We’re all experts on lovesickness: A study of heartbreak, unrequited love, and general unhappiness

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By Zoë Crabtree

I’m tired of being lovesick

I’ve been lovesick now for three years, actually longer than that. I first told him I loved him on Valentine’s Day our junior year of high school. I remember being terrified and embarrassed. I kept opening my mouth and then shutting it again, silently. When we both left for college, 3,000 miles apart, our plan was to just not communicate. If we just stopped, then we wouldn’t have to experience the slow fading of interest that would hurt more. I’m not sure I could have handled more pain than I felt as he drove away from my house for the last time. Instead of calling him, I would call my friend, Jeff, and have him tell me bedtime stories in my dorm room. Christmas break, I saw him unexpectedly and my heart sank. Seeing me crumpling inside, Jeff made sure he rode down to the movies in a different car, so I wouldn’t have to talk to him. That spring, my mantra became: “I don’t care about him anymore,” but when I saw him over the summer, my convictions melted.

I dated someone else for a few weeks the next fall, thinking I was over him, only to find myself making subconscious comparisons. I still talked about him all the time. We repeated our heartbreak winter and summer of love for a second year. Now that I’m abroad, I haven’t spoken to him for a few months, and even writing this right now I’m starting to choke back tears. It’s been three years since our relationship officially ended, a full 150% longer than the relationship lasted. I tell myself that my continued lovesickness is ok, but I don’t really believe myself. His absence shouldn’t be able to make me feel so alone after this long. Sometimes when I’m incredibly happy, I find myself wishing I could share it with him, and the happiness shifts to a deep sorrow.

Methodology: We’re all experts on lovesickness

Frustrated by my own lovesickness, I was curious about how I came to understand the phenomenon. Why did I feel the way I felt? At first, I turned to the literature, but I found it hard to identify with Oomen and Gianotten’s exploration of the medical history in their article ‘Lovesickness: In search of a discarded disease’ (Oomen & Gianotten 2008). Fabio Bacchini’s analogical approach in ‘Love as sickness: The analogy put to the test’ was more relatable, but still lacked concrete experiences (Bacchini 2008). I decided then that I would perform the ethnographic research for which I had been searching. I would consult the experts all around me: my peers. After all, who knows more about lovesickness than people who’ve experienced it for themselves? Following Clifford Geertz’s lead, I would condense my interviews into ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1973). By gathering accounts of a variety of descriptions and experiences of lovesickness, I hoped not only to fill the empirical gap in the existing literature, but also to gain perspective and garner some strategies for accepting my own personal lovesickness.

I conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with some of the women in my building as well as a few friends from home (I also reached out to several male friends of mine, but got no responses) – ten in total with participants ranging in age from 20-25. They were all so eager to share their experiences with me that I continued to interview more people even after I had gathered more than enough information to fill this short paper. I couldn’t bring myself to say no; maybe they needed to talk as much as I did. All of the participants’ names have been changed to protect their privacy.

I wanted to know what my respondents thought about lovesickness. My friends and I talk about love and relationships all the time, but what exactly do we mean when we say we’re lovesick? Do we think about it as a physical sickness? When does it happen? What causes it? What does lovesickness look like and feel like? What are some of the symptoms? Finally, how do we feel about our feelings of lovesickness?

‘This repetitive rant is lovesickness’: Exploring the term

The first question in each interview pertained to the definition of lovesickness. I wanted to make sure that my respondent and I were clear on the term before we began discussing nuances. I was also extremely curious about how each would define it. A few of my respondents provided general definitions. Iris, for instance, defined lovesickness as when ‘you feel physically ill, but not for a medical reason – for a mental reason because of someone else’. In short, for something to be considered lovesickness it seemed to need to involve both romantic feelings and feeling ill or anxious or sad or any number of often negatively associated emotions.

For the most part, however, the respondents gave unique answers, directly related to their own personal experience with lovesickness. This preference for personal definition is perhaps best reflected in Elizabeth’s comment that ‘it’s not just the theme of a song or a shitty Nicholas sparks movie’. Clearly, she feels that the depictions of lovesickness in popular culture aren’t adequate; a true understanding requires personal experience.

The personal definitions ranged from unrequited lovesickness to break-up lovesickness to confusion-induced lovesickness. Erin, who has a habit of falling for some of her best friends defined it as ‘when you’re feeling so shitty about unrequited love or affection for someone else that it starts affecting you in other areas’. Malorie instead defined lovesickness through her experience with a breakup, describing it as ‘a broken heart… you have lovesickness because somebody hurt you… you got smashed in a relationship’. Elizabeth, having suffered horrible physical symptoms in the course of a relationship, identified more with the sickness part of lovesickness and correspondingly referred to it as a ‘deep physical reaction to a deep emotional feeling’. Courtney, who at the time of our interview was dealing with a confusing long- distance connection, commented ‘I think just this repetitive rant is lovesickness, because it’s something I go over in my mind every day’. Violet invoked an addiction metaphor, describing lovesickness as ‘something that’s inside you that is making you sick and you want to purge it, but you also can’t live without it’. The impulse to define lovesickness through the lens of personal experience was so strong, I suspect that had my interviewees not themselves been lovesick, they would have tried to relate through friends’ experiences.

Several causes of lovesickness were suggested, but each was a variation on one of two problems: ambiguity and betrayal. Courtney cited the ‘lack of commitment’ in her long-distance ‘are-they-aren’t-they’ relationship as the source of her lovesickness. Elizabeth also attributed her lovesickness to ambiguity, saying that her symptoms subsided shortly after her confusing relationship did. Feeling betrayed as a result of being broken up with or cheated on was also often named as a source of lovesickness.

Perhaps the most surprising part of my research was the ambivalence with which many of my respondents regarded lovesickness. Contrary to cultural norms, they didn’t take for granted that being lovesick was a bad thing. Malorie questioned the negative discourse around lovesickness when she proffered, ‘the first thing is to associate lovesickness with a bad thing, but is it also a good thing?’ Violet approached the question from the perspective that love and lovesickness can’t be considered separate from each other: ‘I find it hard to distinguish the difference between love and lovesickness because I feel like love, being in love, maybe is inherently being sick… does lovesickness have to be something negative?’ Trying to explain more thoroughly, Violet added that lovesickness ‘feels like an open wound, but I appreciate having that feeling… it was ecstasy, but on a different side’. Lovesickness is feeling alive, which Violet argued is better than nothing.

“I don’t know what to do with my face” and other symptoms of lovesickness

So, we’re lovesick. But what does that mean? How do we act when we’re lovesick? Do we actually get sick? To take the metaphor seriously, what are the symptoms of lovesickness? During my interview with Violet, a past love interest of mine, my palms were sweating, my eyes wouldn’t focus, and my lips kept quivering. Just seeing her smile again after a year of being away, I was immediately reminded of how high I had gotten off her presence and how devastated I could be in her absence. When she asked, I admitted that I didn’t know what to do with my face. That’s one example of a physical reaction to lovesickness; my respondents offered up many more. Violet described almost exactly the symptoms I felt while talking to her: ‘heart palpitations…you get like sweaty, your heart starts beating really fast’. Iris compared it to the flu, saying it was like ‘a mix of nerves and nausea’. Malorie said it was like being ‘empty inside and all your organs hurt’. Erin described her symptoms as emotional extremes: ‘feeling nauseous, no concentration, crying all the time when I was feeling down; when I was feeling up… I was really happy, so happy’. Elizabeth was affected perhaps the most severely physically, listing symptoms that included, ‘nausea… throwing up bile and phlegm… not having an appetite, not being able to sleep, not being able to concentrate on my homework and school, lack of energy’.

An army of non-corporeal symptoms accompanied the myriad physical ones. The most often cited symptom was depression, closely followed by anxiety. Malorie said her symptoms mostly included an unstable emotional disposition. She would feel, ‘depressed, very sad, mixed feelings… like I’m talking to [someone] and I’m in a good mood and after I’m finished talking, all my problems come back’. Courtney had to start going to therapy to talk through the feelings of depression and anxiety brought on by her relationship.

Violet cited fear as one of her major symptoms: ‘being afraid to talk to the person, or being afraid to communicate to the person, or being afraid to be intimate with the person even though you really like them’. Violet also went into great detail about the connections between lovesickness and obsessive fantasizing:

‘You obsessively critique yourself and also obsessively think about all of the interactions that you want to have with that person and fantasize about that like ‘Oh, we’re going to have this conversation; I’m going to say this and they’re going to say that and it’s going to be great and I’m going to laugh’…besides fantasies about what you wish would happen, also going through interactions that you already have had and changing them into what you wish you said as opposed to completely fictional fantasies…thinking about mistakes that you’ve made with a person and trying to like rewrite it you know with all the things that you should have said…I think that makes people sick, those kinds of flashbacks make people sick… The ‘should-haves’ of life make people sick.’

One result of the obsessive behavior Violet described is, as Courtney put it, ‘just bringing them up in every conversation ever’. She also cited one of Erin’s symptoms that fits in this category as well: ‘not really being able to be present when I was with anyone else’.

Are we guilty in love(sickness)?

Because of my own feelings of guilt around my lengthy experience of lovesickness – why can’t I just be over him already? – I was particularly interested in how my respondents felt about their feelings of lovesickness. Did they feel that their feelings were justified?

At first, I expected my respondents to share my feelings of embarrassment. Their behavior in our interviews certainly suggested to me they weren’t entirely comfortable with their feelings of lovesickness, or at least with discussing them. Despite the readiness with which they volunteered their time, my respondents seemed uneasy about the whole process. They laughed nervously at some of my questions and shifted around in their seats a lot, rarely making eye contact. Most referred to their past love interests as ‘that person’ or used a pronoun. One woman consistently used they/them pronouns despite their love interest’s male identification. She speculated that it was because she wanted to distance herself from him. This signaled to me that even though many of my respondents said they felt no guilt about having experienced lovesickness, the subject and perhaps the feelings themselves remained to some extent taboo.

Contrary to my first impressions, however, many of my participants declared that being lovesick was nothing of which to be ashamed. The difference seemed to stem from the cause of the lovesickness. For the most part, those who had been broken up with felt perfectly justified in their feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and anger, often using the word ‘normal’ to describe the process. Malorie was adamant that she felt valid in her lovesickness: ‘you keep asking yourself if you could have done something better or is it because of you, but, no, definitely not guilty or ashamed’. She explained that there’s a difference between the giving and receiving ends of a break-up: ‘if you end a relationship… it’s easier, but when you get the punch in the face and you thought everything worked ok from your point of view… then it’s normal to feel [lovesick] afterwards’. Whereas lovesickness after getting dumped has become normalized, perhaps lovesickness for the initiator of the break-up remains socially stigmatized.

More than one respondent said that the length of time to get over a breakup would be different from person to person and that that was entirely acceptable. Nevertheless, the longer the respondents’ own lovesickness had lasted, the more likely they were to sound embarrassed when divulging that information. Naomi wanted her feelings of lovesickness to end out of spite for her ex-boyfriend, who she was angry at for breaking up with her over MSN chat. She said, ‘I just realized I was still feeling sad and I felt guilty because I was like “this guy doesn’t deserve that”’. Elizabeth, on the other hand, asserted that she was shame-free after the break-up, but that during the relationship, her significant other’s ‘aloof demeanor’ towards her attempts to reach out to him caused her to feel ashamed.

Those who experienced unrequited love tended to feel much more ashamed of their feelings than those who had been broken up with, calling themselves and their behavior ‘stupid’. Iris, who had a crush on one of her best friends in high school, felt like her feelings were invalidated because there was no official romantic relationship. She said, ‘I did not feel justified in my feelings because I knew it was not like a serious thing and I knew that we weren’t really together at all. Like I shouldn’t be feeling this’. Erin experienced similar feelings of lovesickness for one of her close friends. At first, Erin explained away her feelings of guilt by saying, ‘I’m not a super emotionally stable person so I feel like it was an understandable reaction for me’. However, later in our conversation, she admitted that, ‘I think I felt guilty about my feelings a lot’. From these cases, it is clear that there is a strong cultural norm against falling in unrequited love with a friend.

Others in more complicated situations (where for instance both people liked each other and were aware of that fact, but somehow continued to bungle everything) had mixed-feelings about their lovesickness. My own experience with one such situation left me feeling stupid, naïve, and manipulated all the time – even more so for continuing to invest my energy into a non-relationship that never seemed reciprocated. When I interviewed Violet, the girl with whom I shared this experience, however, she didn’t share my feelings of guilt. She apologized for causing mine with her lack of reciprocation, saying: ‘There are things where you feel guilty about thinking, but mostly I feel guilty about doing… even if my actions come from valid feelings’. Violet also shared her strategy for avoiding feeling guilty about her feelings: ‘If you have a mantra… where you’re like “Everything I feel is great. Everything I feel is fine. No one can judge what I’m feeling,” then eventually you’re actually going to feel that in real life’.

Final thoughts on lovesickness

Lovesickness turned out to be a perfect topic for interview-based empirical research. It is a concept different from many others in that, despite the amount of popular media made about it, it continues to be primarily understood at a personal level. People define it for themselves, perhaps as a strategy for validating their own experiences. For instance, I’m still conflicted. I’m trying to accept that lovesickness can be just another part of life; it’s happening and there’s no point in vilifying or exulting it.

In this paper, I amalgamated a lot of information about the experience of lovesickness and its symptoms. There still is a need, however, for a lot of research to be done on healing lovesickness (if it turns out we want to), on the connection between healing and closure, and on attitudes towards falling in love given the risk of lovesickness.

Epilogue

Since I wrote this paper in May, I’ve learned more of what I previously could only intellectually grasp about love, but couldn’t fully believe. I’m more convinced now than ever that our personal experiences completely shape how we understand love broadly and lovesickness in particular. I knew at the end of last semester that I was still lovesick and that it couldn’t possibly last forever. I also knew that it felt as if it would. It continued to feel that way even as the summer began and I saw my ex again unexpectedly. It felt that way also when in a vulnerable moment after watching Say Anything, I called him to talk and ended up crying on the phone late into the night feeling helpless and distraught.

As much as I hate to admit it, the reason I no longer feel hopeless when it comes to love is that I met someone. I’d had crushes and been on dates and made out with various other people since my ex, but ultimately I’d still felt connected to him because I’d never really felt anything much for the others. These past few weeks, I’ve been on a few dates with a new person, though, and even though it’s still really new, I feel a connection. There are two final thoughts I’d like to leave you with. First, I have to conclude that for me (as well as many of my interviewees) lovesickness ends when those feelings of affection can be directed towards another person. I don’t think that means that it’s impossible to be happy when you’re single, however. Only that if you don’t have closure and haven’t learned for yourself that love can be an experience had many times, it helps to move on with another person’s help. Finally, this new potential relationship I’m experiencing now isn’t significant in and of itself. Who knows if anything long term will come of it. The reason it’s worth mentioning in this context is that I’ve confirmed now for myself that I will be able to fall in love again, which is something I was afraid would never happen.

(Written for Dance me to the end of love: The epistemology of romance)

Zoë Crabtree is a student at Mount Holyoke College, interested in gender studies, queer theory, performance studies, and questioning traditional sources of knowledge production. Connect with Zoë on LinkedIn.

References

Bacchini, Fabio (2008). Love as sickness: The analogy put to the test. Medische Anthropologie, 20(1): 13-26.

Geertz, Clifford (1973). Thick description: Towards an interpretive theory of culture. In: The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Oomen, Janus & Woet L. Gianotten (2008). Lovesickness: In search of a discarded disease. Medische Anthropologie, 20(1): 69-86.

Cover illustration: Banksy

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