Unrequited: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession

Many of us might have come across romantic relationships at various stages of our life, developing feelings of love and attraction towards the other. Though with varied intensities and characteristic features, a common trait involves feelings of infatuation, intimacy, and/or commitment. While it does appear all well and sweet, things could get flipped so badly in a matter of few moments, once it comes to realizing that the feelings weren’t mutual. Adding fuel to it is ending up doing things being a lovelorn, that the society would consider obsessive, especially when it is crystal clear that the other doesn’t bother at all. Lovelorn individuals also have a tendency to not accept their deeds, for example, overwhelming the other with text messages until they hear back, stalking in-person and in virtual spaces like social media, belittling and shaming, or even worse such as sending suicide warnings. In all these cases, their outlook on love gets damaged, self-esteem and sense of worth get lost, develop trust issues, get labelled as sadists. But the overarching question is why one goes for this obsessive behavior when they can’t handle a rejection? While not all the rejected lovers go for an obsessive stalking behavior, such reflex reactions are common, both physiological and emotional, and chances are that you are/were one of them. Well, dealing with break-up projects aren’t easy either, unrequited longing is always heart-breaking, like a wolf howling at the moon, and the after effects could be even more both emotionally and physically self-destructive . According to one survey, “93 percent of us have, at some point, been rejected by someone we were in love with”.

On a positive note, not all lovelorns get carried away by rejection. Instead, here we have Prof. Lisa A. Philips, a journalist -turned professor at the State University of New York, with her non-fiction “Unrequited-The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession“. In short, this book is a blend of memoir, case studies, scientific explorations to provide a reasoning and some historical roots /examples of unrequited love. One might raise a question-why the title of the book is talking about women’s romantic obsession, not men. While both men and women experience unrequited love, and there is no clear evidence that one sex is more vulnerable to it, one cannot object the fact that unrequited men are usually perceived as those having unending passionate expeditions to win/search love, for their perseverance, accompanied by heroic and erotic power, though through whatever aggressive ways it could be achieved. On the flip side, even while we are preparing to have first woman on moon landed, women in general are treated differently when they pursue their unrequited love. This is because the society is conditioned in such a way that it is much easier to objectify women against men’s desire, and the women is supposedly “submissive”, while for men it is still called “pursuit”. This would mean that the society advocates a double standard, when it comes to processing the unrequited love of a man vs. a woman, i.e., society judges women in unrequited love more harshly. When an unrequited woman acts obsessive, she is often addressed by the society as psycho/sick/mean, and often gets nothing but a diagnosis, whose history is carried forward way back from 2nd century Rome and Greece, where lovesickness was considered as a disease. Sadly, the society still subscribes to this “disease model”. It ends up in questioning women’s morality. Such dismissals from the society could be even back firing, which would mean that it becomes a pain plus shame for her, to be undesired by the man she loved, questioning her self-worth, making her go to any extend tenaciously to win his love, ultimately inviting even more refusal. Lovesickness has been a label of shame, used not to heal, but to put women in their place, as the author states.

The accountability of the book lies in sharing the romantic obsession of the author by herself with her unrequited love Mr. B, in the very first chapter. The opening of the book discusses how the author was barely herself when she was rejected, years ago. She couldn’t harbor her feelings comfortably and it went to such an extend that one fine morning she encroached in to 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, and was about to dial 911. This moment, that may sound bizarre, speaks volumes about how out of control, self-centered, romantic obsession could go insane. However, the author was able pass the peak of her obsession. She then started wondering why unrequited love can be so powerful and creative. Her journalistic instinct prompted her to delve into the history and literature surrounding romantic obsession, taking everything from renaissance medical treatises to contemporary advice books, exploring scientific and psychological research. Even more interesting is that she surveyed more than 260 women online about their experience in loving someone who did not love them back. Most revealing were the more than 30 in-depth interviews she did with women about their experiences of unrequited love, which forms the crux of the book. This may seem that a one-side narrative series from unrequited women, however what makes the book more unique is that it does not only focus on women who’ve obsessed over men but also the men people who were the targets of female obsession .

In the chapter, “Erotic melancholy: Lovesickness as a label of shame“, the author discusses how physicians had actually “treated ” lovesickness, exemplifying the case of French physicians of 19th century who called obsession as ‘la manie du doute‘ which means doubting madness. Yeah, we usually have a habit of saying “madly in love”, but at some point of time women received exotic treatments for being “madly” in love as opposed to men. Whereas for men, it was a matter of nobleness and pride to become unrequited, showing subtle symptoms such as obsessive thoughts and loss of appetite, the condition became a shameful sign of weakness for women. The author also exemplifies the case of Arabic physicians in early Middle Ages, who considered the main cause of lovesickness to be buildup of sperms! The remedy would sound even more hilarious to us, however. The cure was to have intercourse, with the love object, if not possible, with a slave/prostitute. This concept did not just stick to the Arabian peninsula, it spread to Europe too. It is not surprising though, because in all cases women fit in to their “model”, so it received wider acceptance. One would relax a little bit thinking that these are all histories, so what. A psychologist Dorothy Tennov in her bestseller “Love and Limerence” in 1979 , in which limerence, which she describes a state in which, regardless of whether the patient’s love is requited, they still show immature, complete dependency on the other person, perpetually craving their affection. While she considered it as quite normal, later it was revisited by another psychology professor Albert Wakin, who reconceptualized limerence as pathology, fitting to the era of romantic practicality. Wakin says limerence has features of both obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and substance addiction. Underscoring Wakin’s finding, Helen Fischer, a biological anthropologist, opined that, based on their MRI studies on the brain, the picture of beloved increases blood flow at a certain area of focus at the brain, generating neurotransmitter dopamine, a natural stimulant that gives energy, focus, feelings of euphoria and most important, that instinct to seek out a particular beloved. Cocaine could also do a very similar job, an indication that the expression “lover’s high ” is grounded in a very real physical phenomenon. What all this means, according to Fischer and her team, is that passionate love is fundamentally a drive to propel us towards the reward of attachment with a specific mate.

There is another theory, which works in a different way, put forth by Prof. Cupach and Spitzberg, called “dynamic goal linking”. Simply put, this theory proposes that having a romantic relationship as a “lower-order goal” , such as being cared for, easing our loneliness or finding self-worth, that extends to a higher-order goal, could have constructive effects. However, lower order goals are supposed to be flexible and replaceable. In other words, when a woman gives up on her unrequited love, she might also feel that she’s also giving up an opportunity to attain her greater life goals, because goal linking psychologically binds the lower goal to higher one. When a woman spends her energy on a productive task, it is often misunderstood by us as a way to distract herself from the thoughts of him. The other side of the story, the possible reality we miss could be that we don’t consider how inspiring unrequited love can be. This goal linking theory helps explain why the script of unrequited love shakes an unwanted woman, even if getting her nowhere.

Another key take away from the book is that unrequited love could be the best fuel for creativity. Creativity is the fundamental human response to the frustrations of love. Accomplishment is often what saves the unwanted woman from evils and gets her out of the woods of the vicious blackhole of longing. One reason why people love someone without any expectations of loving back is so they can be inspired by love. Psychologists call this “Don Quixote” situation. In Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel, Don Quixote devotes his chivalric requests to his unrequited love, a neighbouring farm girl. Even though she didn’t love back, his adoration allowed him to experience elevated emotions which in turn helped focus his goals and enjoy being inspired to act heroically in someone else’s name. For those on Don Quixote situation love is an adventure, a mystery to be solved. Isadora Duncan, the renowned “Mother of Modern Dance,” catalyzed her arts by channelizing her suffering from many unhappy relationships . She was of the opinion that love and art are inextricable. It is tricky to use a lovelorn state as a source of inspiration though, because to have a control over it is critical.

In the chapter ” The Gender Pass-Female stalkers and their invisible victims“, the author discusses how unrequited women turn into habitual stalkers featured by repeated, unwanted and intrusive behaviors, implicit or explicit threats, and causing fear. In fact, several peer-reviewed studies conducted since 2000s scrutinize the question of gender and unwanted pursuit. The results show that women are just as likely as men to engage in a number of stalking tactics. However, research into perceptions of stalking scenario find that respondents view female stalkers as less dangerous than male .This could also be due to the fact that the male victims of female stalkers are able to defend themselves better than female victims, given that the former has more privilege in a patriarchal society. Female unrequited stalkers can go crazy at times. A person with sanity is aware that nobody would stalk someone who they truly love. Unrequited love can turn women into narcissists and masochists. Though it seem bizarre, at the end of the day, her obsession is her only connection to the other person, and she will do anything to keep the connection, which is called a kind of “masochistic zone”. As a result, she’ll cope with it masochistically by embracing her suffering and deriving satisfaction from it. Romantic obsession also lures women into same sex affairs , typically with punishing consequences, protagonists driven by unrequited love to suicide, insanity or depression, elaborates Lisa Philips demonstrating the case study of Careena, who had never been attracted to women before. Notably, the incident occurred in a far less homophobic time.

Though the word “beloved” seem to have a single meaning, in practice it is multidimensional, as Lisa Philips puts it. The beloved represents the unconditional love that the unrequited lover didn’t have from her family of origin. The beloved represents what’s missing from the unrequited lover’s marriage or relationship. The author discusses a case study of a woman who regularly fell into unrequited love as a way to keep the dream of a perfect union in lime light, knowingly it was unrealistic, a dream of an emotional utopia. 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. We are all unrequited lovers, being uncertain whether our feelings will be returned. In this uncertainty, we give tremendous power to our beloved. As human beings we have a drive to experience deep romantic love, and it’s not a crime.

Having discussed several aspects of processing and understanding unrequited love of woman, I do think the final chapter is more meaningful and beneficial to the readers. In the chapter ” Letting go- how the obsession ends” the author discusses how does the romantic obsession end. Well, just as there are many ways to be in obsessive love, there are many ways to get out of it too. Most of the women discussed in the book, as well as the author herself, did not follow any particular strategy. Rather, some found solace in support groups, some sought professional help, an option people whose obsession is hampering their normal functioning or spurring them to destructive behavior should go for. Rest assured, with rare exceptions, unrequited love does end, and the first step to end a romantic obsession is to simply acknowledge it.

Overall, the readers, particularly who had been through unrequited love would find this book insightful to retrospect themselves in a different way rather than victimizing themselves, better understand their situation, complexities associated with the romantic obsession and cultural taboos, and eventually move on. The main take away for me is that, by exploring the power of unrequited love, we can connect more deeply with ourself and our productivity, as Lisa Philips by herself has set an example with this book.

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