It was going to happen again. I knew before I said those three most difficult words that I wouldn’t hear them back. I was more hopeful than I’d been the last time I’d told someone “I love you,” a year and a half earlier, but there was a reason I continued to restrain the sentence I’d been thinking for over a month, suppressing it and stuffing it back down my throat every time it threatened to creep out.
I was sitting on the edge of the ratty mattress he’d helped me push up the stairs of the apartment I was subletting that summer. He was in front of me, leaning back on the worn wooden floor. In a few days, he would be leaving for an exchange program in France—and, I was sure, would meet someone new, far more interesting and beautiful than I could even imagine.
That was my mind’s ugly place—the insecurity and self-hate I didn’t want to burden him with but often did. I knew that he hated living in Boston and had for a long time. I knew that, whatever happened there, France was going to make him happy. And my healthier mental place, which acknowledged that I loved him wholly and unconditionally, was excited for his departure and the nourishment I knew it would bring him.
Keeping that love inside, unexpressed, was excruciating. It was mentally and physically painful, worse than the fear that he didn’t love me back—maybe because it was less of a fear and more of a fact. So when I told him how I felt on that heavy, humid June evening, it was a relief. It was not just love for him, but love for myself and concern for my own well-being that finally ushered the words past my lips.
Evy Oliverio, a fourth-year Communication Studies major, had a similar moment in her last relationship, which ended recently. “You can love somebody fully, and then you feel so burnt by it when they don’t love you back,” she says. “How can you not love me in the way that I love you?”
We’re walking briskly down Newbury Street—stopping to admire the occasional dog, of course—and as we navigate the tangle of shoppers and strollers, Oliverio seems to also be navigating her still-fresh emotions. She isn’t exactly mourning the loss; smiling easily, she talks about a new crush who may or may not feel the same way. For her, unreturned love continues to be a confusing and painful experience, at least when in the midst of it. When she told her ex she loved him for the first time, she says his response should have been a red flag. “As my body is convulsing internally, he was like, ‘…Yeah, I don’t think we should be saying that right now. We’re not really at that point yet.’ I remember being so sad.”
The relationship continued and a few months later the “I love you”s were mutually exchanged, though “you can say it, and have somebody not mean it,” Oliverio points out. Upon reflection, she had a realization: she was more in love with the idea of the person than the actual person she was dating. For her, it was only after the relationship ended that she felt good about loving someone who she believes didn’t love her back.
“It’s so nice and fulfilling once you come to terms with the fact that the love isn't there,” says Oliverio. “You can reevaluate yourself. I know that I am capable of committing this much feeling and care to somebody, even if it's not given back to me. And then you flip that so it’s empowering: I deserve somebody who can meet me.”
Though there are certainly bumps, I believe it can be fulfilling to love someone who doesn’t feel the same way you do. It’s an individual experience, one which manifests differently for everyone. Sam Longo, a second-year Visual Media Arts major with vibrant purple hair, settles thoughtfully into an armchair in the library as she considers her past.
“Love for other people can definitely be for yourself. It can be a good thing, it can be a wholesome thing, it can be the truest kind of love,” she says. “Or, it can be that guy, sitting on the lawn of whatever college, playing the piano ‘til his girlfriend came back. And it’s just manipulative and stalkery and bad.”
Longo has been stalked by four separate men in her 21 years of life so far. And it’s important to recognize the difference between a mutually beneficial relationship and what she has been through—including, for example, a neighbor who had a habit of climbing up a tree near her house to sit right outside her bathroom window. She was a tween at the time, and says adults brushed it off as puppy love.
Although she takes issue with the romanticizing of unrequited love often present in popular media (see: The Notebook, Love Actually, Twilight), Longo does believe that unrequited love can be mutually beneficial, in romantic relationships and beyond.
“My mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer when she was pregnant with me. She’d never met me,” says Longo. “She didn’t know anything about me. But she loved me so much, and she still loved me in that unrequited way. It was enough that she refused treatment so that I could continue to grow for a couple of months. That is always what true love looked like to me.”
In part, perhaps, because of that story, Longo doesn’t feel the need to be loved back even by friends. She loves them because it makes her happy to love them, not because of the love they have for her. “Consensual unrequited love is a powerful thing,” says Longo. “It's the same feeling of being genuinely proud of your friends when they accomplish something, without resentment or jealousy. I’m a gardener, and I love my plants. I love to see them do well. It makes me feel so good to be able to cultivate that and be able to give love. I think that people want to give love.”
The idea that love must be traded between partners in return for an equal amount and form of love is, essentially, a capitalistic one. It transforms love, an emotion which cannot be quantified, into a commodity. It furthers the harmful notion that the people we love belong to us. When a relationship revolves around possession, a lot of love is lost and resentment grows.
For Lucie McCormick, who graduated in May with a degree in Film Production, confessing to a crush has never been challenging. The aftermath is what she’s historically had trouble with, but she says even that has changed recently. “There was one girl who I really liked, and it was the first time that I felt good about how I approached everything,” says McCormick. “I didn’t feel like I was just saying, ‘I like you,’ and then running away. I was present with my feelings.”
It’s a rare sunny day, and we’re sitting in the damp grass of the Boston Public Gardens. McCormick pauses often to process her thoughts and emotions, silent though the city is bustling around us. She says she’s been experiencing a shift in the type of people she’s attracted to in the first place: in the past, she often fell into relationships with people where she felt like a caretaker, or was putting in significantly more emotional labor. She was dating people not because they were improving her life, but because she felt like she was improving theirs. So now, even when her feelings aren’t returned, she is satisfied with how far she has come because the people she’s interested in are people she has or could have a healthy relationship with. “I was sad that they didn’t want the same thing, but I felt really happy that I wanted the right thing,” she says.
Satisfaction with a relationship comes in so many forms: peaceful companionship, amazing sex, shared passion for art or music or comedy…sometimes all three. Knowing someone on an intimate level can be a really beautiful thing. “Loving somebody else gives you a whole extra plane to work with,” says McCormick. But like anything, this sort of love has its limits. “You don’t have to love somebody and just give from yourself—I feel like loving somebody else can give you a whole new arsenal. But once that’s empty, if nothing is refilling it, you shouldn’t keep trying to love them once you’re just giving yourself away.”
I’ve spent the last few months since the boy I love moved back home—marking the end of our romantic entanglement and the strengthening of our friendship—trying to make sense of what happened between us. Every step of our relationship felt like the ideal romance that the YA novels I grew up on convinced me to dream of, except there was no bouquet of flowers, no perfect happy ending. There was just my overwhelming love and his kindness and respect and understanding. And great sex. Even though it sometimes hurt, there was so much more good than bad, and that was confusing for me at first. I think McCormick explains it best.
“If you really love somebody, and you're not loving them selfishly, and you're not loving them because you want something, but you're just loving them because you see things about them that feel beautiful and you want those things in your life, I think that's amazing,” she says. “The fact that we can stop looking at ourselves, and that loving can make us selfless and make us courageous is such a cool thing and even if somebody doesn’t love you back, you should just feel so lucky that you can love somebody.”
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. The silence that followed my own hesitant, stilted confession hurt, a lot. His discomfort around the phrase and my impression that I wasn’t allowed to say it again also really fucking hurt. The nights that I cried myself to sleep, wondering why no one had ever loved me back, were some of my loneliest ever. This is all true.
Also true: the hours I spent with him in the six months of our quasi-relationship were the happiest I’ve felt in a very long time. He was and still is one of my best friends, and few people have been able to make me feel as cared for and as understood as he did.
While it saddens me to know that I don’t have the same effect on him, and it hurts that he will never let me know him the way he knows me, more than anything I’m grateful to have known him at all. I’m grateful for every moment he chose to spend with me. I’m grateful for the friendship that we have now. And I’m grateful to myself for not allowing the pain that always accompanies rejection to destroy the connection between us, one that for me is a rare occurrence.
Photos by: Sabrina Ortiz