This is a slightly longer version of an article that originally appeared on Role/Reboot.
Recently, for Role/Reboot, I wrote a piece on relationships where one partner is way more in love than the other: “How To Handle An Imbalance of Power In A Relationship.” I wrote theoretically, and I pulled my punches, because I wasn’t particularly inclined to put my neuroses on display — but screw that, I’m a writer, and if my neuroses don’t feed my writing then why bother? I’ve been having some Ex Encounters lately, and also this appears to be a period in which half my friends are (especially) neurotic about their relationships too.
So let’s talk about being in love with someone who doesn’t love you. For real this time. And the reverse situation, as well: being with someone who loves you, when you don’t love them.
My first serious boyfriend, in my teens, was a guy I chased for months. I fell in love, or maybe I decided I was in love — I was very excited about the idea — and went after my smartest dude friend, who was inconveniently in love with someone else. There followed months of hookups during which he refused to call this thing a “relationship” or, in fact, talk about it at all.
I spent days asking him about his unrequited love, supporting him in his projects, sleeping with him, and then slipping out of his bed and going home to cry and listen melodramatically to “As The World Falls Down” or “#1 Crush.” My grades tanked, partly because he liked to skip class, so of course I skipped class with him. After maybe a year of that, we broke up and I dated someone else; six months into that, my first boyfriend got in touch to tell me he was in love with me. I cried some more, told him it was too late, and it was another six months before we got back together. I was a bit nervous, but also a bit triumphant. In a way, I’d played a long game and won, right?
Except no. The frame of our relationship had been set, and it’s really hard to change that once it’s established; even harder when you’re inexperienced. I was still in the pursuer role, and certain imbalances remained. Although he treated me better as the years went on, he never came close to treating me as well as any other boyfriend has treated me. On the bright side (?), when I finally broke up with him years later, he was devastated.
This experience made me a bit pathological about avoiding the “chaser” role in a relationship. And to be sure, I’ve had some awesomely well-balanced relationships. But I’ve still occasionally ended up in situations with an affection mismatch — sometimes “in my favor,” but sometimes not. The latter sometimes after the guy went after me first, and then the balance of affection shifted after we dated for a while. The worst breakup of my life was like that: he tried to get my attention for almost a year before we dated, and then after he dumped me, I did my absolute best to stop talking to him, to distract myself, to fill up my time, to rely on my friends for support, to make exciting plans, to date awesome guys. I followed the breakup guide to the letter.
Yet months later, I found myself sitting across from him platonically, trading jokes and watching him laugh, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach as I realized that a moment watching him smile felt — still — more fulfilling than anything else in the world.
I knew I was still so obsessed, but I couldn’t walk away and cauterize the wound. In situations like these, one thinks, I must be getting something out of it if I’m sticking around, even though it feels like it’s killing me. Well, yes: I must. But human brains are terrible at weighing short-term rewards vs. long-term rewards. His smile was the shortest-term of incentives, yet it was still the most powerful feeling in my life. I’m kind of amazed that I eventually managed to walk away.
In recent years, I almost never let myself get into situations where I’m actively sleeping with someone who I believe doesn’t care about me like I care about him. Sometimes it really is tempting to do it long-term, if I’m into a guy enough. Because, of course, it’s “worked for me” before. But it’s a dangerous game. At its worst, it’s grueling, a marathon of the heart.
At its worst, here are the tactics: You end up measuring every last signal of affection you offer, to make sure it’s not an overreach or a demand. You end up asking questions to gauge his state of mind, and clenching your fists under the table until your nails cut into your palms, so that you have the self-control to smile when he gives you answers you don’t want to hear. He might even notice how much pain you’re in, but you know you can’t confirm his suspicions, for fear that he’ll get stressed out and leave. So if he asks what’s wrong, then you turn away or laugh and change the subject and don’t say: What’s wrong is that I just decided this has to end, because it’s the fifth time you decided that tonight, and you know you won’t stick to it.
And then you go home and use every last ounce of willpower not to call him, and hope against hope that he won’t call you, because you know you’ll pick up the phone way too fast, and be pathetically eager to do whatever he wants.
It doesn’t have to be that bad. But bad or less-bad, there’s always some degree of agony and collusion. On some level he’ll know that you’re hurting, but he gives you the space to lie. Hopefully he’s a decent person and is doing it because he really believes you can handle it (and in fairness, maybe you can), rather than because he likes what he can get from you and doesn’t care how you feel.
Plus, I’ve been in the “powerful” position myself, too — so I’ve occasionally watched myself collude. I might catch a glimpse of strain in a man I’m involved with, who knows I don’t want more from him than our relationship currently encompasses, and I’ll help him cover it up. I’ll hope that I’m not hurting him “too much,” whatever that means. I’ll know that on some level, he wants to be “found out”: he wants me to say to him, “I can see those looks you’re giving me, I can hear the way your breath is catching, I know how you feel about me, and that’s how I feel too!” But the last part isn’t true, so I don’t say the first part. I try to be so, so gentle, and I fear that I’m being so, so cruel.
Yet if he can’t stand it, then he’s a free human being and he can walk away. Right? Can’t he? Isn’t that what I’d do? Haven’t I done it before? Well, yes. Yes, but also no.
In my previous piece, I talked about who has a greater “responsibility” to end the relationship in these situations, and a commenter pointed out that I put the responsibility on both parties at different points in the piece. So I guess it’s less a matter of responsibility, and more a matter of which partner cracks under the strain first: the one who risks abusing, or the one who risks being used.
It’s not easy to learn that you can be in love with someone, and they can be kind to you, and think you’re great, and want to spend time with you, and never love you back or be willing to give you the relationship you want. But it’s also not easy to care about someone and be afraid that you’re hurting them, or screwing up their incentives. Because that, I think, is what the “power position” really risks doing: when someone’s in love with you and wants a certain kind of relationship, and you’re willing to give them less than they want, you risk giving them just enough that they don’t find someone else who will love them the way they deserve.
Realistically, this is true even for those of us who practice polyamory or other forms of open relationship. Polyamorists often say “while love may be infinite, time is not,” and I’ve expanded that to point out that hormones aren’t infinite, either.
I’d like to say that there’s an answer. But as is so often the case, there isn’t, not really. I gave some ideas for hard questions and boundaries in “How To Handle An Imbalance Of Power In A Relationship.” Here they are again:
* Know what you want, and what you are willing to give.
* If you want the relationship to develop further, and your partner makes it clear that it won’t, then perhaps it’s time to walk away.
* If you don’t want the relationship to develop further, and your partner does, then making that clear is very important.
* Relationships like these can feel like a “waste of time” to the more-invested partner. Are they? It’s a question each person should ask themselves.
* Relationships like these can also be stressful on the less-invested partner. Are you worrying a lot about whether your partner’s feelings are too strong? That’s another question people can ask themselves.
But those are just questions; in the end, there’s no answer. In my book Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser I talked about the concept of “emotional escalation game” and how we might better learn “the game of falling in love,” but I’m not actually convinced that obsessively objectifying our romantic interactions is an answer.
Maybe in the end, there’s only a plea for empathy. Empathy — and on the flip side, self-care.