When I was 22, I moved to Moscow with a bunch of friends from drama school to live in what can only be described as a class-A shithole.
Our flat was straight out of the soviet era:
Grey, damp and without hot running water for pretty much the entirety of our stay.
But care, we did not, for we were there to PERFORM, dahhhhhling.
As part of our Masters degree in European Classical Acting, my class and I were to train in acting, dancing and singing at the prestigious Vakhtangov Theatre Institute.
Our 3-month stint here would culminate with a performance of different Chekhov plays in front of a predominantly Russian audience.
To prepare us for this final show, we had a series of Stanislavskian acting Masterclasses with one of the most beloved professors of the school.
This professor was affectionately referred to by the Russian students as ‘Slohn’(or ‘elephant’) on account of the fact his big ears and long nose made him look remarkably like an elephant.
Also, this wise old professor had a wealth of knowledge that he never seemed to forget (because an elephant never does ;)
I was curious to discover that this knowledge included one of the most painful themes of my life so far:
That of unrequited love.
In our very first session with The Elephant, he explained (via our translator) that whenever we fall in love, our energy is channeled in to four separate circles of attention.
The first circle of attention is established when we look at the object of our affection and acknowledge our own overwhelming feelings of adoration towards them.
The second is when we try to gauge signs of whether or not they feel the same way about us.
If they don’t, we move on to the third circle: trying to work out who they’re in love with, if not us.
The final circle of attention is when we try to decipher who else is in love with the object of our affections, besides us.
To experience this phenomenon for ourselves, The Elephant set us a practical group exercise.
He directed us to walk around the room and mentally ‘pick’ one of the other members of our class that we were to imagine ourselves being madly, deeply, obsessively in love with.
We then had to try and work out if they happened to ‘love us back’ (circle 2) and if not, who they had chosen to love (circle 3) and who else had chosen to love them (circle 4) – all without giving ourselves away to the person we’d picked, or anyone else in the room.
As we continued to move around the space, the atmosphere became thick with suspicion and insecurity as we each found ourselves desperately (yet subtly) trying to get our chosen person’s attention and distract them from whomever they were giving their attention to, or receiving attention from.
This exercise had an unexpectedly profound effect on me.
It reminded me of a painful unrequited love dynamic from my teenage years.
That wrenching, relentless ache for someone who had no idea the full extent of my infatuation, or how I knew precisely where he was at every single second in every single room we inhabited together.
That someone who counted me as one of their closest friends (oh, that dreaded word!) but who couldn’t help the fact his attention just did not naturally gravitate towards me – not in the way I longed for it too, anyway.
We’d grown close while my dad was in rehab during my GCSE’s.
It’s only looking back I can see the significance of that:
I was trying to distract myself from reality by diving headfirst into a romantic fantasy that I knew had an expiry date, meaning I’d never have to venture beyond the safety of the illusion I’d constructed.
He went to a school near by, and every day we’d meet outside the train station at around 4pm with our respective gaggle of mates.
Like Pavol’s dog, I’d come to associate the ringing of a (school) bell with the anticipation of seeing my oblivious beloved.
And, whilst the salivation in my mouth on hearing the bell was minimal, the electric current that surged through my body at the mere thought we’d soon be within touching distance was gargantuan.
I made a fool of myself in front of him and our mutual friends over and over and over again.
Still, I did not desist in my pursuit of this love that refused to fit me, no matter how much I tried to squeeze and stretch it to my shape.
I’d search for meaning and signs of his love in the most banal of circumstances:
A lingering gaze, a text loaded with hidden meaning, an irrefutable dig at whichever boy I was parading around in front of him.
He’s just scared of the intensity of his feelings, my friend Amber and I would kid ourselves during double Chemistry to try and minimize the intensity of my own.
Why did no one tell me that if love is really there, you shouldn’t have to look so fucking hard for it?
So entrenched was my denial about the actuality of his feelings that I wrote him letter after hand-written letter, each mottled with cryptic clues alluding to the true nature of mine.
But, I did not love him truthfully.
I loved him desperately.
And desperate love is just about the furthest thing from true love there is.
Then, one day – inevitably - he found the girl that did fit him – or rather, I found the girl that fitted him.
I was so beset on winning his favour that I’d foolishly cast myself as Les Miserable’s Eponine to his Marius and her Cosette, forgetting that the only thing Eponine gains from setting the other two up is a bullet in the breast.
Isn’t that how all unrequited love stories end, though – a fatal shot through the heart? (Literal or metaphorical).
I remember one of our singing classes in Russia where the professor asked us to learn the English translation of a song about unrequited love by Russian literary luminary, Alexander Pushkin:
I loved you once, nor can this heart be quiet;
For it would seem that love still lingers there;
But do not you be further troubled by it;
I would in no ways hurt you, oh, my dear.
I loved you without hope, a mute offender;
What jealous pangs, what shy despairs I knew.
A love as deep as this, as true, as tender,
God grant another may yet offer you.
I could never make it through both verses without choking back the tears, and whilst the professor appeared to be impressed by my emotional connection to the subject matter, I sensed there was perhaps something else resonating for me here besides the idea of unrequited romantic love (especially as I was being pursued by one of the Russian actors at the school and feeling pretty high on the fumes of his very-much-requited desire).
Years later, I stumbled across the Greek myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the unrequited love affair between Narcissus and Echo.
After Narcissus rejects her advances, Ovid describes how Echo’s “great love increases with neglect”.
(Very similar to Desdemona’s words in Othello where she says that “His unkindness may defeat my life, but never taint my love.”)
When I read those words, I understood why some of us are perhaps more susceptible - or even addicted - to unrequited love than others:
Because, it’s the template of love that we grew up with.
If a child is brought up in a home in which love is either inconsistent or conditional (perhaps because one or both of the parents struggle with addiction or mental health, for example), the child may grow up feeling compelled to try and win the love, attention and affection of their parents.
Or, the child may have observed the parents in an unrequited love dynamic themselves, and gone on to mirror that in their own romantic life as they grow older.
Either way, they stay stuck in that familiar old pattern of loving someone, without being loved back.
I’ve been on both sides of this predicament myself, and it’s obviously more preferable to be the pursued than the pursuer, the rejecter than the rejected.
Whilst I was ghosted on numerous occasions throughout my twenties, I’ve only been on the arse-end of unrequited love twice, and twice was quite enough torture for one lifetime.
Isn’t that how unrequited love feels?
Torturous – at times, even harrowing.
So, why then, don’t we just wake up out of this fresh hell of our own making and walk the fuck away?
I’ll tell you why:
Because the only thing more frightening than love unrequited is love requited.
Requited love means intimacy. Vulnerability. Commitment.
All those things we’re so certain we want – until, that is, we’re offered them without condition.
The moment that happens, those of us who grew up without witnessing intimate, vulnerable, committed love via our parents or main caregivers won’t know what to do with it.
So, we’ll run.
We’ll run to food, to booze, to work, to the arms of another lover.
We’ll run towards the predictable refuge of self-sabotage so that we continue to play out the same old story we’re well aware doesn’t serve us, but at least we know the ending.
As kids, we liked best the stories we already knew, and it’s no different as adults.
So how, then, do we take a risk on a new story - one that hasn’t yet been written or experienced by us?
How do we stop kidding ourselves that love predominantly infused with jealousy, disappointment and yearning is somehow going to magically transform itself in to the very opposite?
It’s very simple:
We take responsibility for the fact that it’s not the (unrequited) lover that’s rejecting us:
It’s US who’s rejecting us.
Because people who love, accept and respect themselves wholeheartedly do not chase someone who cannot – or will not – meet them half way.
People who love, accept and respect themselves wholeheartedly know that what misses them was not meant for them, and what’s meant for them will not miss them.
And, most importantly, people who love, accept and respect themselves wholeheartedly are willing (even though it may be scary) to walk in to the void for a period of time, without having one iota of romantic validation or obsession over another to distract them from what they really came here to do:
To love, and be loved.
First and foremost, by themselves.
I’D LOVE TO HEAR FROM YOU:
Have you ever experienced unrequited love – if so, which position were you in – the rejecter or the rejected?
How did you get through it, and would you do differently if you were in that same position again today?
Let me know below <3