Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, though infamously long and difficult to get through, is a pretty good portrayal of the link between unrequited love and the imagination. The first volume, Swann’s Way, is largely taken up with the incessant yearnings of the narrator as he meanders through Paris envisaging a made-up, impossible love affair. As Proust writes in the book, “Love is a striking example of how little reality means to us.”
For me, unrequited love was a similar experience. It was an unshakeable mental habit that was entirely separate from reality. It was a world of its own that existed solely in my head.
I spent most of my late teens and early 20s wrapped up in hazy, all-consuming daydreams about a series of boys and men.
All of these men had something in common—they weren’t interested in me. Deep down, I knew this, and, safe in the knowledge that my daydreams would never become reality, I let myself sink deeper and deeper into a dangerous pattern of living in the fantasy world of unrequited love. These daydreams became a habitual thought pattern that saw me through countless days and nights.
Everywhere I went—walking through the halls of my university, sitting alone at a cafe, chatting with friends after class—I brought my unsuspecting partners along with me.
I played out scenario after scenario in my head. I imagined them smiling in the seat across from me when I was on the train or sitting beside me when I was at the theatre. I spoke to them in my head and they replied.
And every time I saw the “real” person, it was fuel to the fire—one brief interaction could keep me going for weeks. A five minute talk would expand into a dozen brand new pretend scenarios for me to luxuriate in for weeks to come. I was high on the love affairs I built in my head, convinced that this intense feeling must be a sign of some greater meaning in my life.
While my invisible partners were based on very real people, I was the one who built them in my mind.
Looking back on those early pretend love affairs, my obsessions seem childish and embarrassingly self-interested. Now, I’m in a real relationship with a real person who exists in the real world. It’s everything a real relationship should be: happy, healthy, normal, steady, dependable. The toxic, addictive thought patterns of my unrequited love affair days are gone.
Obsessive fantasising is obviously not a sustainable way to live. But after what has been an extra monotonous year, I’ve begun to think that I did get something out of the experience. Along with the mind-numbing pain, unrequited love also comes with daily thrills, constant intrigue, and a blazing internal life that seemed to me at the time to be full of meaning.
Yes, unrequited love can be emotionally exhausting—but it can also wake up parts of the imagination that would otherwise lie dormant.
The Imagination as Therapy
As Clifford N. Lazarus Ph.D. writes for Psychology Today, an active, powerful imagination can have incredible effects on both mental and physical health. “The mind itself can affect the body in many powerful ways because the nervous system weaves into all of its systems… That’s why even mildly anxious thoughts and images can increase our heart rate, and produce sensations in our guts, muscles and bladders.”
He goes on to explain that powerful visualisations have been proven to have a therapeutic effect.
For instance, imagine sitting on a peaceful beach. A warm breeze blows across your face as the waves lap gently on the shore. You smell the salt water and feel the sand in your toes. Imagining in this type of vivid details can provide a mental escape from stressful real-life situations.
This explains why the intense romantic fantasies we create in our minds feel so good. When we imagine the “happily ever after” playing out, it can whisk us away from a painful, harsh reality—that this happy ending will probably never happen. And, on a more basic level, these imaginings can distract and elevate us from the mundanity of real life.
Why Love Fantasies Feel So Good
Dr. Clair Burley from the Birchwood Centre for Relationship Therapy, explains that the same chemical process described by Dr. Lazarus leads to the addictive phenomenon of the ongoing unrequited love fantasy.
“The love hormone and the reward hormone dopamine will be the hormones that play when we’re falling in love,” she explains.
“Our body doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined,” she says, “and so those hormones will be released even when we’re playing things through in our imagination.” So, even when we’re falling in love in our minds, our bodies are tricked into thinking it’s “real.”
And as relationship expert Cheryl Muir explains, this “real” physical reaction mixed with our extravagant fantasies can lead to an illusion of some greater meaning:
“When we’re in a dating fantasy,” she says, “we can add in whatever we want and we’re not bound by reality or limitations or other people’s free will.” In other words, the worlds we create in our minds have no limitations, so we can create a love story of truly epic proportions.
Using Fantasy as a Love Barometer
Of course, in the short term, this ability to escape what may be a disappointing reality may feel wonderful and even deeply meaningful. In the long run, however, it stops having benefits.
Cheryl Muir explains that fantasising about a potential partner frequently happens because “it’s a safe way to explore something we really want.” However, when we sink too far into our dream world, it can become dangerous. “In its most extreme cases,” she says, “this is diagnosable as Maladaptive Daydreaming,” she says.
In moderation, Cheryl explains, these thought patterns can have some concrete benefits on our future relationships. “There are clues within the fantasy that help us build a picture of what we actually desire and need,” she says. Rather than becoming too swept up in the dream world, she recommends “picking up on the themes and patterns in these recurring dating fantasies.”
As Dr. Burley puts it, “If our imagination is about the types of values or qualities we would look for in a partner, that could be positive in terms of getting to know ourselves, what we’re looking for, what kind of relationships we’d like, and then using this as a barometer when we’re looking for a partner.”
I also spoke to Julie Krafchick and Yue Xu, co-hosts of the Dateable podcast about whether they thought the fantasy-building of unrequited love is ever actually a good thing.
Both Julie and Yue have had their own experiences of unrequited love. In both cases, they describe the difficulty of pulling themselves out of the depths of their personal fantasies.
As Yue says, “I paused my life for two years trying to chase this love that wasn’t real.”
While Yue is clear that she’d never want to go back to the painful experience, she can see why fantasising about love might be the sign of a healthy imagination. “I think those are all good qualities,” she explains, “to be able to express your emotions and be excited about the future.”
I asked Yue if she ever felt nostalgic for the excitement of her unrequited love fantasy. She admitted that there had been some positives, but after coming out the other end, she was ready for a more stable relationship.
When she found a partner who reciprocated her feelings, she also found peace. “It felt so refreshing to me,” she says. “I deserve someone who says the same things back to me, who takes initiative, who is reliable, who loves me for who I am. I cannot believe I thought that other thing was love.”
Julie is also glad she went through a period of unrequited love. “It taught me what I’ll never stand for again,” she says. She makes a good point—while it can feel wonderful in the moment, living in a fantasy dominated by another person means allowing yourself to knowingly put your own happiness on hold indefinitely.
So, why do we do it? Yue’s theory is that young creative people are especially drawn to these grand, fantastical unrequited love affairs. “A lot of times creative people get caught in the fantasy, and I think that’s why these are attractive relationships sometimes,” she says.
According to Yue and Julie, this fantastical kind of love may be a sort of right of passage that teaches us about our capacity to love along with what kind of emotional balance we need from a real relationship.
Anyone who has found themselves in the throws of unrequited love will probably attest that the experience brought both pain and pleasure—highs of diving headfirst into the fantasy and lows as this fantasy came crashing down. Looking back, I do feel a twinge of nostalgia for my grand, sweeping emotions that made me feel uniquely important in my everyday life.
Nevertheless, while the imagination can sometimes be used as a therapeutic escape, it’s not worth reminiscing too fondly on your heady, youthful unrequited love affairs—especially if it means you are restricting yourself from real relationships.
My experience of love now is perhaps a little less exciting now, but like Yue and Julie, I would certainly not want to go back. Yes, unrequited love can feel pretty wonderful in the moment. And yes, it can help to teach you about what you need from your real relationships. And, of course, it can even burst open your emotional capacity for love like nothing else can. But in the end, it is, after all, a fantasy.