I have an obsession with a man I know. Three years ago, I went on a few dates with him and then he got back with his ex-girlfriend. He was in a relationship for three years and he recently broke up with her. When he got into a relationship, I set myself boundaries, told myself I deserved someone who was 100 per cent interested in me and tried to train myself not to think about him, see him, etc.
This was all going well until I started going out with one of his close friends. We have now been together for two years and being aware of their friendship is so difficult. The original man still evokes an anxious/excited/thrilling feeling within me when his name comes up in conversation or I come across him on social media. I feel so guilty and I wish with all my heart that I could shake the infatuation but so much time has passed and I’m in a wonderful loving relationship now and I still really struggle.
I know what it is to constantly want what you can’t have. Indeed, I was becoming frustrated because I’ve received a few letters into the column that are simply far too long to be printed here, too detailed to know what could possibly be edited out. And yet with your question, I’m dying for more detail, wish you had given just a little bit more information. I’m craving the insights I believe are hidden in the words unwritten.
Because it’s easy to believe that words unspoken are the most meaningful. Easy to believe that someone who doesn’t want you could be the solution to all your problems. Easy to imbue the things that make us feel small with a power much larger than they deserve.
Boundaries are important. They're vital. But sometimes, when we draw a boundary without interrogating why we're drawing a boundary, we simply amplify its appeal, its intrigue, we heighten the sex appeal of its forbiddeness.
I’m guessing this man makes you feel small. What’s interesting about your letter is you say that you dated briefly, that he rejected you, that you fought so hard to control your feelings, that now your feelings have resurfaced – but you never describe him, at all. You don’t tell me if he’s smart, funny, charismatic, kind, passionate, easy-going, aloof, smarmy, arrogant.
You don’t tell me anything that he’s done to possibly deserve your attention for the past three years – except reject you. In your letter, he is simply a shadow person that you can’t let go of. You liked him, for whatever reason, and he chose someone else. You weren’t in control of the dynamic. And I’m guessing from all the control you’re trying to exert over your feelings that this might have been a rare sensation for you: wanting someone, being rejected by someone, feeling out of control, feeling powerless. And now you’re letting those feelings haunt you.
That’s why I’m dying to know if you getting into a relationship with one of his close friends was by accident, or by design. If some part of you, conscious or unconscious, thought that dating one of his close friends would keep you in his consciousness, show him that you were desirable, show him that you were worthy of love and attention and desire. Or if by dating one of his friends you were marking a boundary for yourself, proving to yourself that you were over him enough to date someone in his social circle.
That’s the thing about projecting meaning onto the unspoken. You can transform nothing into the most drama-filled, star-crossed lover story the world has never heard.
Boundaries are important. They’re vital. But sometimes, when we draw a boundary without interrogating why we’re drawing a boundary, we simply amplify its appeal, its intrigue, we heighten the sex appeal of its forbiddeness. Every fairytale has a spindle you can’t touch, a forest you can’t enter, a gingerbread house you can’t eat. And yet every fairytale hero ends up doing exactly that. Because the ban has made the object mysterious, and thus irresistible.
The problem isn’t actually this man – the problem is that you’ve made your own emotions forbidden fruit. You went on a couple of dates with a man, were rejected, then forbid yourself from ever thinking about him again. So of course you think of him. And when you do, you feel excited, the way we all do when thinking about something forbidden. And then you feel guilty for feeling excited, guilty for thinking about the forbidden, guilty for being human. You feel out of control, and rejected all over again, and you want him all the more – and he doesn’t even have to do anything. You’ve done it all yourself.
Stop making this man magic, and your own feelings a curse. He’s just a man. And you’re just a human who finds him attractive. It’s that simple. By constantly rejecting and forbidding your own feelings, you’re imbuing him with a power he has not earned and does not want. Stop drawing glowing force fields around people and then punishing yourself for looking at the light.
Instead of drawing boundaries that demand you completely exclude certain people and feelings, draw boundaries that allow you to prioritise people and feelings, to pull some of them closer, to let others stay in your periphery. Ask yourself are the people and emotions you are paying attention to worthy of your time, and why? What do they give you? Is your attention reciprocal? Do these people and emotions nourish you and care for you, or make you feel small? What tangible effect have these people and emotions had on your life? What have they added? Or what are they taking from you?
Your feelings are not forbidden fruit. You don't have to ban any of them, nor gorge yourself on any. Just examine which ones feed you, nourish you, and indulge them.
Once you start asking these questions, you’ll notice that your emotions are never completely forbidden. Our emotions always have something to offer us. Learn instead to sit with your feelings, to appreciate them, to be affectionate towards them, to laugh with them. You have a crush on a man. He makes you feel a bit nervous, a bit giggly, a bit off-centre, in ways that you rarely feel as a responsible, adult woman who is in control of her emotions. Isn’t that a lovely kind of ridiculousness?
Your feelings are not forbidden fruit. You don’t have to ban any of them, nor gorge yourself on any. Just examine which ones feed you, nourish you, and indulge them. Enjoy the feast of reciprocated love and affection and respect and commitment that your relationship offers you – but don’t feel bad when you also think an unhealthy snack looks delicious. I’m sure it does. You can acknowledge how shiny and sweet it looks, know it’s not for you right now, and hope someone else enjoys it.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies. If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer (max 200 words), you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe. Only questions selected for publication can be answered.