When I was 19 I went on a date.
It was clear early to me early on that I wasn’t interested in him romantically, and I made that clear. He said he understood and that he was okay with being friends. For the last 9 years he’s been an occasional brunch buddy, conversation partner, and a useful network connection. In short, he’s been the friend that he agreed to be. But he hasn’t given up on becoming more. At least once a year he asks me if I will date him. More than once he even tried to convince me that dating him would be for my benefit, as he is well connected, wealthy, and “greatly admires me”. Every year, I decline his offer, and make it clear that I am not interested in him romantically. At this point, I’m not even sure if it’s me he likes, or just the idea me, or his fantasy of what being with me would be like. If I gave in and dated him, what would he even do? The reality is bound to be a disappointment after years of build up.
This experience highlights a bigger social issue.
Hollywood has romanticized the chase, legitimized the friendzone, and perpetuated the myth of persistent love prevailing. The Friends and How I Met Your Mother used Ross and Ted in exaggerated examples of men on this trope, while Taylor Swift’s hit “You Belong With Me” popularized the female “pick me” version. Rom-Coms and Sit-Coms love the crush-to-friends-to-lovers pipeline. How many times have we seen the girl-next-door or the nerdy-best-friend harboring an unrequited love for years, only to be overlooked by less-worthy candidates? How many times does the story end with the crush realizing that they actually loved their loyal friend all along, resulting in a happily ever after? The thing is, life and love doesn’t work that way.
No one deserves the hangup.
Chasing after a single person for years isn’t just obsessive and unhealthy. It’s sad. You should want to be wanted by your partner. You deserve someone choosing you. Unrequited love hurts. Many of us have loved someone who didn’t feel the same way. It’s easy to convince yourself that “love will prevail” and the person we love will eventually come around, but life isn’t a movie. You should want to be wanted by your partner. You deserve someone choosing you. Why would you settle for being settled for? But you aren’t just hurting yourself when you keep up the chase. By continuing to pursue someone who has made it clear they aren’t interested, you are invalidating them.
You care more about your fantasy than their feelings.
If you actually care about the person you love, you would respect their thoughts, their feelings, and their agency. Their emotions are just as valid as your own, and so is their right to choose who they form relationships with. When you say that they “owe you” love because you love them, you are prioritizing your feelings over theirs. When you insist that they “love you too, but don’t know it”, you are invalidating their feelings and insinuating that you know them better than they know themselves. And when you say that you “deserve them”, you are dehumanizing them by reducing them to a trophy for persistence. Essentially, when you dismiss their feelings by rejecting their objections you are turning a human being into the literal object of your affection. Does that sound like love?
Let them go.
If you are lucky, you may still be able to maintain a healthy friendship, work comrade, or acquaintanceship without too much awkwardness. While you cannot always control your feelings, you can control your reactions to their feelings. If you only remember one thing from this post, let it be this: DON’T MAKE YOUR FEELINGS THEIR PROBLEM. It’s hard to be rejected, but it’s also hard to do the rejecting. If you can’t go back to normal, if you can’t keep your feelings to yourself, then create some distance. Don’t try to win them over or change their mind. They gave you an answer. It hurts at first, but the crush will fade into a memory with time. This is what’s best for both of you.
But what if they do change their mind.
I don’t pretend that this never happens. Sometimes feelings grow or change, but it is an occurrence that has to happen naturally. Wearing someone down with harassment or winning them over with bribery is almost never the start of a healthy partnership. If their feelings for you are going to turn into something genuine, it has to be an internal shift that they make over time. It cannot be forced or accelerated from the outside. Give them the space to make that change without your interference or pressure. Don’t ask for it, don’t request that they try, and don’t expect it. Accept their initial rejection with grace and understanding. If you only take two things away from this post, let this be the second one: IF THEIR FEELINGS CHANGE, LET THEM COME TO YOU. Let them decide how they feel when they feel it. Give them an opportunity to explore these new feelings, and determine their depth and longevity. They may still decide to maintain their initial decision to not enter a relationship, and that’s their right. But, if they do decide to give it a go, wouldn’t it be nice to know that they actively chose you?
Love is not a debt to be paid.
Love is something we do, not something we owe. Waiting around for someone to “return the favor” will only result in pain for everyone involved. Persistence is great when you are trying to achieve a goal, but a human being should never be treated like a prize to win. over persistence leads to obsession, and obsession leads to distortion. So, shoot your shot but respect their answer. Kill the persistence crush trope. Relationships are better when you choose each other.