La Douleur Exquise: Why Do We Always Fall For Unrequited Love?

Greer Ross-McLennan examines the idea of unrequited love, interacting with pieces from throughout human history. It seems that the idea of unrequited love is one we cannot escape, so why are humans so enthralled with those who will not, or cannot love us back?

It’s a sentiment that all of us, I’m sure, are familiar with; even for those who haven’t directly experienced the anguish of desiring someone who doesn’t desire us back, it’s hard to mistake the profound effect unrequited love has had on popular culture and art forms for millennia.

Classical mythology has rather strong roots in the concept, for example. In Greek mythology Echo, a young nymph who was condemned to––well, echo––fell in love with Narcissus, an ultimately doomed match (for obvious reasons). After he declined her affections for his own, Echo was so upset that she withered away and eventually turned to stone. Sound dramatic? The Greeks actually had a god, Anteros, whose literal function was to avenge unrequited love and make sure that all affections were reciprocated.

Let’s skip forward a few thousand years. In the 19th century, Vincent Van Gogh fell in love with a young widow named Cornelia, who promptly rejected him, leading to a series of impassioned letters to his brother about the “inexpressible anguish of soul” and the agony of youth heartbreak. Meanwhile, Charlotte Brontë fell madly in love with Constantin Héger, her married-with-children personal tutor, who gently let her down. Decades later, when the passionate love letters from Brontë were found by another of Héger’s pupils, she remarked that the love Brontë showed was “a consuming sentiment burning down self-respect and self-restraint.”

Crossing over into the music realm, unrequited love shows itself even more prominently. Countless musicians and bands have used the intense passion stemming from unrequited love as inspiration for hundreds, if not thousands, of pop culture hits and iconic albums. To attempt to name them all would be a daunting and likely impossible task; nevertheless, Eddie Vedder is an apt example: “I’ve heard it said that you can’t really have a true love unless it was a love unrequited. It’s a harsh one, because then your truest one is the one you can’t have forever.”

Ultimately, we are inundated with expressions of unrequited love from every angle. It would only make sense that most of us would, in some way or another, be familiar with the exquisite heartache it brings. However, we must then beg the question: if it hurts so badly, why do we fall for it?

Firstly, we have to establish that without unrequited love, so many important works of art, songs, movies, books, and other creative entities simply would not exist. The anguished drive that comes from one-sided longing has always provided a backbone to artistic pursuits, and for that, we must be grateful. Ultimately, it is important, and often necessary, to use the pain of unrequited love to our advantage.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that the actual definition of “love” is somewhat flawed. By its very nature, precisely because we are unable to form true emotional intimacy with our crush, unrequited love is rather “unrequited lust.” Because the discrepancy between us and our ideal partner never allows to explore love itself, the passion we feel never goes beyond the border of simple infatuation.

The bonds of this affection hold us in a safe place, as well. Arguably (to agree with Eddie, just a few paragraphs up), unrequited love is the most valid form of desire we can get. Because we view our crushes through an idealistic and “perfect” lens, we’re ignorant of their flaws. By never moving past the infatuation stage, we never know what the downsides of being in a relationship with them are like, and we can remain safely within the walls of our ideal fantasy: a world where we don’t have to imagine the trials and tribulations of being in a committed relationship with our crush.

Alain de Botton, creator and narrator of the philosophy-centered School of Life YouTube channel, argues that the solution is attainable:       

“It isn’t [our love’s] charms that are keeping us magnetised; it is our lack of knowledge about their flaws. The cure for unrequited love is, in structure, therefore very simple. We must get to know them better.”

So, the next time you find yourself falling madly for someone who can’t be with you, ask yourself: “Am I falling for them, or the idea of them?”

And then go create your masterpiece.