By Drea Aron-Schiavone
“How do you stay friends with someone after you tell them that you love them, but they don’t love you back?” I typed. “How do you move on after honesty changes a friendship?” “What is ‘moving on,’ anyways?” Not even supposedly omniscient Google could help me.
Impatient with my overly sensitive self’s inability to “just move on already,” I naively searched for some straightforward “how-to” guide for coping with the end of a romantic relationship that existed only in my hopes. In the months since we both graduated last year, I developed big feelings for a college friend who no longer lived just a 10-minute, cross-campus walk away–a new distance I strove to bridge through emotional closeness: miles of “thinking of you” texts, letters, care packages. In his phone calls I treasured, we dwelled in nostalgia for our four-year home. We shared favorite writers, what moved us and made us cry. He was one of the first friends I told about my mom’s cancer. Even after an awful day at work, he still called to congratulate me on my new teaching job while he shopped in Walmart, kindly reassuring and encouraging me while he paused to smell air fresheners, give directions to a stranger, express sympathy over a melting-down child. He earnestly told me I was “full of love and grace.” I texted him photos of my students’ art and reminders of his strength and goodness when he questioned himself. He called on my birthday, telling me he “cared about me a lot.” As we opened ourselves into each other, my feelings deepened. I grew to love him.
After intense deliberation and seven months of nurturing this closeness, I finally decided to tell him. I was compelled by what a kindred spirit friend calls a “heart-on-sleeve living spree:” a vulnerability-driven spree in which we both actively partake. I felt insincere, implicitly saying “I love you” constantly, without ever actually speaking those words. To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, Cheryl Strayed: withholding something had created a force field all its own. I heavily weighed the risk of our friendship fading into awkward-induced oblivion. But I could only mentally transcribe so many conversations, crowd my mind with so many wishful imaginings, overanalyze so much gentle praise before feeling completely exhausted, distracted, and anxious.
I wrote him a five-page letter, detailing many (many) qualities I admired in him. I assured him that I didn’t want him to feel pressured to reciprocate, or guilty if he didn’t. I told him I was scared of losing him as a dear friend. Dropping the letter in my mailbox, I realized with both relief and fear the symbolic weight of this light envelope: it could change the dynamics of our relationship, for better or worse.
A few days later, I received an optimistically cryptic text saying that he would love to talk on the phone. The next day, we did–enduring nerve-wracking small talk as I paced around my front yard, pulling pine needles off trees, feeling like I would vomit. Finally, a break in conversation. His voice grew softer, more earnest. He thanked me for my vulnerability. He assured me that he greatly valued our friendship. He gently told me he couldn’t return my feelings.
Our words became cushioned between long pauses. We alternated between choruses of “I really don’t want to hurt you” and “I’ll be okay.” When we hung up, I initially felt relieved. The next morning, though, I was emotionally wrecked. I texted him (too soon) that maybe we shouldn’t communicate for a while. My care for him was not conditional on returning my love, but I needed time to process the loss of what I had spent months hoping for, before I could internalize this new reality.
One of my favorite poets, Sarah Kay, says she writes to work through something. So, I wrote—a lot. I filled many pages in what my sister and I semi-jokingly referred to as my “feelings book,” a journal I carried everywhere for about two weeks after The Phone Call. I felt so fragile for even needing to heal from this not-even-real-break-up, when people endure far worse every day. But I also tried to be gentle with myself, as this stream of consciousness processing helped unravel my tangled thoughts.
Serendipitously, my phone had just deleted all of my old texts due to a mysterious technical glitch–a huge blessing in disguise. While I often love re-reading favorite texts, I realized that dwelling in our past exchanges would not help me adjust to the new reality of our relationship.
I also deactivated my Facebook, turning offline to the support of my ever-patient sister and other dear friends. They listened to my rambling feelings, providing graceful advice and love for which I am deeply grateful. Ultimately, I needed time away to change how preoccupied I had become with projecting myself as someone I thought he could love. I had carefully curated my posts, his anticipated reaction never far from my mind. I anxiously awaited his “likes” or other friends’ public proclamations of love that would surely deepen his feelings for me. I had unhealthily relied on Facebook in dictating my worthiness of love.
In the wake of healing, I realized just how important it was to be self-compassionate. After writing his letter, I had written a love letter to myself, too, to open after hearing his feelings. I wrote as if trying to comfort my dearest friends: “I know you have invested a lot of time, energy, thought, and love into wishful thinking about sharing a future with someone you love. Know that you can still hope for that future. You have been imagining this caring, loving, nurturing man as having a specific face, but it doesn’t have to be that one.”
Maybe a large part of healing comes down to seeing potential again. While you acknowledge that moving forward inevitably holds challenges, you also see immense opportunity in renewed reaching and giving love outside of the confines of this one relationship. Another part of my letter to myself read: “you are still whole and there is still so much time to meet someone who is caring and nurturing and kind and loving who does love you. The unexpected, while it can be scary, can also be incredible. We don’t know what will happen and who we will meet.” People of all ages find love in all stages of life. While many friends our age may be in serious relationships, there is no universal timeline we must abide by; as long as you are alive, it is never “too late.”
A couple weeks later, I texted him that I was feeling better, and hoped we could still be friends. After no response, I reached out again, met by a nothingness which overflowed into the next few months, paradoxically generating endless overanalysis. Did I overwhelm him? (Probably). Was it too awkward to stay friends? (Possibly). Was he just seeking unplugged summer respite? (I hoped). But certainty never comes from silence. I struggled to embrace the ambiguity as best I could, and create that closure for myself.
I ultimately strove to hold my friend in empathy, and acknowledge the hard truth that, as Cheryl Strayed writes, “you can’t convince someone to love you…real love moves freely in both directions.” He never wanted to hurt me, and there were countless, uncontrollable factors potentially at play. Maybe those included the challenge of leaving one beloved home and striving to create another in a foreign space. Maybe the miles between us were too daunting. Maybe he just felt too guilty or uncomfortable remaining friends in the wake of my revealed feelings. I had to accept that while I may never know more fully which reasons prevented him from reaching out, I needed to trust in whatever they were.
Perhaps even tougher than accepting the unrequited love was coping with the apparent fading of a close friendship. I struggled facing silence from someone who I still cared about so deeply, whose connection had been integrated into my everyday life for many months. There were no more “thinking of you” texts, no calls, no sharing of ourselves–just past words lingering in my mind like shadows. Earlier, I approached “moving on” as a complex equation to solve by showing my work through countless, journaled pages that surely would culminate in some grand epiphany. But instead, gaining acceptance became a natural, gradual consequence of continuing to live wholly and invest my love and time in all else I cared about: trying to support and encourage my family, friends, students, and myself; bonding with my sister as we cooked dinners and drove countless miles together; guiding my students in creating their first paper mache masks; grocery shopping for my parents; celebrating milestones with beloved friends. I finally researched grad schools and applied to a new job. I made myself keep reaching.
I think moving on doesn’t always look like a complete reversal of feelings or vilifying someone (though in very toxic situations, that may be totally justified). Perhaps being at peace comes from acknowledging that someone can still be a good-hearted person without also being the right person for you, right now. You may not stop loving them, but grow to love them in a different, honest way. Similarly, as one of my insightful friends said recently: “it doesn’t mean that you stop having feelings for them or stop being hurt by their actions, but you just step back and realize your expectation of them did not align with reality. You are being hurt by the expectation you created.” You may cycle (and re-cycle) through feeling sad, frustrated, and at a loss before landing on compassion. Forgive yourself for momentary regressions, for not feeling as hopeful today as two weeks ago. You are trying.
For any kind of healthy relationship, two people must want to be in it. And no excess of wanting or love on one side can compensate for someone who can’t reciprocate the way you want them to, for whatever reason. You can keep yourself open to them, knowing circumstances can always change, but also, strive to make peace with the way stars have aligned now, even if you wished for different constellations. As Mumford & Son sings: “I will learn to love the skies I’m under.”
I’m lucky in that my situation was far less painful than many others’–I will never view my time with him as wasted, not by any means. Our phone calls gave me comfort and empathy while wading through post-graduation flux. He introduced me to writers who are now among my favorites. His faith in me and genuine encouragement echoed back when I doubted myself in teaching my 140 high schoolers. Our friendship inspired me to be more giving, honest, understanding, and resilient–and it will continue to. I truly hope someday we can continue our friendship, if he wants to, too.
Some say “living well is the best revenge”–“proving” to someone that you don’t need them to be happy. And with social media, this is easily broadcast, posting photos looking fun/social/non-hurt. But maybe, the harder, more gratifying process is to live well for the sake of honoring your own life–respecting the value of your own story and limited time here. To absorb the losses you feel and transform them into resilience, continuing to grow into the best version of yourself for your own sake, and for the benefit of those who love you.
I know there will be other times of healing along my “heart-on-sleeve living spree.” But I try to remind myself that I would rather be driven by valuing vulnerability and loving unreservedly than by fearing rejection, loss, and heartache.
As my wise sister says, maybe growing up means Google can’t generate the answers you seek. While I am still learning, I hope healing can come from a culmination of small gestures filled with self-compassion and patience. It may require an uncomfortable, down-in-the-dirt wrestling with honesty, and be full of choices your head steers you towards, even if your heart doesn’t feel sold on them just yet. It can begin when you press “Delete All Messages,” or when you attend your first yoga class and fill your lungs with new air. It can begin in deciding to stop obsessing over Facebook, or in writing comforting words to yourself to revisit. It can begin in reaching out the car window, letting yourself be warmed by the sky you’re under, looking hopefully towards the wide world unfolding before you. You are whole. And you are, and always will be, worthy of whole love.
Drea Aron-Schiavone is an overanalyzing, people-loving, heart-on-sleeve introvert who will happily gush over the words in a beautifully moving phrase, sentence, or text message with you any hour of the day. She serendipitously found herself teaching high school art, and now, is hoping to work at a residential treatment center for kids and teens as she attempts to apply to graduate school. She is inspired by the resilience and genuine hearts of small humans, and hopes to pursue a future as a social worker, working with children who have survived trauma and abuse. Some of her favorite things include her family, William & Mary, handwritten letters, Ernest Hemingway, long drives with friends, Ed Sheeran, and sending text messages that are way too long.