What can I do about unrequited love?
True romance or self-delusion? This week, our resident sexpert Olivia Petter has some sage advice for when the feelings only go one way
Friday 24 February 2023 By Olivia Petter Illustration by Jordan Robertson
‘Never give all the heart, for love ... he that made this knows all the cost, for he gave all his heart and lost’ – WB Yeats
Apologies for flaunting my English Literature degree in your faces yet again, but it simply wouldn’t have been right to kick this answer off without some poetry. Unrequited love is one of the most painful things a person can experience. It can be all-consuming. Completely earth-shattering. And in some cases, it might even make you lose your grip on reality. But my god does it make good art.
Yeats, Tennyson, Keats, Sidney and, of course, Shakespeare are just some of the poets to have penned great literature out of the agony of loving someone who did not love them back. It’s an art form that dates all the way back to the 14th century with the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca, aka Petrarch, whose love for a married woman named Laura became a lifelong romantic and literary obsession, spawning more than 300 sonnets.
Today, the subject is no less inspiring across popular culture and just about any art form you can think of. Whether it’s Bonnie Raitt, Janet Jackson, Adele or Taylor Swift, musical artists have always been – and will continue to be – drawn to writing about it. On top of that, there’s an entire canon of romantic comedies about it, too – My Best Friend’s Wedding, anyone?
My point is that unrequited love is nothing new. But it is something we have long romanticised. And as ironic as that may sound, it’s a huge problem.
The line between pain and pleasure is never quite as thin as it is when it comes to unrequited love. Like it or not, there’s something indulgent about pining after someone. As if it gives our lives a greater and more transcendental meaning, because like all of the artists I’ve named here, we are united in one same struggle.
I’ve written about my own experiences with this before – and to spare the poor chap from reading about it for the fifth or sixth time, I won’t go into it again. What I will say, though, is that I’ve been there. And I allowed myself to indulge in the feeling for far longer than I should have. I wasn’t quite on par with Petrarch, but in all honesty I probably wasn’t far off.
The mind is a powerful thing. It’s alarmingly easy to convince yourself that you’ve found the person you’re supposed to end up with – even if that person has made it quite clear they don’t feel the same.
That’s fine, you’ll tell yourself, because now is not our time. When we finally get together, it will be even more incredible because of all we’ve had to overcome to make it happen. The monumental conclusion to our great love story. A happy ending.
The reality, I’m afraid to say, is not quite so neat. If you’ve been holding onto an unrequited love for a long time, you need to let it go. You can indulge in as much self-delusion as you like, but if someone truly wanted you, they’d be with you.
It’s a simple truth that can be complicated to accept, though, particularly if you’re someone who, like me, has struggled with abandonment issues and therefore feels like this is the kind of love you deserve. A love that you have to fight for and agonise over.
Please don’t make the same mistakes as me and get caught up in pining after something that is never going to happen. It’s a waste of time and energy – and you deserve so much more. On that note, I’m bowing out with another quote from one of my favourite poems.
‘I should have loved a thunderbird instead; at least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead. (I think I made you up inside my head.)’
– Sylvia Plath
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Olivia Petter is the relationships writer at The Independent and author of Millennial Love, which is out now in paperback with 4th Estate