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The Unexpected Benefits of an Unrequited Crush

The Unexpected Benefits of an Unrequited Crush

A handful of years ago, some friends and I were all in the midst of a romantic drought. It had been so long since we’d felt excited about anyone that we started to worry that the problem was with us. Had we simply grown incapable of that kind of feeling? We imagined that our jaded little hearts might look like peach pits, shriveled and hard.

This was the era, though, when we started using the phrase glimmer of hope. Glimmers came whenever we felt a giddy kick of affection—maybe for a friend of a friend, or the bartender at our favorite place, or the pottery-class buddy at the next wheel over. The hope was that these crushes—which were rarely communicated to their subjects—signaled that our hearts might someday soften up and become, once again, hospitable to life. Anytime we glimpsed a light at the end of our tunnel of romantic numbness, we’d text one another: Glimmer of hope!!!!

These glimmers helped us power through the seemingly endless tundra of uneventful singlehood. Whether they were reciprocated wasn’t really the point. It was about the feeling: the sweet, hopeful rush.

Crushes sometimes garner suspicion. They can seem adolescent; their one-sidedness can appear a little sad, even creepy. For people in a monogamous relationship, having one can feel like a crisis, or a threat to their partner. The truth, though, is that an unrequited crush is not always unhealthy or unfair to its object. And sometimes, it serves a purpose entirely separate from the actual pursuit of a romantic relationship.

For millennia, unrequited crushes have been a staple of fable, literature, and poetry. Greek mythology is full of them: Take the story of Echo, the nymph who, spurned by Narcissus, fled into the forest and faded away until all that was left was her voice. (Narcissus was punished by developing an unending crush on his own reflection, which could never love him back.) The early-Renaissance poet Petrarch wrote more than 300 sonnets about a woman named Laura whom he’d supposedly glimpsed in a church service—but never actually knew. Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a man desperately pining for a married woman, became the first German international best seller and went on to inspire a generation of Romantic writers.

Many of these kinds of yearning admirers throughout history and myth were portrayed as noble, their suffering dignified. But their stories haven’t necessarily aged well. The passion sometimes feels dark and out of control, often verging on abusive to its target. And some of the most famous unrequited lovers—Petrarch; Werther; Quasimodo, from The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Orsino, from Twelfth Night—are men putting women on an impossible pedestal; their affection has understandably become associated with an “objectifying male gaze,” Sara Protasi, a philosopher at the University of Puget Sound, told me. It’s “notoriously a way of not taking women seriously and not engaging with them as equals, as human beings with a will, with a desire,” she said.

Even when they’re obviously not sinister, crushes are sometimes seen as a bit … pathetic. Pilar Lopez-Cantero, a philosopher at Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, believes that because our society places such high value on requited love, “there is some sense that you are not worthy if you cannot get the people you love to love you back.” A crush, unspoken or unreturned, “seems to be falling short” of the ideal, she told me.

But the shame associated with crushes is strange, considering they’re a very common part of the human experience. In their 1992 book, Breaking Hearts: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love, the researchers Roy Baumeister and Sara R. Wotman reported that when they surveyed 21-year-old college students, they found that the average subject felt unrequited love a little more than once a year, with a “powerful experience” every five years and “moderately strong” as well as casual crushes in between. In another study with nearly 100 participants, only about 2 percent said they’d never been on either side of a one-way affection. If an unrequited crush is uniformly an experience of anguish, that’s a pretty sad statistic.

The experts I spoke with, though, didn’t think of crushes that way. For the most part, they backed up the core theory behind my friend group’s “glimmers of hope”: that feeling strongly for someone can make you feel more alive. And that is, in fact, usually a good thing, rather than an unbearable source of torture or a gateway to maniacal infatuation.

Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist and the author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence, told me that crushes can be a thrilling “romantic awakening” for adolescents. “You’re trying to figure out: What is this thing called romance? What is this thing called love?” he said. A crush, however unrequited, can “open the door to romantic caring”—to understanding how such love could feel, how it might be different from friendship. When you start to experience some of those big feelings yourself, it’s scary and wonderful and “hugely empowering.” That thrill doesn’t necessarily go away as we get older.

The heady buzz of a new crush hits in adulthood too, and not just for single people. In a recent study of monogamous partners, Lucia O’Sullivan, a psychologist at the University of New Brunswick, in Canada, found that about 80 percent of subjects reported having had a crush on someone other than their partner at some point in their relationship—and about 60 percent reported having a current crush.

Although having feelings for someone else could be seen as a threat to your relationship, O’Sullivan found that the large majority of her subjects didn’t expect their crushes to ever replace their current partner. Remarkably, having a crush wasn’t linked to any real difference in relationship satisfaction or commitment. But she’s observed that subjects tend to describe crushes as fun and exciting, an extra twinkle of intrigue in their day. Far from causing misery, crushes can actually increase self-esteem; O’Sullivan told me that a crush can be a “soul boost.”

Crushes can also teach you a lot about yourself. Pickhardt told me that adolescents develop them as a way to formulate what attributes they value in others and what that says about their own identity. The same can be true for adults: Fantasizing about a crush is an exercise of the imagination. “It gives you an opportunity to step out of your present,” Lopez-Cantero told me. She compared it to a good book, which transports you and “disrupts your everyday thinking.” Suddenly you might be envisioning yourself, however playfully, living out a future you’d never considered, dreaming up sides of yourself that haven’t yet been expressed.

Of course, you don’t want to fall so deeply into your dream that you can’t pull yourself back out. Crushes can grow into excessive infatuation, and when they do, they can cloud reality. Baumeister and his colleagues found that when people have feelings for someone who doesn’t return them, they can end up clinging to any vaguely positive signals, hoping for some reciprocation even after being rejected. And the unrequited lover isn’t the only one who suffers in these scenarios; the subject of their desire tends to feel frustrated, guilty, and even distressed.

But that point doesn’t have to be reached. You might just need to do a little crush management, as I’ve come to think of it. O’Sullivan compared it to drinking: It’s good to keep paying attention to how you’re feeling, to not let yourself go too far. She’s studied the strategies that people in monogamous relationships use to rein in their crushes, and found that the most successful ones include redirecting attention to their partner and focusing on what they don’t like about the other person. Single people, I’d surmise, could probably check themselves in a similar way, by investing in other areas of their life that bring them joy—and paying attention to their crush’s imperfections.

At the same time, a crush is beautiful because it’s a little unrealistic, because you see the very best in someone even when they’re flawed. One might argue that even a casual crush is a bit selfish—a way to project positive qualities onto someone, and to get the glowy excitement that comes with that, without really seeing them in all of their difficult complexity. But Lopez-Cantero pointed out, “There is projection in all human relationships.” You’re always seeking to understand someone through the biased lens of your own mind, never totally getting the full picture. We tend to see partiality as the enemy of reason, but being partial to someone—believing in their unique worth, despite their shortcomings—is essentially what love is.

Unexpressed crushes are special, too, because they don’t require anything in return. Protasi, the University of Puget Sound philosopher, told me that few types of human relationships are like this, so free from expectation of love repaid. The closest approximation, she said, might be a parent’s love for their infant child, too young to show affection. But even then, the love is based on the relationship—the fact of them being your baby—rather than on admiration for who they are.

That’s not to say a crush is selfless; after all, you stand to gain a lot from having one. But a crush that goes nowhere can still be a pleasure unto itself. It’s a luxuriously inefficient experience, which is rare in today’s goal-oriented dating world. On dating apps, potential suitors are easily on demand, in huge quantities. People generally swipe in order to meet up, and they meet up in hopes of getting whatever it is they’re looking for, whether a onetime fling or a life partner.

There’s something to be said for yearning. Protasi told me that that’s true, to some degree, in relationships as well: Brief moments when the other person feels just out of reach, mysterious or distant in some way, keep partners longing for each other, and make it more meaningful when loving attention or presence is returned. You never really get to a place of perfect harmony and complete understanding—and, if Protasi is right that “desire is about lack,” perhaps you wouldn’t want to. To arrive there would be a “kind of death,” she said.

A crush is a powerful little vial of that pure feeling—the longing, the push and pull. In his poem “The More Loving One,” W. H. Auden compared unrequited love to looking up at the stars, observing their beauty while knowing full well they “do not give a damn.” But he wasn’t mad about it; he saw that that’s how it should be, and anyway, he was more appreciative than obsessed. “Were all stars to disappear or die,” he wrote, “I should learn to look at an empty sky.” He was right: You don’t need to lose sleep staring up at the cosmos all night. But it’s always nice to see a glimmer in the dark.

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