Freshman year, one of my closest friends (let’s call her Ann) was in a relationship with a guy she couldn’t stand.
He’d pursued Ann heavily the summer before college began, visiting her at work and reminding her constantly of his admiration for her. By the end of the summer, he’d become so frustrated with Ann’s frostiness that he gave her the silent treatment one night in the car.
“What do you want?” Ann asked, exasperated.
“I want to date,” he said.
“Fine. Let’s date.”
If that wasn’t enough of an omen for a loveless relationship, there was an abundance of others. Ann continued to introduce her boyfriend to friends and family as her “friend.” Their conversations were insipid and fizzled fast, and Ann, a writer and lover of quirky romances, cringed every time he fed her cliches about how their “unstoppable” love was “meant to be.”
Needless to say, they didn’t last long, and it was Ann’s guilt that kept her playing the girlfriend role for as long as she did. It was her first relationship, and she thought it was normal to sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of someone else’s.
“(Unrequited love is) like a conspiracy of silence, where one person doesn’t want to openly speak rejecting words and the other doesn’t want to hear it,” said Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, in a recent New York Times article.
In fact, 98 percent of Americans have experienced this kind of lopsided “love,” according to the same article.
Over the weekend, I read an article in The Atlantic by Stephanie Fairyington in which she claimed that “romantic relationships are never mutual.”
I hate to say it, but I found myself agreeing.
In almost all of my relationships, one person has always been more committed than the other. The committed one usually finds the carefree person even more irresistible because of the distance they create. Cue an ugly, endless chase.
These roles can switch throughout the course of a relationship, and they often do. In a matter of weeks, I’ve seen myself go from a stone-cold cynic set on denying the other person the privilege of calling me their girlfriend to an enamored fiend begging them to stay.
According to pop culture writer Chuck Klosterman, this is standard. “Every relationship is fundamentally a power struggle,” he has said, “and the individual in power is whoever likes the other person less.”
My experiences — along with my friends’ — may affirm this, but others’ don’t.
Last week, I watched a short film produced by McSweeney’s and the Stanford MRI lab in which contests participated in a “love competition” — they allowed their brains to be monitored for five minutes while they thought about a person they loved.
The person whose brain produced the most neurochemicals related to the experience of love (and thus, won the contest) was a 75-year-old man named Kent Pells.
“Today I’m gonna be loving (my wife of fifty years) Marilyn Pells,” Kent announced to the cameras.
Marilyn also competed, but did not tie with her husband, nor place in the contest.
Kent and Marilyn’s love is the kind that Stephanie Fairyington wrote fearfully of, where one person’s heart throws off the see-saw’s balance, and even science can prove it.
Like Fairyington and plenty of others, love is something I’ve always tried to measure, to put in technical terms. Kent and Marilyn simply refer to it as “fun,” “blessed,” and “a good trip.” They married only three days after meeting and say they are just as much in love as they were back in 1961. I think a huge part of their success is probably the absence of the anxiety and jealousy that comes along with obsessing over the possibility of unrequited love.
If it’s true that only 2 percent of Americans have managed to avoid unrequited love affairs for the course of their lives, maybe there’s something people like me can learn from them: stop keeping score.