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'This Unrequited Love Feels So Humiliating!'
Avoiding the truth can be a way of refusing to recognize how powerful you are.
Mountain at Bear Lake (1920) by Georgia O’Keeffe
How do you accept when the love you have for someone isn't returned? Or isn't returned in the way that you were hoping?
I've been in love with the same person (my first ever partner, who I was with for several years) for a very long time. I dated other people seriously, but always held a part of myself back in those relationships. I would often think about what this person would say or think, like he was a voice in my ear. It's been half a decade since we've communicated, and I reached out last year and got a very lovely response.
Emails followed every few months, back and forth, with plans of meeting, talking, etc. that were mostly postponed by me. His emails were painfully sweet, felt overwrought and like he had agonized over writing them (and, he admitted he had agonized over writing them in 'the right way'). I was excited. Very, very excited. I felt validated, relieved. It wasn't silly that I had been in love with someone for this long. This was a true love story.
And then I realized, recently, that he has been in a very serious partnership for the past half-decade. I actually realized this not through our communications, but through reading a recently published interview with my ex that was the equivalent of a French novel talking about... love. Love for his current partner. His experiences of deep love in life, defined only in relation to said current partner. To make things especially spicy, his current partner seems to be essentially me, if I had managed to fulfill my dreams and generally be… a better version of myself. Great. Cool. We're all good here.
I could not feel more embarrassed. I looked back at our emails. They certainly can be read as romantic. But, they also could read as him being a very wordy, romantic person in general, a person who wants to have a platonic connection with an ex that he hurt, one he is very aware that he never loved as much as she loved him. They could even be read as vaguely pitying. Sympathetic. Agh!
After that lovely dive, I took another dive into the emails from when we were dating. Most of them are not quite what I remember. Sure, we were obsessed with each other. But I was also needy, undeveloped, insecure. He was motivated, successful, driven. I would not be surprised at all if he considered me a 'project' and that's how I remain in his memory.
I always knew that a lot of the love I had for him when I was younger was love that I should have had for myself. That I was too focused, too obsessed, too depressed, too young, etc. to really understand what love was. That at the end of the day, I wanted to be him more than I wanted to love him. I'm sad that there might not be a romantic component, but I'm even more devastated by the potential knowledge that he never considered me an equal in the ways that I admired him for. I can understand it all, map out my mistakes and flaws, but it doesn't make it easier to accept. I feel horrible.
How can I move forward? He suggested recently that I come visit him directly (rather than when I was passing through, which was the previous plan). He recently moved across the country, and that makes me wonder if his relationship is over. Which makes me feel like a backup girlfriend. Even worse, a backup girlfriend that would probably be disappointing, like I was before.
Is it cowardly (or even continuing my fantasy/denial situation) to not connect with him as a friend, a real person, and accept the relationship that's really there? How do I stop feeling like total shit?
Feeling Like Total Shit
Nothing is cowardly, lion. You can refuse to visit in order to protect yourself from sensations you know will send you spinning. You can tell yourself that he’s a friend and then show up and experience a rush of love and attraction for him. You can tell yourself you’re still in love with him and show up and feel much less than you expected. You can stay where you are, ask zero tough questions, and keep the fantasy alive, recognizing that it might continue to block you from falling in love in love with someone new. Maybe you feel safer inside that fantasy bubble and you want to stay there for a while longer.
There’s no one standing on the sidelines saying “Fantasies are for losers!” or “You’re being too reckless!” or “You’re hiding from life!” You’re the person who gets to decide who you are and what you want and how to proceed. You’re the one who knows how it might feel to say no to a visit and how it might feel to say yes without asking what his intentions are. In order to be the decider, though, you need to shift this picture from how he feels about you to how you’ll feel if you take certain actions or you don’t.
Here's my gut feeling about what you’re facing: Something is making you hesitant to ask about his girlfriend. You don’t want to pop the fantasy bubble you’re living in. And obviously he hasn’t mentioned a girlfriend, so he likes fantasy bubbles, too. Moreover, I’m going to guess that he didn’t start making noises about you visiting him until you started to fade out thanks to having seen that interview. He’s a wordy, romantic person who agonizes over what to write to you not because he wants to tell you the whole truth and have a real relationship with you, but because he wants to manage the situation very carefully so that he can keep it romantic for you and for him, keep the bubble afloat, and indulge the fantasy that you have a deep connection, that you’re a witness to his life, that he matters to you in ways that guarantee that no matter what else happens, he’s important and loved and he’ll never be lonely again.
Now, that probably sounds like a lot. Why would his notes to you hold so much emotional weight if he’s not actually in love with you? Possibly he’s sensitive but avoidant. He feels a lot about all relationships but fears abandonment. Possibly because he’s invested in your investment in him. He loves how much you love him.
And that’s perfectly understandable, if you think about it. It’s hard to be a guy in this world. A lot of cis-het men have trouble building and maintaining intimate friendships as adults. We don’t have a lot of working models of how deep connections between guys should work. And when straight guys are in long-term relationships with women, they’re generally expected not to befriend women. This can be hard for guys who are extremely sensitive and secretly very emotional and HIGHLY romantic, because they have a lot to discuss, confess, process, share. You put a man like that across the table from a woman and he sometimes has an urge to say some emotional and even confessional stuff, particularly if he’s a little bit avoidant and also has an extremely strong sense of duty and honor and guilt around love that makes it feel impossible for him to tell his partner the whole truth about who he is and what he wants.
So he wants to tell a woman who adores him everything because he craves an adoring ear that doesn’t include all of the responsibilities and honors and duties of his primary relationship. This can be true even if he’s single: His goal is to avoid the guilt zone and stay in the BEING ADORED zone. That’s annoying but it’s also natural. He just wants to let his goddamn hair down and breathe some fresh air and feel loved for who he is, in spite of what he considers some pretty large flaws, flaws he doesn’t want anyone – not his girlfriend, not you, not anyone else – to know about.
And the second you say to him, “Hey, do you still have a girlfriend? Because I don’t think I can book a flight out there with the feelings I have for you, even if we are just friends, knowing that you’re involved with someone else”?
Well. You know what will happen at some subconscious level, or you would’ve said these words by now. All of the guilt and duty and responsibility that he feels with his girlfriend (or if he’s single, that he feels within the boundaries of actual romantic relationships) would suddenly rush in the door. Because now the bubble has been popped. You’re living in reality. And in reality, you’re likely to have expectations of him that you state directly to his face.
It can be hard to talk about reality with a lonely. avoidant romantic – and yes, I do mean lonely, even if he does still have a girlfriend. Because what he wants is the feelings incited by the fantasy without the duties of reality. He wants to feel loved without feeling guilty. He wants to tell you about a lot of sensations and feelings that he can’t talk to his girlfriend about without fracturing that relationship. But he doesn’t want to tell you exactly how lonely he is or how frantic he is or how much he hates himself a lot of the time. This is about being admired and adored, not analyzed. And lots of cis-het men who’ve often experienced themselves as too romantic and soft and emotional for this world will go to great lengths not to examine, let alone openly discuss, their ambivalence.
So do his romantic emails indicate that he wants you two to have a real, secure, intimate relationship, whether it’s a romance or a friendship, based on the truth? Is he dying to confess his entire picture, let you know that he struggles with low self-esteem and loneliness, tell you that he’s worried that he’s a bad guy who will always let everyone down, admit to you that he’s afraid of being abandoned and this figures into every decision he makes, show you how he stays busy and keeps his life packed with exciting and gratifying and sometimes faintly romantic distractions from different sources just so he can still feel important, still feel loved, still feel worthy in spite of his big flaws and his deep fear of being alone?
No. He doesn’t want to get into all of that, doesn’t even want to know it, doesn’t want to talk about it. And even if he does manage to talk about it a little, your history with him makes that kind of intimacy slightly dangerous for you. Because what he wants the most is not a true friend who will tell him the truth, show up consistently, and sometimes challenge him a little. What he wants instead is someone who will listen and witness and adore him within a fantasy bubble. You know this from the way his messages aren’t completely direct, aren’t that easy to interpret, and do not arrive on a steady schedule. You know this from the way he appears and disappears in your life. You know this from the fact that you had to find out about his girlfriend from an interview. He’s feeding you a carefully curated version of himself – not to make you feel good about him so much as to make HIM feel good about him. He’s managing his ego and his own rollercoaster ride at all times, because it’s intensely difficult for him to face himself, love himself, and feel his feelings without fear.
The modern narrative around this guy is that he’s a commitment-phobe (even if married!) or a narcissist or avoidant or even a sociopath who’s toying with you just for kicks. You could also squeeze him into the box of love bombing and trauma bonding and hot-and-cold seduction. And if you read a lot of the descriptions of these types of cis-het men, you might start to imagine them as highly sophisticated secret agents who strategize and reconnoiter and outwit their victims out of sheer greedy, gluttonous, lustful evil.
Obviously there are very bad and evil men in the world. But the portrait of the callous operative that’s treated as both common and devastatingly clever kind of makes me laugh. I mean, uh, these are men we’re talking about! Have you ever… met a man? Because most cis-het men have more in common with a clumsy, googly-eyed cartoon bear with his paw stuck in a honey jar than they do with James Bond.
And it behooves women to recognize that, honestly. Not because it’s just adorable and perfectly fine that a few threatened old grizzly bears want America’s women barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen for the rest of their days. Our struggles are real, even if you don’t agree that American culture itself disparages, undermines, and trivializes women at every turn. THAT SAID, it still behooves us to notice that a lot of men are very needy and very lost. A lot of men are so emotionally confused and/or deeply lonely and/or fantasy-fixated that if you put a honey jar in front of them, nine times out of ten they’ll end up with one big paw lodged in there and no way to justify or explain it.
Not being able to explain make cartoon bear feel sick inside!
So cartoon bear never explain. Cartoon bear scratch ass on big tree, then tumble and bumble off to look for more honey, sometimes with honey jar still stuck on paw!!! Damn, bear, you are SHAMELESS!!!
Okay that’s a little simple, but I couldn’t resist. I love bears. I have one living in my house! Am I condescending about the way some men are? Fuck yes, I am. I love men and I can’t live without the motherfuckers and they’re much more complex than I sometimes give some of them credit for. But I also have to navigate this life of loving men without losing my ever-loving mind, dude, and that’s just going to HAVE to include a little condescension. If you don’t like that, send some money to the national network of abortion funds and read Of Woman Born from cover to cover and then sit quietly in the corner for a while and journal about your feelings rather than mouthing off to women about it. I’m on your side, mostly. Assume that there are experiences you will never understand and in some cases those experiences render a woman condescending and imperious and also a little longwinded. Old Polly vibes, take the wheel!
So look. Does it matter if cartoon bear looks up to you or down on you? No. Cartoon bear is in a tree or on the ground, who fucking cares? What matters is that as long as you’re not telling him the truth and he’s not telling you the truth and you’re both committed to keeping some fantasy alive, you’re just a honey jar to him and he’s just a guilty, bumbling doofus to you. You run the risk of visiting and having a great affair and then feeling like an empty jar on the plane ride back home. You run the risk of feeling cowardly for not flying out there to see him, and you run the risk of feeling foolish and worthless for flying out and discovering that he has a girlfriend from clues in his apartment, or finding out that he just sees you as honey – I don’t mean just sex, either. I mean an adoring lady from the past who will create an intimate setting for him to bleed off some of his angst and romance and loneliness, whether there’s physical contact or not.
So hide from the truth or don’t, but stop calling yourself cowardly and stop pretending that you’re not a real lion. You have all of this strength and beauty and power trapped inside you, but you refuse to give it a name or a home, you refuse to express it or celebrate it, you keep telling stories that “success” makes a person more valuable and impressive and without it, you’re unworthy. You have all of this love to share with someone, all of this passion and light and joy to experience, but you keep telling an old fairy tale about how only one mysterious prince is magical enough to make you feel things, and that prince just happens to be miles away and not all that forthcoming and not 100% clear and real and easy to see and feel and touch and taste. You’re addicted to a cartoon bear in a Prince Charming mask.
And even if that cartoon bear is single and he takes off the dumb mask occasionally, once he falls in love again, he’ll disappear and you’ll wonder if he was ever there at all. And if he gets married, you won’t hear from him for a decade. And sure, cartoon bear can sometimes be coaxed into becoming a real, actual bear, but only if you both vigorously embrace the truth, out in the open. Real bears can still be clumsy and they can hurt you, sure, but they’re also CURIOUS ABOUT YOU. Not just because you smell like honey. They ask questions. They love to hear about your life. They are consistent. They consider you a good friend and they say so, or they consider you a romantic prospect and they say so. They answer direct questions and they introduce you to their friends and their girlfriend or spouse. Marriage is not some air-tight safe to a real bear. The whole world isn’t made out of secrets and envy and hunger. The world is about sharing and openness and deep emotional bonds formed around honesty and mutual acceptance and forgiveness.
What’s interesting in this picture isn’t whether or not this clumsy cartoon bear can see you clearly through that ridiculous mask. I mean, he’s hungry for something I guess, but he’s making sure not to show you the whole picture, and that won’t change, trust me. As long as he’s so ashamed of his romantic soul that he buries himself in hollow distractions and empty teasing and relationships that never take the shape of true love for very long, as long as he’s too afraid of vulnerability and honesty to show his whole self to anyone, as long as he appears and disappears and doesn’t ask good questions, he’s just a tumbly bumbly cartoon of need and anguish with a plastic Prince mask strapped to his head. That’s understandable and pitiable and maybe it’s even lovable at times, but it’s just not that interesting.
What’s much more interesting is that you’re a lion who thinks she’s a jar of honey.
You aren’t cowardly. There is no better version of you out there. There’s only you, right here, right now. Smash the jar and learn to roar.
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