do you feel the same way?
Absolutely. After my obsession ended, I resolved only to date people who were good to me. It’s an embarrassingly simple formula. But it helped me see the ways I’d prioritized passionate feeling over, well, basic decent treatment. And that was a very important change that definitely made my life better. When I met the man I would eventually marry, my priorities were clear. I will also say that writing a book about unrequited love, inspired by my experience, also made my life better. It was an enriching experience, and now I get letters from readers letting me know that I’ve been helpful to them. That means the world to me.
What do you hope readers take away from Unrequited?
I hope readers who are in unrequited love will use the book to better understand their situation and themselves — and eventually move on. I hope the book helps any reader better understand the complexities of romantic love and the cultural myths and expectations we’ve built up around it. I also think the book is useful for parents who want to help their daughters through the “crush years” — I have a chapter devoted to that, as my daughter, who is eleven, is about to enter that developmental stage.
You described the time of your life when your unrequited loved became obsessive as “lost.” How would you describe your life currently?
I don’t feel lost in the way I once did. I have a settled, full, and challenging life as a working mother and writer. I still have a restless and dreamy mind, though, so a certain degree of “lostness” will always be a part of me — but it’s more in the intellectual/creative realm, as in, what will the next book be? How can I be a better teacher? A more insightful parent? That kind of thing.
What exciting upcoming projects can we Menders look forward to?
I want to continue on what I’ve come to call “the love and heartbreak beat” in my writing career, and I’m toying with a number of ideas for articles and books. Stay tuned!
What is your favorite song about heartbreak?
The song Black Star kills me every time I hear it. It speaks to that feeling of inaccessibility in unrequited love or the end of a relationship. It’s a Radiohead song but I confess a preference for the Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings cover of it. Laura Marling’s song “Take the Night Off” is a close rival. I often thought of my unrequited love as a “beast” inside me, and I wanted it to go away and give me a break.
Thank you so much Lisa!