The year I turned 30, I felt deeply lost in every aspect of my life. I wasn’t sure where my career was going. As my friends were cozying into marriages and parenthood, I was roller-coastering through ill-fated relationships. In the wake of a particularly explosive breakup, I ran into an acquaintance I’d always found attractive. He had an out-of-town girlfriend. We spent a lot of time together. We confessed our feelings for each other. I waited for him to leave his girlfriend. And waited. Then I couldn’t wait anymore. I chased him, hard. I left long, pleading messages on his voice mail, trailed him unseen, banged on his door, and spent too many hours in a dark, brooding obsession. I was the Unwanted Woman, and it made me utterly unrecognizable to myself.
The experience was so disturbing, so life changing, that I wrote a book about it 16 years later: Unrequited: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession. It unpacks the state of mind and the marginalized status of the Unwanted Woman, that most derided of figures. Even as we’ve become enlightened by feminism—especially because we’ve become enlightened by feminism—there’s something particularly unsettling about a woman who chases men. They usurp the male prerogative of sexual pursuit. They throw everything overboard in the name of love. Why?
You’d think a sitcom with over-the-top original musical numbers about sadistic yoga classes, and shtick about anal waxing before a date might be the last place to find answers. But you’d be surprised how much there is to learn from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (season finale, Monday, April 18), the hilarious, deceptively deep CW sitcom that earned a Golden Globe for its star, Rachel Bloom, who portrays Rebecca, a hard-driving, Ivy League–educated attorney who flees her promising law career in New York City to pursue an old ex-boyfriend, Josh—whom she’d met in summer camp—now living in a bland California suburb.
Though it would seem I’ve described a rather tiresome and misogynist template, the Unwanted Woman as butt of the joke (see Rose in Two and a Half Men; Nikki in BET’s The Parkers; the needy Millennial in the Virgin Mobile commercial), there’s more to Rebecca’s antics. Yes, we may be laughing as she shoves a raw chicken down her disposal so she can call Josh to solve her plumbing emergency—but Rebecca’s story illuminates the real-life psychological landscape of romantic obsession.
I should say, romantic obsession and relationship pursuit are not experiences exclusive to women. Nor are women any more likely to get hung up over unrequited love. Research by Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister and colleagues reveals that more than 90 percent of people have had an experience of deeply loving someone who didn’t love them back. And when it comes to doing something about it, a 2005 study of undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh shows that almost all women and men use what psychologist call repeated “approach behaviors”—sending messages, doing favors, starting conversations, asking for dates—when they’re trying to get someone interested or trying to win back a partner after a relationship ends. “There are expectations that women are the passive recipients of male courtship behaviors, but the stereotypes don’t hold up,” said study co-author Stacey L. Williams, a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University.
When the behavior gets more intense, there’s some variation in which tactics are used by men and by women. A study of unwanted relationship pursuit by communication researchers Brian Spitzberg and William Cupach shows, for example, that women are more likely to follow their targets around and invade their personal space, while men are more likely to send unwanted gifts and messages. In the big picture, the takeaway is that “soft stalking”—doing those crazy ex things— is common for both sexes. About half of the college students Cupach and Spitzberg surveyed did it in some form.
The biggest difference, it seems, is in how male and female pursuers are perceived. A show called “crazy ex-boyfriend,” for instance, would be a much harder sell: The idea evokes something more menacing, while the idea of a crazy ex-girlfriend is more of a caricature. The reality, as Rebecca insists, “is a lot more nuanced than that.”
Rebecca’s origin story lends some insight, which we see through a heartrending flashback to her 12th birthday party—at which only three of her classmates attend. In another room, her friends can hear Rebecca’s parents scream at each other. Mortified by the spectacle, she tries to cover up for them, explaining to her guests that her parents are actors rehearsing a play. But the jig is up when her father, with one last, longing glance at his precocious daughter, leaves the apartment, presumably for good. After the door slams, she pleads with her friends not to tell anyone at school.
Seen in this light, we recognize her obsession with Josh as a kind of transference—she’s redirecting feelings about her father’s abandonment onto another relationship. Which is to say, her longing for her unavailable father is heaped on Josh’s broad, unavailable shoulders. This kind of attraction comes from “a desperate hope that person will repair that rupture inside you,” explained Suzanne Lachmann, a New York–based clinical psychologist. She said that wanting someone who can’t return the feeling is a sign that you “don’t feel deserving of reciprocity and haven’t learned to want more.”
Rebecca also reveals insecurities about her relationship with her overly critical mother.
With this kind of family of origin, the adult Rebecca shows every sign of what psychologists call an “anxious attachment style,” characterized by neediness, high expectations of love, and difficulty making relationships last. Not only are people with an anxious attachment style more likely to fall in unrequited love, they’re also more likely to do something about it. A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships shows a majority (58 percent) of people who conducted “unwanted relationship pursuit”—in other words, soft stalkers—were classified as anxiously attached. “They place a lot of importance on relationships and place their identity on them,” said Leila B. Dutton, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven who co-authored the study.
But Rebecca’s feelings for Josh aren’t entirely one-sided. He’s clearly fond of her as a friend and tells her with his boyish, naïve warmth how glad he is that she’s moved to West Covina. He even admits that he’s “really, really attracted to her,” but is committed to his girlfriend. These signs of hope are the fuel of romantic obsession. As Baumeister describes it, the aspiring lover essentially operates on a confirmation bias, seizing upon any indication of possibility and disregarding or minimizing the negative signs.
The neurochemistry of love makes the impact of this tendency even more powerful. Brain scan research by prominent biological anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues indicates that passionate love functions much like addiction, activating areas of the brain associated with intense craving. Occasional hits of attention, even from someone who’s ultimately unavailable or unwilling, have incredible power, keeping you motivated to channel your energies toward getting that next fix.
My own stint with romantic obsession, now 17 years ago was, for a time, pretty ruinous. I couldn’t eat, and I could barely function at work. I thought of my unrequited love all the time. I sought his love in a way that demeaned myself and disrupted his life. It would have been easy for me to conclude that there was nothing good whatsoever about being the unwanted woman. But as I reflected on my own experience and researched my book, I realized that this wasn’t the case.
Unrequited love is, fundamentally, an act of imagination. The beloved comes to represent something beyond oneself. It’s what Cupach and Spitzberg call “goal linking.” The goal of a relationship with someone is a “lower-order goal,” meaning that you should eventually be able to substitute someone else to fulfill the same goal. Higher-order goals, like happiness, are more important and not substitutable. Lower-order goals can help us reach the higher goals. In unrequited obsession, the lower order goal of getting a particular person becomes psychologically inextricable from higher order goals. The beloved comes to represent something crucial to the pursuer’s life, so winning him or her feels urgent and non-negotiable. That person seems like the last potential partner on earth, and the situation can feel very dire.
But if you can gain even a modicum of perspective on what’s going on, the pressure of romantic obsession creates an opportunity. It’s a chance to take stock of yourself and ask: Why do I want this person so much? What am I really chasing?
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend raises these very questions—and shows how they play out. Josh’s large, close-knit Filipino-American family, whom Rebecca charms and adores, is clearly the ultimate antidote to her upbringing with an emotionally stingy single mother. And there’s the riveting moment when Josh’s girlfriend corners her and demands to know why she really moved to West Covina. Rebecca can’t bring herself to admit she’s there for Josh. But she can reveal this much: She had been horribly depressed in New York. Then she ran into Josh, who kept using the word “happy” when he described West Covina, the hometown he was about to return to. “I had to be where the happiness was,” she said.
Rebecca may never win Josh (I’d frankly be crushed if she does). But her higher order goals—love, community, family support, a life that’s not too narrowly ambitious to allow for her eccentricities—may very well be in reach. In this way, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend extends the prospect of redemption to any unwanted woman who’s lost her marbles over a romantic disappointment. The problem, Rebecca’s journey demonstrates, isn’t in yearning for a better life. It’s in the delusion that we can only satisfy that yearning with the object of our obsession.