Relationship

Why do I keep falling in love with totally unavailable people? | Ask Philippa


The question I’m at my wit’s end. I’m a 50-year-old gay man and I’m in a happy, long-term relationship. But I’ve fallen in love with a married straight guy 10 years my junior. He’s a new colleague at work. We get on well and have struck up a companionable working relationship, but my feelings for him have become deeper – and it’s agony.

I’m not an idiot. He’s married with young children and I know nothing is going to happen. I don’t think I’d even want it to, but I just can’t stop the intensity of my feelings for him. He’s a kind, thoughtful man, which somehow makes it worse. I couldn’t bear it if he found out I was secretly harbouring lustful or amorous feelings for him.

This is not the first time I’ve done this. Over the years there have been others that I’ve secretly fallen for, so I guess it’s a bit of a pattern. The first time was when I was at school at 14. I fell in love with a friend and my feelings were so intense I couldn’t tell anyone, not even him. I couldn’t even admit I was gay at that age. This current crush feels as bad as that. I know this sounds pathetic, but I feel absolutely broken by this. I’d like us to be friends, but how do I stop feeling jealous when he talks and laughs with others? How can I stop feeling these intense feelings?

Philippa’s answer One thing you might consider is to explore the underlying reasons for why you tend to develop these intense crushes on unavailable people. It sounds like this has been a pattern for you since childhood, so understanding the roots of this behaviour could help you gain insight into your psyche. And insight can lead to healing. I’m going to suggest a few reasons that might be the cause, in case any resonate with you.

It could be that somewhere in your infancy and childhood you got confused between longing, which is agony, and love, which is bliss or at least comfortable. It sounds like you are a lifelong sufferer of intermittent limerence. Limerence is a term coined by Dorothy Tennov in 1979. It’s when otherwise healthy individuals find themselves in a monomania for another person, which they might not have expected to happen and when they recover from the experience their lives go back to normal… until the next time. The experience is distinct from simple sexual desire – it’s more obsessive.

Remember, this isn’t real love. It is possible this is a hangover from how you learned to attach and bond to others when you were a baby or young child. As you have a good long-term relationship you must also have learned how to have healthy attachments, too. But it is as though there was someone you once wanted who you could not have, maybe a nanny or carer who left, or perhaps a neglectful parent. You might be projecting your own iridescence on to your “love” object as though he, and all the former objects that caused you to become obsessed, aren’t just people, but gods on pedestals, and they stand in for a person from your past. Essentially, there may be unfinished business from your infancy or early childhood that you are trying to conclude in the present by longing for something unobtainable. Perhaps your psyche is saying, maybe this time I’ll win – even though your logical self knows that would be disastrous.

I noticed in my psychotherapy practice that we humans are vulnerable to obsessions and fixations when we want to distract ourselves from a deeper problem we can’t bear to think about. This could be not facing up to a bereavement in your life, or a loss likely to happen soon, or it could be that you need to feel a deeper connection with yourself and it just seems easier to ache for a deeper connection with an unobtainable other. If there is something you are not facing up to, name it and face it – it won’t be as bad as you think.

When you are able to create a narrative, it will be easier for you to separate the essential you from your obsession. You do this by observing the obsessive thoughts and feelings, explaining them to yourself, but not being them. You sound very alone with these feelings. It is understandable if you don’t want to upset your partner or friends with them, but do consider consulting a therapist. Secrecy can encourage limerence to fester rather than fade, and I believe you need to talk about this.

You are not an idiot, neither are you pathetic. Many people, men and women of every sexual orientation, suffer from limerence. It will probably fade, but more than that and with the right help, it can be managed so it loses its power over you. Recovering from limerence is a process I have been privileged to witness several times.

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Recommended reading: Living with Limerence by Dr L and How to Stay Sane by me, which has useful exercises to help you to train your mind and contain your feelings so that you can master them, rather than them mastering you.

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions



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