When you settle for the only love you think you can get, for someone who doesn’t mind you being around, for someone who lets you love them — someone with whom you just kind of are, without real effort or desire reciprocated both ways — you spend your life in a hope-sustained limbo. You’re constantly pining for someone who is only ever that far out of your grasp. Every time you close your hand in on their own, you come up with air. You scroll through social media hoping to find their face, to know what they’re doing, if only to feel as though you’re with them for a moment. Every ring on the phone is a spike in your heartbeat; everything they do, you imagine doing with them, if only, if ever.
You initiate everything. Texts and times to see each other and nights you stay over. You’ve met their roommates, their friends — but when it comes time for them to be in your life and with your friends, they’re nowhere to be found. You revert back to that idea — this is just how it’s going to be. There are reasons they’re doing what they’re doing. This is the hard part of a relationship, you tell yourself, the part you have to make work. And so you grin and bear it, and become friends with their friends, when you become a part of that group yourself, when you imagine and weave your life into theirs in your mind, only to stumble back soberingly aware that you don’t really belong.
You begin to wonder if you ever did.
So why do we settle then, for this love that is full of heartbreak and uneven balances and someone who loves more and someone who couldn’t care less? Why do we bother to wrap up our hearts in bubble wrap before launching headfirst into something that’s going to hurt no matter what protective measures we take? Why do we let ourselves care about someone who likes having us around because we worship them, if we know that we ought to find someone who will actively care about us right back? Why do we take the time to sidestep around labels, knowing full well that the minute we slap a title onto something, it will feel false and forced, and maybe they’ll run because maybe they’ll think we’re trying to manipulate them into something we know deep down that they never wanted with us at all?
“Oh, but we’re not like, dating-dating,” “Yeah, we’re just seeing each other,” “No, we… well, I…” “It’s complicated.” Why do we give the big, goon-faced eyes and whisper little jokes in the still of the morning and try to worm our way into deep conversations about their dreams and hopes and aspirations, why do we try to bottle up the way they smell, thinking that maybe we’d like to keep a little reminder of this cologne or that perfume lingering around that much longer.
We call this unrequited love. We call this a crush. We say it’s noble and brave and romantic to care more, that at least we are attuned with our emotions and what we want — but most of all, we want to be loved back. It’s crushing to realize that it might be in their ability to love us the way we want them to, but they never were obligated to in the first place. And we — not they — are the ones who led ourselves on, thinking that maybe they’d change their hearts and their minds.
And we know — oh, do we know — that the first step in attracting the love you deserve is to love yourself that much and more, that you reap what you sow, that you can’t expect anyone to love you if you don’t love yourself… whatever the aphorism, we might as well have it tattooed on our hearts and in our hands, along with all the overeager text messages we never sent to the people who almost loved us, the people who kept us around, the people who we couldn’t convince to care just that much more. We mutter that they’ll miss us when we’re gone, that they’ll never appreciate what they had — and maybe that’s true, but to harbor resentment is just as exhausting as loving someone who will not love you back, and in either case, you just wind up exhausted and on the side of the road, all out of your own steam.
We try to understand why this — with all its faults and coming-up-shorts and being left wanting more — is the love we choose. We think that maybe we’re not ready for something real, so we hang onto something less-than. We tell ourselves it’s training wheels, an introductory stage into real love — but also wonder if this is the best we’ll ever get, if this is the most we deserve. This is the answer we want so desperately to believe: that this the reality we’ve chosen for now, that this pain is within our control to change.
But, then, in the creep of the dark, when our thoughts are twisted and our beds feel cold and we wonder where they are and if they’re even thinking about us, we wonder if it’s because we are truly not lovable, that this is finally the evidence that proves our inadequacy to be fully loved. We wonder if we ought to just give in, and so we gather up the scraps in hopes that they equal out enough love that satisfies us for tonight, for the month, for however long it takes to come to peace with the fact that sometimes, holding out for the kind of love that loves you back is cold and lonely and quiet and slow, but if we don’t hold onto the idea that it is out there, somewhere, waiting for us to latch on and love them back, then what do we cling to? What do we hope for?
Maybe we’re only ever just hoping for a little more hope, a little more reason to keep going, another little sign that they might care, that all of this effort and love and affection was not in vain.