More Unrequited Love with Lisa Phillips


On last week’s show, we had a fascinating interview with Lisa Phillips, the author of Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession. Her book is a mesmerizing read, tracking the history of how unrequited love has been viewed historically in psychology and romantic literature through how we look at romantic obsession today. Our questions for Lisa led to more questions for Lisa! So, via email, she’s answered a few final ones we’ve not been able to let go of quite yet.

And, for those of you who want more for yourself, you can win a copy of Lisa’s book!

Here’s how to enter:

  1. Follow LoveBitesRadio on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
  2. Tweet / pic / message us something you’ve particularly enjoyed hearing Lisa talk/write about on Love Bites, or a thought / question you have for her or us.
  3. Hashtag #Unrequited!

You get one entry for each social media account, so connect in as many ways as you’d like!

The contest starts at 4pm Monday, February 8th and goes through Monday, February 22nd.

The winning entry will be drawn live on the show, and we’ll get in touch with you ASAP if you’re the winner!

Thanks to Harper Collins and Lisa Phillips for connecting with our listeners!

Find UNREQUITED on Amazon, Goodreads and on Lisa’s Website.

5 More Questions for Lisa Phillips

On the show, you mentioned that childhood family dynamics can play a role in feeding one’s compulsion to pursue unrequited love. How important is addressing old wounds or having some emotionally corrective experience to ensure that one doesn’t get repeatedly hooked into romantic obsession? What might that discovery/connection process look like?

If you’re stuck in a cycle that seems rooted in early family dynamics — an absent or withholding parent, for example — this is exactly what therapy is for! It’s incredibly important to face that old problem if you can’t break out of the pattern of falling obsessively in love. I’m not a therapist, so I hesitate to be too detailed about what that process would be like. I can say that one very useful question for me as a journalist interviewing people about their unrequited love experiences was: What do you think the object of your unrequited love meant to you? Another way of asking that is: What do you think you were really chasing?

My subjects responded in powerful and relevant ways. One woman, who had a distinctly non-sexual yet still obsessive attraction to a male friend, said that she wanted him to be her family — a family “I would make.” Her own family of conservative Christians was making her, a lesbian, feel marginalized and frightened for her future. So having control over that idea of “family” was critical to her. Another woman spoke of grappling with the urge to “take care of” her unrequited love, who had recently been through a near-fatal motorcycle accident. Once you start to unpack what life goal you’ve linked to your unrequited love, you can start to consider other, potentially more enriching, ways of pursuing that goal or fulfilling that need.
When someone sees themselves on the verge of falling down the obsessive love rabbit hole, what are some techniques they can use to reverse course?
I want to emphasize that there is a difference to some extent between recognizing where a pattern of behavior comes from and stopping the behavior. I think this news will be a relief to people who feel like they know exactly what the old wound is, yet still find themselves mired in obsessive behavior that no longer serves them in any way (obsession, as I discussed in the show, can be useful under certain circumstances). There are very concrete techniques therapists use to help free you from obsessive thinking and/or behaviors. Several approaches are rooted in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an approach that helps you assess your values and goals and realize the ways your obsession isn’t helping you reach them. Then you can use very specific, evidence-based techniques to redirect your brain away from obsessive thoughts.
One therapist described to me a tactic she calls “opposite to emotion action.” When you want to pull up the Facebook photos of your beloved, or spend hours with a friend dwelling on all his or her betrayals, don’t give in. Obsession breeds more obsession. Instead, distract your brain. Get the friend to take you to the movies (preferably a thriller or something that is not about love). Go for a jog. This takes a lot of strength, and can be excruciating! But it’s worth it. This approach also defies the old conventional wisdom, loosely from Freud and Aristotle, about traumatic experiences: that the way to cope with them is to undergo catharsis, letting it all out. This can be an important step. But if you are undergoing catharsis all the time, you’re obsessed, and if you want out of the obsession you have to stop doing things that trigger more and more thoughts about the person.
So if I’m responsible for canceling a lot of three-martini girlfriend brunches, please accept my apologies! Sometimes you have to go play rugby instead.
We talked a bit about the fantasy on the other side of obsessive love; that otherwise rational people are fighting for a perfect love we know intellectually doesn’t exist. What can we do to help our emotional understanding of this fantasy match our intellectual understanding? How do we learn to stop chasing a fantasy that feels so possible, when everything else seems to pale in comparison, emotionally?
The fantasy of a perfect love is a fantasy you, in a weird way, have total control over. It’s all about possibility, not what’s happening in the here and now. It’s daring to imagine an emotional utopia in a world of flawed people and uncertainty. In itself, that fantasy is not a crime. We should value fantasy and  imagination! It’s part of what makes us make plans, have dreams and ambitions, create, solve problems, transform ourselves. In many aspects of life, not just romance, we dream of something before we pursue it and only then can we begin to make it real. Even if we can’t do everything we dreamed of, the fantasy tells us a lot about ourselves, what we value, and what other, more realistic goals might entail.
In romance, the disappointment is particularly acute when we can’t win the heart of the other. From an evolutionary biology perspective, you’re losing out on life’s biggest prize — a mating partner (and I interpret that idea non-heteronormatively). You’re also sent back to dull reality. The emotional utopia is gone. I think what can help us stop chasing the fantasy is reckoning with what’s really going on and letting yourself mourn it.
I thought my unrequited love was a really great guy I could spend the rest of my life with, and he would tell me he planned to end his dead-end long distance relationship. I wasn’t totally delusional to think he cared. But he would go for long periods without communicating with me, he’d go see his girlfriend and be unable to break up with her, and he’d reject my advances. Even if he felt something for me, he couldn’t be good to me, and it hurt me terribly. For too long I thought that winning his love would redeem all the ways both of us screwed up. Eventually I had to reckon with all that and, most importantly, let myself really mourn the fact that I’d loved and lost, just as I would the end of any relationship.
This brings me to another crucial point. The hope of unrequited love often seems preferable to mourning a loss. When you mourn you feel really, really bad, because there’s no more hope. You have to learn to live with that feeling, because no matter how much you distract yourself it’s going to be there. A psychiatrist I talked to who developed a treatment program for convicted stalkers said that the key message was that they had to learn to endure difficult feelings instead of taking action. Even if you’re not stalking or doing any kind of active chasing, this idea is so important. If you want to rid yourself of an obsession, you have to let these awful emotions pass through you — and they will pass! — and know the other person isn’t going to fix them.
You point out that limerence – the state of feeling infatuated with another person – was once considered a romantic state of being that all people experienced, but has recently been defined as a disorder or disease. What does the shift in understanding of limerence in psychological terms mean for those of us who experience it and seek professional help?
Limerence is still a fairly marginal term. Albert Wakin, a psychology professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, has done some work to define limerence as a disorder. He was a colleague of Dorothy Tennov, the author of the 1979 bestseller Love and Limerence  — which as you pointed out emphasized that limerence was a natural part of love that many people experienced. It’s that obsessive, can’t-think-of-anything else thing that can be a part of a new romance, a component of a can’t-let-go breakup, or an unrequited love. Wakin allows that for a certain period of time limerence might be normal — like the first six months of a passionate new relationship. But if the feelings continue to be obsessive, there’s a problem. Wakin sees it as a “variant of love” with elements of obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction. The problem is certainly exacerbated after a breakup or in unrequited love. The person you need so much isn’t yours anymore. Wakin’s ultimate goal is to make limerence an official diagnosis, the kind of thing health care professions can assess, develop appropriate treatment protocols for (including, potentially, medication such as SSRIs), and  do insurance coding for.
I think this step has some positive aspects. Sometimes you’ve just got to make the feelings stop, particularly if they’re becoming self-destructive, aggressive, or you’re violating the other person’s life, as in stalking situations. But I also worry about what happens in our society once we see as varied and potentially fruitful a situation as obsessive love be reduced to a diagnosis. We get dismissive. My daughter, who’s eleven, does this with her classmates at school. She’ll speculate on who has ADHD as opposed to considering what might be going on in the kid’s life or why school is so hard for some kids. Maybe there are valid reasons why the kid has trouble sitting still all day. In a similar way, I think obsessive love forces us to reckon with ourselves and why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. A diagnosis and a pill won’t necessarily encourage us to do that — even if we sometimes need that pill.
Romantic obsession or infatuation may stem from an emotional place, but it certainly feels physical, too. You detail the dramatic shifts in brain function when we are in love or when our love isn’t returned. How can recognizing that infatuation is indeed a physical experience help us in our journey to get to an emotionally, mentally and physically healthier place?
Passionate love is basically an addiction. It hits many of the same brain areas and has many of the same symptoms: obsession, craving, mood swings. As Helen Fisher put it, love is a great addiction when it’s going well and a terrible addiction when it isn’t.
So when you’re in that “terrible addiction” state, you can use some of the same tactics addicts use. You do other healthy addictive things, like exercise. You nurture the human need for social attachments by seeking out friends and other supportive people. It’s not the same thrill as romantic love but it can do a lot to make the love cravings less intense. I am a big fan of the power of novelty in friendships — new, intriguing people, or new experiences with trusted friends, can give that nice magical charge to your life without being a replacement romance. Anyone who’s gotten a platonic crush on a dynamic new co-worker or had an illuminating conversation on the train with someone intriguing has a sense of what I’m talking about — it’s a romantic feeling without being a romance.
Above all, if you’re in terrible love addiction, you’ve got to cut yourself off from the person you’re addicted to. Unfollow, unfriend. Put away the photos. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can have a nice, platonic lunch next week. End all contact and don’t worry about whether or when you can see the person again. If the person is hurt, just explain it’s what you need to do to take care of yourself. I will always be grateful for the day my unrequited love finally said to me, “We can never speak again” and hung up the phone. I listened to him. I left him alone and that began the end of my obsession.

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