On being unrequited

Content warnings: mention of suicide in a fictional work, discussion of trauma messing with conceptions of the future and relationships, brief mention of abusive relationships (with no specifics), some crappy statements about the insufficiency of aces in relationships

On a completely unrelated note, today is my fifth anniversary of writing for TAA!

Let me start by saying that this is a topic that I’m still puzzling out how to talk about, but let me start here: It’s hard to overstate the impact reading Cardcaptor Sakura had on me as a teenager.  It wasn’t the first piece of media I’d consumed that depicted women in love with other women (I’d been in a production of The Children’s Hour, a play in which the lesbian character, predictably, commits suicide), but I think it may have been the first story I’d read that had (non-adult) girls crushing on other girls.  For those not familiar with Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s a manga (later made into an anime, retitled Cardcaptors in the US) about a magical girl named Sakura.  Sakura’s best friend, Tomoyo, is in love with Sakura, but she knows that Sakura doesn’t return her feelings, so she spends much of the series supporting Sakura from the sidelines and cheering her on as she pursues other relationships.

Part of the reason this manga had such a huge impact on me was because I was reading it just as I was realizing that I had a crush on one of my very close friends.  I was absolutely certain that said friend didn’t return my feelings, so I decided to be a Tomoyo and cheer her on from the sidelines.  As long as she was happy, I would be happy.

These types of unrequited crushes are obviously very, very common in wlw media (and in real life).  I have a playlist of wlw music, for example, and while there are a couple of songs about ladies mutually crushing on other ladies, it’s much more common to have songs like “Sleepover” by Hayley Kiyoko or Mary Lambert’s cover of “Jessie’s Girl” or  “Jenny” by Studio Killers (although that one, at least, ends well* in the MV).  Kataomoi (片思い; more or less “unrequited feelings”) is a pretty common trope in Japanese f/f content as well, especially if it’s set during high school or middle school.  (Azumanga Daioh, which was also formative in my teens, has Kaorin crushing on Sakaki for the entire manga.)  I didn’t read a book with a girl who had a girlfriend, let alone one who still had a living girlfriend at the end of the story, until I was in my twenties.  (I started finding books with endgame m/m couples in my early teens, for comparison, although I also read a lot of books with m/m couples who broke up or died before the end.)  While it’s easier to find happy f/f couples in media now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the idea that if you’re a woman who is attracted to other women, many of your crushes are likely to be unrequited still permeates wlw spaces and media content.

This idea has heavily shaped the way that I approach relationships.  A few months ago I was talking to a friend who said that she found the idea of being friends with someone she had a crush on without ever saying anything really painful.  Never saying anything is my baseline.  I’m pretty much exclusively attracted to people I’m close friends with, so my desire to Not Make It Weird way overweighs my desire to say anything.  I’d much rather have a close friend I have inappropriately big feelings for (and never act on) than make someone else uncomfortable and potentially jeopardize our friendship.  So, unless I’m pretty certain that they feel the same way or the situation is becoming untenable as is, I don’t make it weird.  I’ve had people tell me that’s sad when I’ve mentioned it, but I don’t think it’s sad.  I’m not a martyr or “suffering in the friendzone” (ew)–it just is what it is.

Now here’s where I feel like I don’t quite have the words to talk about this yet: I think there’s a similar phenomenon in ace communities.  I’ve talked before about the puddle problem: “Sure, there may be other fishies in the sea, but, personally, my sea is more like a puddle and most of the fishies would rather hang out in a real body of water.”  Beyond that, I feel that there’s often an assumption of incompatibility or unrequited feelings that aces carry into relationships.  There’s the endless issue of sexual incompatibility, of compromise, and all the different tools we’ve made to get around that.  (This isn’t even touching some of the nastier comments about asexual people “inflicting themselves” on “normally sexual persons.”**)  There’s, as Laura describes it, “a kind of wariness of situations where I might be expected to have sexual feelings or motivations, because then people might want something from me that I can’t give.”  Even in friendships there’s the fear that you’ll never be #1 or that your friends will prioritize their other relationships over you.  There’s often an assumption that you’re going to have to deal with being insufficient (because you don’t experience attraction you should) or with your friends and/or partners prioritizing relationships differently than you (because they’re not getting enough/the right things from your relationship).

Even in ace/ace relationships, I assume that we’ll have incompatible desires–that someone, to some degree, will be unrequited.  There tends to be an assumption that aces are inherently compatible with other aces, but, as someone who has been in relationships with multiple aces, I can say that is not true.***  Here’s a fairly innocuous example: I am not a very cuddly person.  I used to be much cuddlier, but I’ve gotten more touch-averse with age and substantial trauma.  I sometimes have days where I don’t want anyone to touch me, regardless of how casual or glancing it might be.  Needless to say, this can be a major stumbling block if I’m in a relationship with someone who expresses affection physically or who wants consistent physical affection from me.

I tend to assume that any relationship (romantic or not) I have is going to have some level of uneven feelings.  Either I am attracted to them and they are not to me (the Tomoyo problem), or they are to me and I am not to them (the insufficiency problem), or we’re both attracted to each other but in different ways (the physical affection incompatibility problem).  Heck, I designed a model of relationships to help navigate relationships where feelings are imbalanced.  And this is, again, not something I find particularly sad or pity-worthy.  I want different things than other people, not through any fault of mine or theirs, but just because that is how it is.  This is my baseline.

When it becomes a problem is when decide to settle for what I can get–when I look at my tiny puddle and think, “Well, I’m never going to get anything better than this.”  That can be bad when it’s compelled me to stay in abusive relationships, but even in healthy relationships that assumption isn’t fair to me, and it’s also not fair to the people who matter to me.  I often assume that I care more about other people than they care about me, so I’m sometimes surprised and unsure how to react when people demonstrate that they do actually care for me.  I am much better equipped to deal with having inappropriately big feelings for someone than I am to deal with underestimating someone else’s feelings for me.  I also have the fun PTSD symptom of a sense of foreshortened future.  Specifically, in my case, I rationally know that the future is coming, since that’s generally how time works, and I can plan for it, but I have no gut feeling that the future is real.****  (If this sounds like a really weird experience, I promise you that it 100% is.)  I tend to assume that I have no permanency in other people’s lives.  Other people will move on and find other relationships, and I’ll be there to cheer them on from the sidelines (or just…not be there, I guess; it’s not that I’m expecting something to happen to me so much as that I struggle to imagine my future self).  I’m often caught off guard whenever anyone demonstrates that they’re expecting me to be in their life in a tangible way in the future.

I have no solutions here and no real conclusion, since, as I said, I’m still trying to find the words to talk about this.  I guess the point that I’m trying to get at is the extent to which I carry the assumption of imbalanced feelings (being unrequited? unrequitedness?) into all of my relationships.  I don’t know how common this experience is, and I don’t think it’s a uniquely ace experience (as I said at the beginning of this post, it’s a trope in a lot of f/f content).  In my case at least, I think it is shaped by my sitting at the intersection of aceness and queerness and trauma.  I don’t think I can fully say it’s a good thing or a bad thing–on one hand, I’m pretty prepared to do the relationship negotiation dance at any moment (I have CHARTS and KEYWORDS), but on the other hand, I often have to actively counter my own baseline assumptions, which can be skewed in weird and negative ways.

*Well, I mean, if you consider “turning into a tiger and carrying your love to safety” to be “ending well.”

**Dan Savage, who made the comments in the link, has softened signficantly in his stance on asexuality, but I think it’s important to remember that these sorts of comments were coming out right around the time I started coming out to people, and so I had to directly address them when people brought them up (which, to be clear, they did; Dan Savage was weirdly widely read in my college friend group).  While I rationally know I’m not inflicting myself on anyone, when you hear something enough times, it does sort of dig its claws into you.  Or maybe that’s just me.

***Here is where I recommend one of my favorite acefics, “’Til Break of Day.”  I’m not involved in The Hobbit fandom at all, but it’s genuinely one of the best depictions of an incompatible ace/ace relationship that I’ve read.  Check it out if you’re so inclined.

****At some point maybe I’ll bite the bullet and write a proper post on queer futurity instead of just yelling about it incoherently to my friends.  Maybe.

About queenieofaces

QueenieOfAces is a graduate student in the U.S. studying Japanese religion. She is a queer asexual. She also blogs over at Concept Awesome and runs Resources for Ace Survivors. She is never quite sure what to write in these introduction things, but this one time she accidentally got a short story on asexuality published in an erotica magazine.
This entry was posted in Articles, Intersectionality, LGBT, personal experience, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to On being unrequited

  1. I am not ace myself, but wow, you just put into words so many things that I’ve always felt. I’m so happy it’s not just me!

  2. luvtheheaven says:

    I’d much rather have a close friend I have inappropriately big feelings for (and never act on) than make someone else uncomfortable and potentially jeopardize our friendship.

    My (second, and final) breakup with my also-ace-like-me! queerplatonic partner left me even more afraid to risk telling one other friend who I was pretty sure I was in love with just how much I cared. I didn’t want to ruin what I had with her. I am pretty sure she’s too aro-leaning even if we both experience our asexuality surprisingly similarly, and I’m pretty sure we’re incompatible with things like desires to raise kids, so I am comfortable letting those feelings simmer and calm down for a time and then swell now and again, but just be feelings never to be acted on, much like the trope that is yes certainly present in a ton of f/f fiction/media. I’ve always loved unrequited love plots for some reason, perhaps in part because they involve at least a period of time of that deep friendship with an added intensity at least in one direction, some tension that isn’t even usually all that sexual the way I perceive it, just “romantic” I guess, and Idk… Even getting into that queerplatonic relationship I had, I was so hesitant to ruin the friendship, and ultimately it was because of his actions and choices to pursue maybe becoming something categorized differently than “just” friends that we got to where we were. Indeed, both of those times we were “together”.

    I’ll probably have to read that fanfic even though I don’t even know The Hobbit source really, as I only read it in 6th grade and never saw the movie, even… But I bet I’d still love that fic.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I’m also drawn to unrequited love plots (or mutual pining, although there are limits to that, since I find certain types of miscommunication plots extremely irritating). In my case, my interest in romantic plots generally (but not always) drops precipitously as soon as clothes start coming off, so I find a good slow-burn a lot more emotionally interesting than what my roommate calls the “fifty dates” format. (Plus, I don’t know, ridiculous pining is relatable? It’s relatable. I relate.)

      (I keep thinking about doing an acefic rec post, but that would involve all of you finding out my embarrassing taste in fiction, haha.)

      • luvtheheaven says:

        That is true for me too, generally — but not always! — I stop feeling so many shippy feelings or something as soon as my ship is taking clothing off… 😛 I still would love to see an acefic rec post from you but yeah I get the hesitation… lol…

      • AceAdmiral says:

        (please do it. please. I’ll publish it for you anonymously. I’ll publish everyone’s anonymously. let’s do this.)

  3. Rivers says:

    I relate a lot to this. I’ve overcommitted to a lot of different relationships throughout the years, several of which blew up in my face. I didn’t really know how to go about a lot of my feelings until I discovered my identity because I had no framework or context for it. I was just always “the super loyal friend”.

    Even in my current QPR, I have somewhat unrequited feelings because our relationship is not cemented in any future plans of being together or exclusive in any way. She wants to have a romantic relationship with someone at some point in the future (I am a romance repulsed aro, so that wouldn’t work with us), and I’m not exactly sure where it will leave us if that happens. In my case, we just kind of grew into a QPR instead of initiating one, so the future thing is very iffy. We will still be friends no matter what, but I’m not sure of our future as QPPs. I would be perfectly okay with being in some kind of poly relationship, I’ve actually daydreamed about that, but I don’t think she would.

    Because of my past experiences it’s just hard to imagine that the person at the other end of a relationship will have the same level of platonic commitment that I will. Even though my squish does prove me wrong about a lot of things as well. I think that’s one of the issues people have with walking non-traditional relationship styles. Anything that’s not the “norm” often come with murkier waters that you don’t really see anyone else battling. It’s easy to feel alone.

    • queenieofaces says:

      I think the relationships you just kind of grow into can be really strong, but they can also, at least in my experience, cause a lot of uncertainty. If entering into the relationship wasn’t explicitly negotiated, it can be really difficult to start negotiating it once you’re in the middle. My roommates in Boston are super duper important to me, for example, but we never talk about it. We don’t talk about what we are for each other and we don’t plan for the future in a concrete way, and I don’t want to be the one to make stuff Weird. So it turns into me on the internet being like, “Holy cow, this is the raddest group of people, I love them so much, I hope they continue to be in my life for a very long time,” and then in person I’m like, “You folks are…………….fine.”

      • Rivers says:

        Yeah, I relate to that a lot. We do identify as a QPP and say so to the people I’m out to, it’s all the vague future stuff that gets messy.

      • Sciatrix says:

        I am sort of with you on the anxiety–the last close friendship I had, before I wound up in my current qpp/marriage/fuck labels, man, fuck ’em so hard thing was the thing I was dealing with and processing when I was doing the bulk of my blogging, that was a thing I fell into–and one of the things that actually wound up making it toxic for me was that negotiating didn’t work well, that it was hard to figure out what was happening and how much I mattered and how much I needed to withdraw to protect myself and keep myself safe.

        Whereas I also sort of grew into my current triad, but in that case it was… the vague plans for the future/fantasizing about what we wanted to have was always a thing we did, even before we sucked it up and did the scary thing and started trying to actually make that desire a reality. So it was relatively easy for sort of dream-planning to eventually metamorphose into actual discussion and planning and then into making things an actual reality.

        I have learned that I don’t feel safe without being able to have those discussions–without being able to say “You matter a lot to me. Do I matter to you?” and have someone give me an honest answer, not just the one they want to hear. That’s been a Step for me, but it’s not… not always available to everyone, all the time.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Yeeeaaah, relatable. Especially so with friendships, in my case. I’ve certainly had my fair share of friends-between-boyfriends types.

    Occasionally I’ve run into that weird problem of both parties assuming that their level of interest in the other person is unrequited, because… mostly, I think our communication styles are different? Like, I tend not to be a very present/in-the-moment sort of person, I tend to need time to process things before I speak and I’m really not attentive to things like IMs and texts (partly because of anxiety, partly because I keep notifications off since with so much of my trauma being tied up with chat they’re triggering, and partly because of just… general focus/attention issues where I have a hard time dealing with multiple things going on at once), but then this has sometimes led some of my friends to just assume I’m not actually interested, because I’m not responding within the time frame they expect. For me, face-to-face conversations, or scheduled conversations with clear boundaries for when the conversation starts and ends, tend to be much easier for me to handle, since I can focus all of my attention on them during that time. But then the friend doesn’t seem to want to ever schedule time to hang out/skype or follow through with it if we do. So we both end up feeling like the other isn’t really that interested in being close friends, and things tend to drift to more of an acquaintance level over time. It’s frustrating. And I haven’t been able to actually articulate this dynamic until recently, so.

    I ended up just giving up on using chat entirely a while back because of this (plus fighting with my sister over chat), since it was causing more problems than helping. Which is not great, really, but to be honest by that point most of my friends had switched over to only using FB chat anyway, which I don’t do, so it wasn’t that big of a change.

    No solutions here either, but I dunno, maybe me discussing this kind of incompatibility issue will end up helping someone else one day?

    • queenieofaces says:

      I have a similar issue with email–I’m frankly kind of terrible at responding to email in a timely fashion (unless it’s an emergency), so my friends who try to communicate with me solely through email get…very delayed responses. Which makes it hard for me to be living in Japan, because one of my main friend groups solely communicates via email.

  5. Oh dang, I am relating to this far more than I am comfortable with! I too have a long history of Inappropriately Big Feelings and struggling with uneven relationship investment. At this point I’ve pretty much given up on partnered relationships (haven’t tried since 2015 or so). I don’t know that I could pin it to one cause, but it’s definitely related to ace/aro-spec/queer/trans/anxious things. And little tiny fish puddles.

  6. Rachel says:

    Aaaggghh. So any feelings. I’ll try to condense them for everyone’s collective ease:

    – As an aro ace (and a hard one at that, no greyness or demi here), I shudder to think that someone would ever have unrequited feelings for me (be they romantic or sexual). And not out of pity or sympathy, but out of eye-rolling “Oh, God, why did it have to be this?” I find it hard to sympathize with the idea of unrequited super-feelings for the reason above.

    – Related to the above, I find it distasteful that I am expected to be apologetic about my inevitable lack of reciprocation. Yes, my lack of reciprocation causes you indescribable, soul-crushing angst; no, I’m not going to cater to that.

    – Being touch-averse on top of being sex and romance averse means that I relate to Queenie’s comment on how touch/cuddling if ace-ace relationships can be a common site of unequal desires/needs and how that can undermine your prospects and self-confidence.

    – Related to the above, regardless of whether my hypothetical partner is ace or not, chances are I’m gonna be “the inadequate one” when it comes to reciprocating desires about intimacy. That’s something that I have no choice but to deal with when I postulate about relationships, and one of the major reasons (coupled with the uneven levels of investment problem) that I’m more or less set on being perma-single.

    – While I like the idea of QPRs, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to actually have one, due a combination of my multiple aversions and my general personality (which comes with its own set of compatibility requirements). I’m not convinced that the endless gambling and uncertainty of trying them out is worth it.

    • Rivers says:

      I definitely feel you as a fellow aro/ace who too shudders at the idea of other people having unrequited feelings about me. Though, being unrequited about someone doesn’t necessarily mean the person with those feelings will expect you to be apologetic, or be a jerk in how they deal with those feelings. If a person is a jerk about it, they are completely at fault, and their feelings are no excuse.

      Note on QPRs and touch aversion:

      You definitely don’t have to get in one if that’s not what you want or if you don’t ever find someone worth risking that for. Completely wonderful way to live your life and by no means lesser than people who do get in relationships.

      That being said, it’s also not impossible to have a QPR if you’re an aro/ace with touch aversion.

      I do.

      So, if you ever want to get into that or just think about it, it is a valid option for you. Being a touch averse aro/ace doesn’t automatically disqualify you from that. You also don’t have to if you don’t want to. This is just to say that it is a possibility.

      • Rachel says:

        Thanks for the encouraging words.

        You are right that unrequited feelings doesn’t necessarily translate to that person being entitled/presumptuous/being a jerk about it. It’s just that the cultural narratives about unrequited love as noble, tragic, and how-dare-that-heartless-horrible-person-not-just-give-them-a-chance has left me rather suspicious. And while narratives about the angst of unrequited love aren’t the same thing as *The Friend Zone,* the two concepts do live in the same neighborhood.

        To clarify, my feelings about potential QPRs are less about any sense of inadequacy or low self-esteem and more about practicality. Yes, I like the idea of QPRs, but I realize that being aro ace, possessing triple-decker aversions, and having a stoic and asocial personality, means that my pool of candidates is even tinier than those of other aro aces due to the multiple levels of unequal relationship needs even with other aros/aces. And honestly, I’d rather spend my time enjoying my life as it is than pining over something that probably won’t happen anyway. While I can’t say that I’m single by complete choice, I am fine with that outcome anyway. Why spend my money on lottery tickets on the slim chance that I might win, when that same money could go toward something with a more immediate and assured benefit?

        • Rivers says:

          Yeah, unrequited love in media is very very toxic and leaves me tip-toeing in real-life situations where I see it as a possibility.

          And I’m sorry if my above comment suggested I thought that you had low self-esteem or felt inadequate in any way. Not my intention or thoughts about that at all.

          Or that you should feel compelled to search one out just because it MIGHT be possible.

          I was just throwing out that even though there are people who might tell us otherwise and it seems like a small pool, it is possible to be in a relationship as an aro/ace person with touch aversion if you want that.

          But there’s no “have to” or “should try” about that.

          • Rachel says:

            No worries. It can be difficult to say exactly what you mean, without risk of misinterpretation, when the topic brings together so many overlapping forces that need to condensed down into just a handful of sentences.

        • queenieofaces says:

          Just popping in to note that I think the narrative of unrequited love you’re talking about here is specifically applied to MEN having one-sided feelings for WOMEN. I don’t think a lot of the “how dare you not reciprocate” enters into f/f unrequited love tropes–it’s much more common to have the sort of sad “oh, okay” noble pining rather than feelings of entitled victimization from lack of reciprocation, which is where The Friendzone TM comes from.

        • Blue Ice-Tea says:

          “Why spend my money on lottery tickets on the slim chance that I might win, when that same money could go toward something with a more immediate and assured benefit?”

          Very well put!

    • I definitely relate to your response here, including the parts about QPRs and the difficulties involved in actually finding/building one.

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