We are hard-wired to think that we can change people who don’t love us back. The problem is that life isn’t really like that.
There was a time when I was epically bad at dealing with unrequited love.
It was my senior year of college and I had a crush on a friend of a friend that I’d met by pure happenstance. Really, it was more of a crash – I flubbed my own name when I introduced myself and spent over an hour picking out The Perfect Outfit the first time we went to the movies. When I found out that he liked me too, I was over the moon with joy. But when I finally worked up the nerve to tell him how I felt, everything screeched to a halt. Let’s just be friends, he suggested. Instead of accepting this, I tried to assuage my sadness by inventing a scenario where, if I just worked hard enough, I could generate romantic feelings out of thin air.
The cliffs notes version of the rest of my story is pretty standard. Our relationship settled into a friendship, albeit one fraught with sexual tension. I tried to deny my feelings. Things happened somewhere in that mix of tension and denial and casualness, and I fell harder. We entered a period of terrible awkwardness. And finally, one night, I rounded the corner and saw him kissing another girl, ran to my car, and cried so hard on the drive home that I thought I was going to throw up. The next time we saw each other, I unloaded everything I’d been feeling for the past several months. How dare you break my heart and date someone else. How dare you.
It’s not a time I’m proud of, but it was a time of necessary learning and growing. The first rule: Unrequited love sucks. There’s no possible way that it doesn’t suck, and unless you and the other person have absolutely no investment in each other, it sucks for both parties. “It’s not easy to learn that you can be in love with someone, and they can be kind to you, and think you’re great, and want to spend time with you, and never love you back or be willing to give you the relationship you want,” Clarisse Thorn wrote back in 2012. “But it’s also not easy to care about someone and be afraid that you’re hurting them, or screwing up their incentives.” Having also been on the other end of unrequited love, the chased rather than the chaser, it’s never easy to let a friend down, or to feel guilty for not being able to make them happy in the way they’d like.
The second rule took regrettably longer for me to get a handle on: My unilateral crush was not this guy’s problem. My unilateral crush was my problem. Yes, bad communication and mind games and manipulative behavior certainly happen in some relationships, but this was not that. This was an instance of someone telling me plainly how he felt about me, and I chose not to listen. Instead, I chose to try in vain to turn a no into a yes, and lashed out unfairly when that failed to happen.
Last month, a young man named Alek Minassian drove his van into a Toronto crowd, killing 10 and injuring 14 pedestrians. A Facebook post of Minassian’s from earlier that day openly praised Elliot Rodger, the man responsible for the 2014 shooting spree in southern California. Minassian also called for an “incel rebellion,” referencing an online community of self-described “involuntary celibates” that perpetuate openly misogynistic ideas and aims.
Last week, a school shooter in Santa Fe, Texas, allegedly shot and killed a female classmate who had refused his advances, along with nine others. And a few weeks before the rampage in Toronto, a high school senior by the name of Austin Mills shot multiple students at Great Mills High School in my home state of Maryland. Working with the information that one of Mills’ victims was a recent ex-girlfriend, multiple news sources deemed him a “lovesick teen.” Readers immediately took issue with this language, asking ABC News to stop romanticizing domestic violence and call the shooting spree what it was: “not knowing how to cope with rejection in any other way than violence because he felt entitled.”
I mention my story next to these two horrific news items not because it is comparable to them, but because it lies on the same spectrum, just as locker room banter and cat calling lie on the spectrum of rape culture. The spectrum, in this case, is entitlement. And if we’re going to change the way we think about feeling entitled to relationships, we need to tackle the full scope of the problem. Not just the murderous bursts of outrage, but the little things too. The seeds that sow the belief that we can claim other people.
That belief runs deep. From an early age, we are constantly reassured that things will work themselves out no matter how seemingly impossible the situation. See: fairy tales, every romantic comedy ever made, and even one of my favorite TV shows (as much as I love How I Met Your Mother – dear God, Ted, give it a rest). One of the myriad reasons that I can’t stand Love Actually is how persistent Mark is in stalking his best friend’s new wife: He takes creepy close-up photos of her at her wedding and shows up at her house to profess his love on a bunch of poster boards. Mark’s reward is a kiss, because romantic comedies only teach us that our dreams will come true and never how to handle life when they don’t.
We are hard-wired to think that we can change people who don’t love us back. The problem is that life isn’t really like that. And while romantic comedies and pickup artist culture train us to work until there’s a payoff, realistically, that shit isn’t fun. It’s exhausting. Speaking from experience, remaining hung up on someone who doesn’t feel the way you do only guarantees that you’ll blow off some really good people who actually reciprocate your interest.
My old flame recently re-friended me on Facebook, and I took the opportunity to apologize for my past behavior. I think that’s the solution to the “problem” of unrequited love. Not acting out or disappearing into terrible communities online. Not figuring out how to “redistribute sex” like it’s a commodity or working to change a fantasy into reality. Just working on being better versions of ourselves.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.