Learning new ways to worship at the temple of love
I scroll down the social media page. I see picture after picture of them together. On holidays and at home. Baking or sharing a beer. I feel the pain turn in my stomach like a knife. And yet I keep on scrolling. It is as though I have to witness it all, until the very end of it. I am telling myself that I am doing this in the hopes that it will snap me out of my delusion. But what I am really doing is searching for any hint that they are unhappy together, so that my feelings can be justified. But mostly I just see images of two people who have chosen to share their life with each other. As I go through my day, the overlay of images of them together continues to play on in my mind. I spend my whole summer watching my phone for any signs of him in my feed. Even if it is another picture of them together. Maybe I just can’t stop torturing myself. Or maybe I really am trying to push the truth into my mind and my heart. And my mind can accept it somewhat. It is only rational that they are together, as they have been for many years. Of course I wish the best for them. But my heart still can’t stop loving him, and hoping that I was the one with him instead.
This piece of writing is for anyone who has, is, or will experience unrequited love.
It has taken me some time to write this, as the writing has wanted to take a longer shape than I anticipated. As always, there is a side of me wishing I could edit it more, that there is something that I am missing, or over-stating, but I am choosing to release this into the world now, as it feels like something is pulling it from me. It wants to be shared now. (But yes, it is long…if you have trouble seeing the whole post in your email, there should be a button saying “View full post” somewhere, or you can view it on the Substack platform instead.)
From a personal standpoint, I want to describe my process with unrequited love, and the different stages I went through, because I believe that this experience, while painful, holds deeply meaningful dimensions that have helped me to develop humility and learn new ways of loving. I have travelled through a few of these experiences and am basing this writing on what I have personally learned. For the sake of length (as this piece of writing is already way longer than my previous writings), I am choosing to focus on one particular case, but will maybe share more of my experiences in another post. This piece of writing deals with unrequited love from afar, but I want to acknowledge that there are many more ways this can manifest, such as when a connection that has previously existed is lost, for whatever reason. Maybe you can share something from your own story with me in the comments, particularly if you have experiences differing from the ones presented here.
What does it mean when love is unrequited? One way to start tackling a complex question is by looking at the root meaning of the central word in the question. This is an approach that suits well for my mind as I notice that cutting apart the word into its parts gives me a sense of satisfaction, as though I can cut it open and reveal its secrets by doing this. The etymology of the word unrequited can be separated into two parts: Un and requite, with requite coming from the french word requiter, meaning “make return for, repay (for good or ill)”, while the prefix un is a negation. Basically, what unrequited means is that something that is given is not returned or repayed.To extend this concept beyond only the English language, I want to also present the Finnish version of the word. In finnish, the word that I have usually used to describe unrequited love is yksipuolinen, which translates to “one-sided”. What I like about this word more than unrequited, is that it does not imply that anything has to be repayed. It is simply stating that the love is one-sided: experienced by one person, but not shared.
When our love is unequited, or one-sided, it is often accompanied by pain over exactly this fact, that the love is not answered back. This in turn begs the question of how much the view on love is connected to the idea of a transaction, of a give-and-take situation: I give this much, so I am entitled to receive the same back. Something activates in me as I read this. It makes me think back to a Swedish comic book, Den rödaste rosen slår ut, by Liv Strömquistthat discusses how modern views on romantic love are strongly connected to the notion of a transaction, and the notion that a love given, has a right to be repayed. And this again leads to the question of what that love is actually about. If my love is only a means of receiving love back, is it really love?
My mind has been molded in a context where the ideas of fairness are often connected to the use of resources: since I am using my resources in loving someone, I deserve the same back. This is in essence the idea of an efficient transaction. But Love in itself is not a transaction, at least not in the way that my mind has learned to think about it. And love does not work well with the idea of ownership. As I was reflecting in an earlier post, love can flower out freely only when we are treating that which we love as free. We are free to love, and so are they. Whether it is directed at each other or in different directions. But, even though we can tell ourselves all these things with our logical minds, the heart has a will of its own and it can be very hard to accept these abstract concepts of love when you are bleeding out love that is unanswered, unaccepted, and cannot find a direction to go. Pain does not go away by thinking, it needs to be felt. And in unrequited love, pain can abound. There can be a feeling of being left hanging, left longing, with nowhere for the feelings to go, and nothing to do with all the love that you have to give.
This leads me to wondering, where does the feeling of love come from? And why is it drawn out of us by someone who cannot return it back to us? Why do we look for it somewhere where it is not freely given? And perhaps more importantly, what can we do with it, when we can’t give it to the person we want?
In the example I presented at the beginning of this post, I remember that I felt like I was being drowned from within, as I had no outlet for the feelings that were overflowing in me. But I also realized, that the main reason for the intensity of my emotions was exactly because there was no outlet, and because of the fictional nature of it all: there was no real relationship, so there was a lot of space for fantasy, and for my own projections about how great that person was, and how great the relationship could be. My mind raised that person into the status of a god that I was worshipping, and the potential of a shared relationship with them was my view of paradise. Maybe this isn’t all too strange, as I think that many love relationships hold some kind of worshipping in them. In the words of Lady Gaga:
Love is just a history that they may prove
And when you're gone, I'll tell them my religion's you
And yet, there are many different ways to worship at the temple of Love...But more on that in a moment. First I want to set the scene for the life situation I was in, when this experience of unrequited love started. This experience took place after a tough break-up, that had severely harmed my belief in myself, in relationships overall, and more importantly, my ability to love. After that break-up I felt unable to give anything to anyone. I felt so depleted that I had the feeling that I would fall apart completely, if I continued as it was. I was exhausted, both from the dynamic in that particular relationship, and from having started a challenging new job, and probably from those two elements interacting. But at the core of it all, I think that I was exhausted because I had still not learned how to set any kind of boundaries. And this was reflected back at me by feeling that I was being drained by everything and everyone, partner and job included.
Ironically then, after the break-up, which was my attempt to get some breathing space, to be alone so that I would be able to put myself back together, I instead found myself in a situation where my lack of boundaries was highlighted even more. Instead of taking some time for rest inbetween, my heart immediately jumped into longing for a new person. But now, the tables had turned: now I had all my love to give (at least this was what I told myself), but could not give it to the person I wanted. Which begs the question, did I truly want to give it? Did I truly want a real relationship with this person?
Later on, I have wondered whether these kinds of unrequited situations may serve the purpose of functioning as a testing ground for our own capacity to love, in a similar manner as when we may have a crush on some kind of an idol, an unreachable figure, in our teenage years. In those situations, you are usually very aware of the fantasy-element of it. You are projecting your love towards someone mostly because you need to experience it yourself. It is a way to experiment with loving in a contained, controlled manner, because there is no risk of the feelings being answered and the chaos that could ensue (and often does) when two humans actually meet. So, in an unrequited-love situation, the deeper purpose of it may not really be to receive the other’s love, but to practise and hone our own way of loving. Looking back, it almost feels as though love was being thrown at me to be felt full force exactly at the same moment as I begun to doubt my capacity to love. So I got a new opportunity to test out my views and approaches to loving.
But while I was deep in the situation, and the emotional turmoil that came with it, I was not able to reflect on these things yet. I was simply obsessed, and it felt like I had no way to control my obsession. It even went so far that my mind went on for weeks in a state of sleeplessness, as it kept feeding me images of the person I was longing for, instead of letting me sleep. It almost felt like my mind wanted to make sure that I stayed focused on this person, and on longing for them, as many hours of the day as was humanly possible, and I just had to experience it. I had to surrender to it. This sleeplessness went on for a few months, but thankfully I started to get over it by the end of the summer.
The experience felt so extreme and bizarre that somewhere in the back of my mind I had the nagging thought that things were not as they seemed, and that the situation was not as clear-cut as I thought. On the surface level, I was drawn to the idea that all would be well if I would just have a relationship with this person. At a deeper level though, I was aware of how I was still torn open from the break-up, and that this obsession was nothing but an escape from facing an even deeper wound, from facing myself. In that other person I was looking for a magic bullet that would solve the issues that were actually not theirs to solve, but my own. But even though I was somewhat aware of these different layers of complexity, I had no idea how to shut down my feelings and get back into the “rational” existence that I had previously tried to construct for myself. At first, I could not understand the purpose of it. It felt as if the guardians of love were tormenting me, dangling something (or rather, someone) in front of me that could never be mine. But that is exactly the point. They are not supposed to be mine. No one can ever be ours. How could they be? I don’t believe that we are even fully our own. And yet, my mind kept filling me with visions of them and our wondrous, future shared life, and it felt like my heart was suffocating on the love that it was not allowed to give. Simply put, I felt like a real mess. I was in a situation where my rational mind could not help me. I could not think my way out of this situation. I could not see clearly. The only thing I could do was suffer through it.
Help can appear from the most surprising places. Of all things, I got help from a pen to get through these times. It is very mundane, and very miraculous at the same time. My mother had given a pen to me at some point, and even though the ink had dried up long ago I still kept it in my pencil case. I think it was a pen she received from Rotary in her youth. The pen is stamped with the logo for Rotary international, and next to it, on the side of this pen, there is a sentence written in gold letters: “THE FOUR WAY TEST OF THE THINGS WE THINK, SAY OR DO”. When you press the button down at the top of the pen, different questions are shown through a little window on the side of the pen. These are the questions:
“Is it the TRUTH?”
“Is it FAIR to all concerned?”
“Will it build GOOD WILL and BETTER RELATIONSHIPS?”
“Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?”
I would take out my pencil case as I sat taking notes at our workplace meetings, or more accurately, sat drawing creatures in my notebook, and suddenly this pen would catch my eye. Slowly, I would scroll through the different questions. They gave me perspective. They helped to anchor me back into a perspective that came from awareness of life as something larger than only my individual experience. I would scroll through those questions, and slowly new vantage points would appear. Were my feelings the truth? Yes. For me they were. I could acknowledge that much. Would it be fair to all concerned if I pursued to break up another relationship in order to get that person all to myself? Probably not. Would it build good will and better relationships? Most definitely not. Would it be beneficial to all concerned? I did not think so.
Those questions helped me understand how many different people and different lives were affected by my actions. I wasn’t only pursuing my own happiness, I was a part of a network of connections where we all affected each other. Most importantly, the questions on the pen helped me to see the situation from the perspective of someone who my mind had up until that point framed as my enemy, as the person who kept me from my happiness: The current partner of the person I was obsessing over.
It was a painful place to go to, but I am glad that I did. Slowly but surely a shift started to take place inside of me. She started to resemble less of an enemy, and more of a collaborator, or if not that, at least someone I could respect. Why wouldn’t I? She had succeeded in something I dreamed of. In essence, we shared love, by sharing love for the same person. How could I blame her for that? And how could I deny them their love? I looked at their social media pages again, with new eyes. And suddenly I could see the beauty in their shared pictures. I could see the love between them, and all those simple memories that they shared. I could arrive at a place where I was truly happy for the fact that he was loved, even if it was with someone else than me. It was still painful, but there was a beauty to it, somehow. In the end, I arrived at a strange mix of emotions where I could simultaneously be happy for their shared love and had to mourn the fact that my own love could not be expressed in this context. And then I looked at my own social media wall. I saw all of my own past pictures, all the experiences and relationships I had gone through myself. And I saw the beauty in my own life. Even though I felt so powerless in these emotions, I still had my own life. It was right here, and it was something I could work with. I realized that I had some space to move after all.
This was an important shift, as it helped moving me onto the path where I actively wanted to move on from my obsession. Their shared love now served as an inspiration of something to strive for, but in my own way, in my own life. I did not want to just steal something that someone else had built for themselves, I wanted to build my own life for myself, just the way that I chose to. But in order to do this, I knew that I had to somehow reduce my obsession over this particular person so that I could find some way to direct my energy more on my own life, and hopefully some day be able to direct my love somewhere where the expression was welcomed instead.
As long as I lived in the same city as the object of my affections, I could not shut down the wish that I would meet him on any of my walks or that somehow something would develop between us still. But I had now taken the active decision of shifting away from this pathway into another path, where my love could find a more constructive channel of expression. In the end, I made the slightly drastic decision of moving to a village outside of town, to get some space between us. But also to finally get the space for myself that I had so longed for when I had broken off my last relationship.
So, my year of unrequited love culminated in me moving to a little village, not too far from the city, but just far enough that there was less of a risk of me bumping into the object of my affections. And surprisingly, my plan did actually work. Maybe not in the exact way that I had envisioned, but slowly my life started to get filled with new impressions, and I started developing new habits. I started to view my situation in a different way. And my love found new expressions through which it could flow out.
I started practising grounding and shielding techniques as a way to learn how to create those boundaries that I had so desperately needed in my last relationship. In practice, what this meant was that as soon as I came home from work, I would lay down on the floor and just be. I would see the exhaustion from the day, and the emotional turmoil swirling around me, but by being still for just a moment, it could get a chance to land somewhat. Another way of grounding myself was by doing the opposite: by moving, mainly by running and walking in the forests around the village. I would say that it was nature that most held me during these times. Apart from the forests, there was a meadow with horses that I would visit in the evenings. And I often walked through the old village graveyard in the dusk hours and found solace in the stillness.
I also started learning about my nervous system, mainly by reading books on introversion and sensitivity, but also through discussions with a behavioral therapist, and for the first time understood that my overwhelm or the intensity of my emotions was not unnatural or wrong. It was completely natural, based on the way that I function. The challenge lie not in the emotions themselves, but in how to channel them.
I found my way back to art and music. If it has somehow escaped you, I can tell you that there exists a lot of songs about heartbreak, unrequited love and love lost. As I realized this, I felt a lot less alone in the experience I was having. Quite the opposite: I felt that I was in very good company in the feelings I was processing, I was just another human going through heartbreak. By listening to music, I found a community of souls that had gone through exactly this, or at least something similar. I felt held by the songs. I felt that we were sharing a soul space, in the melodies, in the sounds, where we could hold each other through the pain.
During my lunch hour, or sometimes after work, I would sneak into the recording studio at my workplace. There was a grand piano there, and I would sit and play the same melody over and over and over again. It was a melody that just suddenly came out of me, in the mysterious way that melodies sometimes do. I played it using different amounts of pressure. At different speeds. Sometimes painfully slowly. Sometimes so fast that my fingers couldn’t keep up. That was my way of getting the flow out.
If you are curious to hear it, I have attached a recording of the melody below.
This version I recorded only a week ago, as I did not have any recordings of it from the years back. I have not played it for many years. As I played it again now, years later, I felt the emotions sweep over me again, and felt my fingers stumble over the keys. I was thrown back into memories of those afternoons by the piano, and how it felt to play this melody. How it helped me to trudge on, through the pain. Putting one foot in front of the other, and reaching to the other side, to a state of acceptance.
This melody helped to release the pressure of the love that was flowing inside of me. Sometimes it needed strength, sometimes it needed gentleness. But either way, it needed to come out. I saw this as my act of love, for the object of my affections, and even for his partner: to leave them, and their relationship, in peace, and find my own channels for that love to flow out. In a way, this was also an act of love for myself, since I was showing myself that I could act in a way, that respected us all. I was respecting my need for the love to flow out. I was not denying myself what I was feeling. And I found that the best way to respect my own love, was by letting it have its own space.
Another way that I tried to express my emotions was through painting. The wooden boards that had been a shelf built by me and my last partner became my canvases where I poured paint and screwed branches I had collected from these forests that had so held me. And now I tried to transfer that energy into the paintings. In all this output there were many layers of emotions: I was simultaneously processing my break-up, my disillusionment about love, both in terms of the overall concept, and in my inability to keep on loving my partner amidst the exhaustion, but I was also processing the loss of the possibility of a new love. I was facing the side of me that wanted a shortcut into happiness. By walking in the forest and being held in my pain by the earth beneath me, I started to feel what unconditional love is really like. And I started to think, that maybe I could also learn to love in a way that I felt the earth loved me. By going through all of this, something new started to be born in me. I was learning a new way to worship at the temple of Love.
But in matters of love, there is always something more to be learned. In a way, finding your way to loving unconditionally is a simpler matter when the object of your affections is unavailable to you, since there are no conditions that can be made anyway. There are no daily chores or personality clashes forcing their way between your shared connection. Later on, as I embarked in shared relationships again, new challenges presented themselves, as the question was now less about simply loving from a distance, but about puzzling out a shared existence together with another person, while coming into the situation carrying our own baggage, with behaviors that could clash and trigger completely unexpected reactions in each other. But somehow I feel that I am better equipped to deal with those things now than I was before, thanks to going through this journey of unrequited love. Maybe I have a different kind of respect for the power of being able to share love, warts (and chores and clashes) and all, after going through a period of time where I was unable to do so.
After this experience, I have come to accept that I am a very open person. I am made to love. Loving, whether unrequited or not, seems like the natural thing to do. But in this, I don’t think that I am unique. I believe we all are made to love, in our own ways. Some of us just lack the boundaries that keeps us from doing so, even when it is deemed irrational. But does anyone truly have that boundary? Or is it just that the “forbidden” love is pushed down into the unconscious, since we don’t accept it ourselves, and don’t let ourselves be aware of it? I do not know. What I do know, is that when I came to a point of acceptance over my love, the intensity of my emotions towards that unrequited object changed character. It was no longer forbidden, so it was no longer wrong or dangerous or scary. The love never disappeared. It is still here. But it changed shape into a background flow that permeates everything. Even though he was the one that had called it forth at this time, I could now see that my love was not really tied to only that person. It was everywhere. Or it could be, if I let it.
I have been reflecting that love, in its purest form, in its unconditional form, is a celebration of the existence of that which you love, to recognize that they are a miracle, a treasure, and moreover, that they are wholly their own. Taken further, love does not have to be a celebration of only one person, or even a human person, though that is often the way it is channeled through our human lives. Love in its most vast form is a celebration of life itself. Of everything. The act of loving is to be aware of how miraculous life is and to celebrate it through this awareness, and through acts of care. And this extends to ourselves, though that is something we can tend to forget. I am prone to aim my awareness outwards. But I am a miracle as well. And so are you.
I have made some way on this journey, but I am nowhere near the end yet. And I will keep writing about it as a way of sharing the things I am learning on the way. I hope that these contemplations can add value to someone out there. I guess that this is another way that I try to let my love flow out. Another way of serving at the temple. In sharing my experiences with love I am trying to share the energy of love onwards so that it can find new ways to flow in the world, through other beings, who can in turn let their own love add to the flow of it all.
Liv Strömquist (2019) Den rödaste rosen slår ut. Ordfront Galago.
Though I read this comic book in Swedish, an English translation exists, titled “The Reddest Rose: Romantic Love from the Ancient Greeks to Reality TV”. Apart from discussing love as a transaction, this book goes through a whole range of different views on love, through historical and modern examples, presented with Strömquist’s quirky, humorous approach. I can highly recommend it, and Strömquists other works.
Lady Gaga (2022) Bloody Mary [Song]. Streamline. KonLive. Interscope.
I am not affiliated with Rotary International, and I was debating whether to keep this part in or to cut it out of the post. But since this pencil, and the four questions written on it, have been helpful in my own life, I feel like I want to share these questions further, as they could be helpful for someone else.
I want to emphasize that the answers I have written here are the ones that I arrived at, based on how I felt, and based on the characteristics of my particular situation. But every situation is different.
A book that particularly helped me to learn more about myself and give me a framework to use for noticing how my nervous system works was Elaine Aron’s book (2017) The Highly Sensitive Person, published by Thorsons, HarperCollins Publishers.
*First image is titled Suffer Well
**Second image is titled The Truth is in Your Hands
***Third image is titled Inner Glow
The images are digital collages consisting of photographs I have taken during the time period described in this post, synthesized into collages by this 32-year-old-version of me.
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