Be truly joyful, like one who, though his house has burned down, feels a deep need in the soul to begin building anew. – Martin Buber
The moment when I decided I didn’t want unrequitedness to be the M.O. of my love life came at the height of the pandemic. The whole world, it seemed, was living in a bereft state. All of us, all around the world, were hanging in there valiantly, carrying on in pain. Oh, the things we wanted and did not have. The tragedies that had befallen, the losses we had borne. We had to stay apart because we were dangerous to each other.
At some point in the future, we reassured ourselves, connection would be reestablished. This couldn’t go on indefinitely. A vaccine was surely on the way. That idea shone out there in the distance while our nerves and our passions twisted like flags tattering in the wind.
I had been longing to see my daughters, one in San Diego, one in North Carolina, in person. I missed going to my dance classes, missed the comfort and like-mindedness of my church community. I visited my mother and father, but rarely. They were elderly and at risk, so I kissed my hands at them from a six-foot distance.
Now, in my first relationship post-divorce, I was struggling with unrequitedness in a different way. My boyfriend was an avoidant type. He prioritized his work, even his need to follow his favorite bands and sports teams, over me. But of course, it hadn’t started like that.
We met in January before Covid lockdown, and as the crisis deepened I felt lucky to have someone to share the journey. We sheltered together between his apartment and my house. Everything was closed, so we took sweet walks, visiting the turtles at a nearby lake, counting the pelicans on the shore. I had his voice or his text messages in my ear during the day, his arm around me in the night. “I think we should live together,” he suggested early on. He’d give up his place and come to mine. Not yet,” I said, torn. “I need more time to be assured our feelings are deep enough.”
I really meant I needed to be assured about whether he really loved me. I knew he was committed, and we had chemistry, but some red flags had begun to show. The framework of our relationship had loosened. On paper, with his education and financial stability, with our compatible views and beliefs, he seemed great. But he looked obsessively at his Twitter account, at his work emails. He posted pictures of his favorite Brit-pop band, but not of us. I’d be with him, feeling nearly invisible, while he drank his sixth beer and watched his third basketball game in a row.
“Is this working for you?” I finally asked him. “I’m new at this. But I feel like I’m in shitty third place. I want us to be more engaged. I want you to reach for me first, to inquire more about what I’m doing. I don’t want to have to chase you to get the reciprocity I need.”
“It’s my job,” he told me. He was a manager in the oil and gas industry. “I need distraction. The market has gone to shit. I just had to fire two people, and I’m pretty sure I’m targeted myself. I’m stressed.”
I sympathized with his work woes, but I didn’t want to settle, to live waiting and withheld. I didn’t want to be in a relationship as one-sided as my marriage had been. “I’m giving you your freedom,” I told him eight months in. “And taking mine.”
The enforced circumstances of a Covid lifestyle made me realize that in some regard, I’d been suffering from a type of process addiction. Choosing a man who didn’t give me what I needed gave me a perverse type of high. There is something seductive and noble about unrequited desire, about living with something missing.
I’d been encouraging myself to stay stuck. It wasn’t uncommon-- literature is full of of heroes and heroines who do it. Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights. Even Eowyn and Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. Readers love romantic tragedy in which fate deals the players a cruel hand. How that person persisted, how they endured despite hardship and rejection. It was so admirable.
The women of my family have a habit of marrying remote men. That word, “remote,” holds true through a variety of husband incarnations, from good but distant, to seemed good, to son of a bitch, to gone, to flat-out dead.
My grandmother Kate’s father farmed her and a younger brother out to relatives after their mother died. There is a letter from a family member to William Kearney asking him to “be a man, come and do the right thing and take back your children, they are languishing.”
When Kate grew up, she married her sister’s husband after her sister died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She never talked about whether George really loved her or if it was a marriage of convenience for the care of the six motherless children. He bred four more offspring with her (my mother was the youngest) and then he died.
When my mother was eight, Kate was starstruck by a handsome widower. She abruptly pulled my mother from school and took a bus to Norfolk, Virginia, to marry him. Such was the longing of a lonely single parent working herself to death at a laundry and vulnerable to attention and flirtation. But her second husband was an alcoholic with three half-grown children; he’d been looking for a domestic worker, not a soul mate.
My mother’s experience was more varied. Her first idea of a man who was supposed to love her looked like the silence and unhelpfulness of a tombstone. There was a memory of a lanky smiling father with his hand on her shoulder, but she was four when he died. Two brothers, years older, were shadows, having left to follow their own fortunes as soon as they could. And her stepfather, my mother says, “Was not a good man.” When she was twelve, she went door to door in the fine neighborhoods of Norfolk. My mother was coltish and engaging, with big blue-green eyes. “Do you need a housekeeper?” she asked the women who answered her frantic knocking. “My mother is looking for work.”
That stepfather and his teenaged sons. All of them were attempting to “bother” her. It became clear that my grandmother had made a horrible decision. My mother, still a child, took their future into her own hands and found an escape. “I don’t known what we would have done if it hadn’t been for Mrs. Kemp,” Mother told me. A wealthy Catholic woman had accepted them in, gave my grandmother a job, and treated my mother like one of her own daughters. These were the days before shelters.
But there were kind, healing men, my mother also found. In her late teens she lived with her older sister and her husband. “Dora and Frank weren’t able to have children,” Mother said. “He was so gentle. He doted on me. That’s why I gave you his middle name of Lee.”
My mother married when she was eighteen. My father was twelve years older. He was a very good man, a faithful husband and good provider, smart and funny. But he’d grown up without a mother, so he learned to manage on his own and to be all right without a lot of nurturing. Was there a woman around who needed her spouse to check in, to attend to her thoughts and feelings? That was not a thing that happened, in his experience. My traumatized and fatherless mom, meanwhile, was searching for connection. In marrying my father, she subconsciously gave herself some attributes of her childhood situation. That is, her partner was just “not there,” he was not attuned. In midlife, my mom grew sad, and asked my dad to go with her to counseling. He wouldn’t go; he just didn’t think they had a problem. She went alone.
And so my turn came around. I had no grandfathers, no brothers. I had three uncles in California that I’d met twice. My attitude toward men was cautious—I’d been informed from the time I was young that they could be dangerous. “Don’t go with one or let him get his hands on you,” my mom advised.
My dad, a quiet loner who loved to tinker with his tools and his music, was my primary model for what a woman had a right to expect. My experience of him was that he was kind, he worked hard, he would do any job for us that needed doing. He was sweet; I kissed him on the cheek every night and we exchanged “I love you’s.” But he didn’t understand women all that well. Before he married my mother, he’d been engaged to someone else who’d broken it off. He was not a conversationalist; usually we spoke superficially about whatever was in the national news. Raising girls was the women’s job.
The man I married was the opposite of my dad--he was unable to use tools or do household repairs. Instead he was physical, upbeat, extroverted, and charismatic. He was also an incorrigible flirt. It was a red flag which I had rationalized as “his culture, his energy, his personality.” We got along well, but often I felt set aside. Out of the public eye, away from his pedestal at work, his persona would take a break. “I’m shot from the week, I need to catch up on yard work, I need to go for a run,” he’d tell me.
He’s not “for” me, I often thought, lamenting his physical or emotional distance. I wanted more than I got, and was always coaxing him, or in some pain, wishing he would reach out more. I didn’t like being lonely, so why had I chosen a husband who just wasn’t present for me? It took a bombshell of infidelity revelations to get me to see how ultimately remote he was, and leave.
“You used the template passed down to you,” my therapist said. “People build relationships according to the patterns of their childhood. You have an anxious attachment style.”
I understood that the concept referred to the way humans related, especially in romantic pairing, and that it was a transference from the way they connected to others as a child. Stable, anxious, or avoidant—those are the three attachment types. Anxious and avoidant people tend to be attracted to each other: the anxious one needs a person to yearn for and the avoidant one needs a person to pull back from. In this backwards way, we live out the unspoken instructions passed through our families.
Initially it didn’t make sense that I had an “anxious” style.” Women who did grew up in households where they were neglected or abused. They had troubled parents whose love faded in and out, and as a result they often harbored low opinions of themselves. They gravitate toward emotionally unavailable men in order to confirm a suspicion that they were unworthy. I didn’t fit that profile. I was appreciated and cared for. My childhood was stable.
It didn’t start to make sense until I looked at the marriage patterns. This was not about self-esteem. The women in my family were strong and self-reliant. If anything, they were too strong; they were the ones who made the relationships and the families work, and they thought well of themselves because of that. They did the emotional heavy lifting, and what could be harder than always being the one to extend her heart?
Somehow along the line, the message the women had absorbed was that romance was elusive, and chances were you wouldn’t catch it. That men would pursue you, and love you, was a myth. Never had my female forbears known men to be anything other than creatures that let you into their lives and then broke your heart. Pride and self-worth came from enduring, even when there was no happy ending. It came from surviving. A man was either dead or not caring about you the way you deserved. The women in my family believed this to be true, and because their experiences had borne it out, that is the way it continued to be.
If pop songs are any indication, unrequitedness is an industry, and it’s one I continue to buy into. “And now the day bleeds into nightfall/and you’re not here to get me through it all.” There’s something thrilling about the way the singer lets his anguish loose, his hands empty of love. I listen as I drive, then turn up the volume when similar emotion comes on. “I need a miracle/Stranded, reaching out/I call your name, but you’re not around.” The girl’s voice is backed by trap drums, as if she is preparing to face the gallows.
This is my type of music. My theme song is an esoteric Irish ballad: “I mourn for my dreams/I mourn for my wasted love/ My heart is low/my heart is so low/ As only a woman’s heart can be.” Even before my divorce, I could listen to this five times in a row and sob uncontrollably, a familiar wrenching in my chest.
There is a physiology, and a psychology, to it. There is something apparently delicious, even addictive, about anticipating fulfillment, about wanting but not having. As a school girl, I developed crushes that lasted for years on people that rarely spoke to me. In seventh grade homeroom, I worshipped the back of Aidan Thompson’s head and sent an anonymous Valentine to his house. As a high school freshman, I was dumbstruck by my friend’s brother as he sat playing his guitar on his bed, a poster of the world as seen from the moon behind him. He never gave me the time of day. I carried that torch until I was a senior.
I was bright, I was cute, but I went away to college and still had never had a boyfriend. I sat in my dorm and looked out the window, my pose like some eighteenth-century governess pining away on the moors. I watched rain pour through the barren trees, and I cried. Where, I thought, back then, is my boy? Why am I destined to be alone?
I’m tired of my drama now, but it’s been so hard. I wake up at dawn running my hands down my arms and crying from touch deprivation. It’s like I’m withdrawing from a drug, but I am determined to do whatever it takes to not give in and repeat my pattern. All my life I’d experienced romantic connection this way, as something just out of my reach, as something I’m not intended to have.
He’s gone, but Covid is still here, and I’m going to stop waiting on a vaccine to rescue me. Separated by a virus, languishing at home. Isn’t it brave, isn’t it noble, to live that way? Just stop. Pain is a given, but as they say, suffering is optional.
“Go forward as if,” I write on my little kitchen blackboard. It’s what we’ve learned to do in 2020. I grind coffee beans, I bake sweet potatoes. I turn my thoughts to myself and check in with my body to see where the anxiety still resides. The twist in my gut gets smaller daily as I determine to be calm, loving the one I should have been with most all along. I palm my key and head out to walk. It’s okay, I think. Let’s check the lake, count the turtles, see how many pelicans have come home to shore.
Catherine Vance teaches writing for the Writespace and wepracticelife in Houston, Texas, where she lives and does social justice volunteering. Catherine hold an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and was a winner of the Dobie-Paisano Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Write Launch, Synkroniciti, Defunkt, Talking Writing, Wraparound South, Davidson Miscellany, Laurel Review, the Dallas Morning News, Great Smokies Review, and elsewhere. She is completing a memoir in essays called In/Complete which is about marriage, divorce, infidelity, child sexual abuse, and a woman's journey to belong to herself. One of the essays was named a Notable in the Memoir Magazine 2019 metoo competition.