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One feature of unreciprocated love—or love returned earlier, but no longer—relates to “carrying a torch” for the yearned-for partner. It’s a complex, paradoxical phenomenon at once intriguing, beguiling, hurtful—and strangely arousing. And it’s received scant attention in the literature examining the extraordinary pain/pleasure of one-sided loving.
Because the adverse aspects of torch-carrying are much more obvious than its at least semi-favorable qualities, this post will focus primarily on these latter, curiously enchanting facets of feeling.
To begin with, in ruminating about your past love, or a love neither returned nor perhaps even shared with your heart’s desire, the object of unrequited passion is idealized. And in that highly selective, two-dimensional glorification, the one so cherished and obsessed over becomes all the more alluring. So fantasizing a longed-for, idyllic togetherness—imagining a union that never happened, or could never happen again—remains devoid of any hard-headed scrutiny. Such daydreaming, where reality defers to fantasy, is far more enjoyable than the actual life equivalent.
In general, there’s something gratifyingly “pure” about what’s not been tried or tested. In this artificially created, exotically invulnerable context, the “rude awakenings” that mutually committed relationships must inevitably confront are conveniently avoided. For the inescapable couple differences that invariably lead to frustration and disappointment can only be evaded when, fortuitously, the relationship has met an abrupt end, or never actually materialized.
It’s sadly reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw’s cynical view that “there are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” And in that sense a relationship only “realized” in fantasy offers more satisfaction (and no disillusionment) than one “achieved”—and thereby requiring a more sober assessment. The “sadder but wiser” conclusion in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner need never come into play when the clear-eyed wisdom derived from experience is, well, never experienced.
And strange as it may seem, human nature has the uncanny ability to “reconstruct” even failed relationships by vividly recalling—and single-mindedly isolating—the harmonious times preceding the relationship’s downfall. And this self-trickery is accomplished through fondly remembering the innocent, not-yet-tainted, period of courtship, its “great beginning.” Might you yourself ever have traveled back to your past to revel in those near-forgotten fields of fresh, unadulterated love?
Such nostalgic reminiscences could relate to a youthful puppy love, lost mainly because you and your sweetheart migrated to different coasts when you went off to college. But they could also relate to an ex, for whom you still carry a torch, especially if you haven’t yet filled the vacuum they left. The only prerequisite for such affectionate longing is that you immerse yourself in an earlier reality that methodically excludes the challenges the two of you later faced—and weren’t able to overcome.
Here you simply daydream about those so coveted, starry-eyed moments when the person you’d chosen as “the one” glowed in almost miraculous ways. That was a time when, in the resolute focus on their more endearing qualities, you could blithely ignore their blemishes, shortcomings, and personality flaws (as you successfully disguised your own!).
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What makes romance so romantic is that it’s not reality-based. While the fires of passion are fervidly burning, it feels as though the intense flames of adoration will last forever. And that’s exactly the problem. For—uninvited—cold, wet reality has a way of putting out the conflagration, so that only the embers remain. Ultimately, heavenly fantasies must succumb to the laws of gravity, the idealized partner falling headlong from whatever lustrous pedestal you’d delightedly constructed for them.
Yet carrying a torch—as illusionary as it may be—can, at least intermittently, restore the fire and get it to glow anew. And while that resurrected blaze may be short-lived, while in its midst it’s still extraordinarily warming.
Looking, however, at the many negatives in “carrying a torch” presents an extremely different picture.
For doubtless, being ignored or rejected by someone you’re enamored of is associated with all kinds of distress. The aversive thoughts and emotions intimately linked to non-reciprocated love bring to the surface such feeling states as guilt, grief, regret, remorse, shame, depression—and, at times, even anger and hostility. Too often, holding onto a crush, yearning for the inaccessible beloved, can easily lead you to feel crushed. Or (to shift the metaphor) you can end up getting burned by the inflamed torch you’re carrying. Which is why, if you hold it at all, it’s best to do so at arm’s length.
An unrequited, and oh-so-bittersweet, love that’s addictively harbored can—OCD-like—torment you once its imagined sweetness is “doused” by a contrary bitterness. The reason that such love is deemed “bittersweet” in the first place is that once the fantasy has played itself out, the far more disturbing perspective must also be expressed. This much harsher reality can only be denied for so long before it forces its way to the surface.
In simpler terms, “carrying a torch”—particularly as highlighted in plays, poems, and torch songs—renews feelings of heartbreak. There’s a singular sorrow that characterizes a love that’s not been returned, or able to be held onto. Carrying a torch reflects a temporarily intoxicated state that all too soon must devolve into a more sober one, which is far more serious and sorrowful than it was sensuous and satisfying.
So I’ll end this piece with one of the most moving torch songs ever written. Made famous by the time-honored Judy Garland, here’s how the song tragically begins . . . and ends:
The night is bitter
The stars have lost their glitter
The winds grow colder
Suddenly you’re older
And all because of the man that got away
. . . . . .
Ever since this world began
There is nothing sadder than
A one-man woman looking for
The man that got away. [Songwriters, Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin]
NOTE: I’ve long been fascinated by the emotional intricacies of unrequited love, an experience that virtually all of us have suffered through (and somehow survived). So, not surprisingly, I’ve written quite a few posts complementary to this one. They include:
“What Makes Romance So Romantic (and So Doomed)?”, “Can You Be Fulfilled by Desire?”, “The Blissful Torture of Unrequited Love,” “3 Ways to Be Happy in Unrequited Love,” and the poignant disclosures in “The Most Memorable Quotes on Unrequited Love.”
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.