Have you ever been in a situation where you’re into someone but they’re not into you? What about when someone likes you but you have no romantic interest in them? It kinda happens a lot, right? Or at least, until marriage, unreciprocated love happens more frequently than mutual love does.
It’s a good thing, then, that there are so many resources to help us navigate these scenarios, isn’t it? What’s that you say? You can only find books and DVDs and conferences on dating and marriage? You’ve never heard anyone talk about how to show Christ’s love to someone who is carrying a torch for you but doesn’t stand a chance?
The Ethics of Unrequited Love
Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love isn’t your typical book on singles and romance. Right away, the subtitle lets you know this book is special because while there are countless books on mutual love and our moral responsibilities as Christian lovers, hardly anyone writes about our responsibility toward virtue when feelings aren’t mutual.
Loves Me, Loves Me Not helps us learn how to behave virtuously in loving someone who doesn’t return our romantic affection. How to show Christ’s love toward someone who cares romantically for us, when we desire only friendship for him or her. Smit encourages her readers to consider true Christian charity in these situations and whether or not charity—or we might use the word agape—supports or rejects society’s scripts for such roles.
Whether we realize it or not, our society has our lines and stage directions all laid out. From books and movies and music alike, we know how to behave if we find our love rejected. We will hold on to our rejected love by continuing to pursue until resignation is absolutely necessary; in which case, we resign to martyrdom upon the cross of love, sometimes in a gallon of ice cream and sappy movies, sometimes quite literally, leaving our legacy behind on the suicide note. Or, we simply move on. It is their loss, and undoubtedly there is someone out there who is more deserving of our affection.
Certainly both scenarios can be true. Sometimes we ought to continue to pursue and not give up too quickly; sometimes our love is misplaced upon someone undeserving and we must recognize the fact and move on. But motives matter. That is Smit’s point.
How do we counter our deeply ingrained selfish patterns and social scripts when we love someone who doesn’t love us back? I’m not going to give away the whole book; I’m hoping you’ll pick up your own copy. But here’s the bottom line: We must resist our desire to possess the other person. Now, that sounds creepy in the restraining order kind of way; and you’re thinking, I don’t do that. But you do. We all do it.
We do it when we create a whole imaginary life with our crush—where we will go on dates, how we will sit together in church, how he will kiss me hello, how she will react to my romantic gesture. We get possessive of our crush when we allow our hurt and jealousy to surpass our charity (love) toward him or her. Because if we didn’t think he and his affections were (or ought to be) ours, we wouldn’t be consumed by jealousy that, in reality, he’s interested in someone else. If we truly values her as a person rather than desire to have her as something that will meet our needs, we will honor, value, even celebrate her freedom, her free will as a person made in God’s image. They’re a person, not an object; and as a person they are free to be interested in whomever they choose.
Not that it is a sin to feel pangs of jealousy; we can’t help that. But to dwell on them, to let them govern our actions and seep into our hearts like tar in a bucket of robin egg blue paint: that is sin, a tragedy and a marring of love and its creative impulse in the world.
What about when someone loves us and we don’t return their romantic feelings? It’s easy to simply ignore that person. Don’t return his calls. Pretend you didn’t see her. Flirt with someone else right in front of her. Tell him you have to wash your hair. It’s much more difficult to behave in Christian love toward that person, considering him or her to be better than yourself.
One reason this path is more difficult, is it can make you all the more attractive and hard to get over. So it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re doing the other person a favor by being a jerk. It’s easier to just disappear and leave her wondering what went wrong. By trying to be nice, we think we can avoid hurting his feelings, but by failing to be direct and clear we fail to be kind. We tell ourselves we don’t want to hurt him, and we don’t, but the deeper truth is, we don’t want to be uncomfortable, don’t want to be perceived as “not nice,” don’t want to do the hard thing.
Sometimes it is appropriate and necessary and loving to give the other person her space or to stop returning his phone calls. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes I wish God designed our relationships to be governed by clear-cut, black and white formulas: do this, get this result… always. But he didn’t. God designed our relationships to be governed by faith.
And so, we have to work hard to live counter-cultural lives, acting according to God’s script; and Smit’s exhortation to consider what motivates our behavior is key. Are we responding lovingly or selfishly? And while motives can’t always be neatly separated or distinguished in such a clear-cut way, God always honors the search.
Smit frames this Christian ethic for unrequited love within a “Theology of Romance” that details God’s nature as love, God’s creational designs, sin’s effect on those designs, and finally, virtuous and vicious romance: how sin distorts God’s intentions for love and how we can live virtuously by reshaping our romantic lives through Christ to God’s creational design. Smit centers her theology of romance on New Testament teachings on marriage, family, and singleness that many Christians, myself included, have successfully avoided.
Tune in next Tuesday to find out what those passages are, and how we can honor the Bible better in our lives regarding them.