Why We Need to Love the Ones Who Reject Us (and Why Romantic Love is Not the Best Love)

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“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ― Rumi

There’s a song called “Give You Hell” by the All-American Rejects. It was at the top of the charts in 2008, and you probably remember it. It’s basically about how some girl is an idiot for leaving the singer because he’s rich and famous and on the radio now or whatever. He hopes it “gives her hell” for the rest of her life. Now this theme of “rejection revenge” isn’t particularly novel in popular music, but that song always just rubbed me the wrong way. Why should we wish hell on anyone just because they don’t want to be with us? Every time I hear that song, I think “that guy sounds like a total jerk, no wonder she left him.” Yet, we’ve all been victims of that mindset. We have all felt entitled to other people’s feelings, and we have all felt anger when they weren’t given.

I spent most of my 20s trying way too hard to convince men who weren’t that into me that they were totally missing out.

Yet the times in my life I was most incensed about rejection were also the times I had the least amount to actually give to a relationship. They were periods where I was a mess, frankly. Did my inability to accept a man’s lack of interest have anything to do with love? No. it had everything to do with my ego, my insecurities, and the fear of what their rejection would force me to accept about myself.  How easily fear translates into anger. If our first impulse is for the person we love to suffer or be punished by the universe for not reciprocating, we are not ready to love. 

We will all be rejected by people who are, in fact, totally better off without us. Their lives will go on just fine, and they will not pine for us or regret their decision. It doesn’t mean these people were bad or stupid or narcissisitic. The truly toxic people were doing us a favor with their rejection, and the regular people were simply exhibiting basic agency. Love is not a prison; agency is the foundation of love. We expect those who love us to give us agency. We desire for them to support our choices, to allow us to be true to ourselves, to make decisions in our own best interest. So why are we unable to accept this from other people when we claim to love them?

When we meet rejection with anger, all we are saying is that we believe we are inherently better, that they owe us prostration and gratitude. You cannot truly love someone you believe is so beneath you that your love puts them in debt.

And then what about the love that anger throws away?

People throw so much love away because it doesn’t look like the kind of love they want in the moment.

Romantic love is not the end-all-be-all of human love. In my opinion, it’s not even the best kind. The best kind is the love that sees another person’s soul, not just what they can do for us. Don’t get me wrong, a romantic relationship can have both parts, but when we truly love someone’s soul, we don’t walk away from them when they disappoint us or fail to meet our expectations. And we certainly don’t get angry, villianize them or wish for them to be unhappy. Romantic desire is not love. It’s simply a thing that attaches itself to love sometimes, and, too often, exists in a vacuum that makes us myopically selfish. When we don’t learn the difference, we hurt ourselves and we waste the potential in others.

One of my best friends in the entire world is a man who once rejected me romantically. At the time (this was many years ago), I was coming off the worst break up of my life, so his rejection was exacerbated by the insecurity and pain I was already feeling. I was hurt, I was angry. We didn’t speak for a long time. A couple years went by, and we became friends again, then roommates, then I fell madly in love with him. Only this time, the mad love was real, and it wasn’t romantic. Now, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine my life without that person’s friendship. I find it really sad that I almost discarded them entirely because they were unable to meet my need for romantic attention in one very isolated moment in my life. How much value lies in the people who reject us who we in turn reject?

I don’t really know what I think about past lives, but I’ve always liked that idea that someone who is our brother, sister, best friend, parent in one life might have been our husband or wife in another. I believe in that idea of love as a thread that runs through relationships, existing outside of the social roles and labels we assign. Romantic relationships are fundamentally about timing and circumstance as much as they are love. Relationships fail more often than people. Just because something doesn’t work out doesn’t mean the person was bad, or that love was absent. Romantic relationships themselves are a delicate recipe, and even if the ingredients are right, the ratios have to be perfect for the final product to turn out well. Our potential to love someone does not guarantee a successful romantic relationship. So then why take an all or nothing approach and discard people simply because they don’t fit our current whim?

When I was 19, I dated a guy named Sean. Sean was 26. I was relatively mature at 19, but there is a lot of life and growth between 19 and 26 that shapes you. We liked each other a lot, but we were in dramatically different places with our development, our desires, our priorities and our life path. I remember seeing him years later when I was the same age he was during our relationship. We went out with some old friends to have drinks. Late in the night, he looked at me and said, without a hint of condescension, “It’s amazing. You’re a woman now.” 

I knew what he was saying: we had not been on equal ground when we dated, but we were now. The dynamic was different. We were able to meet each other all over again, as different people. The connection that had attracted us to each other was still there–just without the attraction. The irony is that meeting each other over again made us enjoy and respect each other more, but also highlighted our fundamental romantic incompatibilities. The relationship we had when I was 19 would have never happened had we met when I was 26. I realized that the affection and respect two people can have for one another is much more enduring and stable than the desire to date or sleep with one another. In the end, romantic desire is not the ultimate compliment or validation. And it is not the only expression of love or value.

So what does make a successful romantic relationship? In my opinion, it’s simply willingness.

You will meet many people throughout your life with whom you could have a quality romantic relationship. The successfulness of that relationship is determined by mutual willingness. I have had flings with men with whom I could imagine a future. But to those men, at least in that moment, I was a 3 a.m., wine-fueled flurry of body parts. I wanted to show up for them, but they were not ready to show up for me. And that’s all a relationship is. Showing up.

Not everyone will be ready or willing to show up for you in the way you want, in the timing that you want. But if you feel deeply for that person, if you want them badly, ask yourself why. So many people accept their romantic feelings without actually exploring the fundamental values and motivations behind them. What is it about that person that is unique, worthwhile, important to you? Do you truly need a romantic relationship with that person to enjoy and appreciate and gain value from them?

It’s no secret that self-love is a foundation of healthy relationships. But another major component is a willingness to accept that your partner has the absolute right to not be with you. No good relationship stems from a person being with someone because of money, status, boredom or guilt. To be ready for romantic love, we must be ready to love, period. And if we cannot embrace love that does not always choose us and serve us selfishly, we are not truly loving anyone, not even ourselves.

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