Unbearable Love for the Unreachable One

Love and Sex

Unbearable Love for the Unreachable One

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Still pining for the love of my life five years after she ran out on me…” begins the Quora thread. I’d arrived on the page after two whole minutes of researching the internet for a solution to my friend’s umm… ailment. Suffering from a broken heart, he was slouched in his bed, wearing his faded Garfield shorts and a t-shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a year. He stroked his unkempt beard, with a pencil tucked behind his ear, probably contemplating a new sonnet for his ex.

This wasn’t a case of freshly minted heartbreak. It had been eight months since their split, and all I wanted to do was drag him out of his wallowing and give him a good talking-to. Yet, as a friend, I first had to look for smoother alternatives.

Back on Quora, concerned respondents gave a wide variety of inputs ranging from getting “deeply involved with doing something very good in the world” to “your love is selfish”. But perhaps the worst bit of counsel was that if they thought this was the love of their life, it wasn’t possible to move on. Unfortunately, this was also the top-voted answer.

I learnt that day that Google doesn’t always have the best answers. We’re in a culture that prizes – and actively encourages – pining for the loves of our lives. Yes, I hear the old-fashioned romance lobby beginning its howl, telling us how important it is to work hard at relationships and to stick to the ones that matter. Unfortunately, the romance lobby’s manifesto has no advice on what to do after a relationship is actually over.

All we have by way of instruction, are the drunk shenanigans of Devdas – for those with a weak liver, good luck figuring your shit out. Thanks to the likes of Yash Raj and Nicholas Sparks, unrestrained pining is now considered a rite of passage for every great love story. Regardless of whether the two star-crossed lovers end up together, the torment of one, or both characters is eulogised. And no matter what end the crazed lover meets, we hear people say, “Waah janaab, pyar ho to aisa!”

Researchers learnt that neurons in the brain’s reward centres are activated because of long-lasting grief resulting in addiction-like responses.

“We should watch a movie this weekend,” my friend chirped suddenly. Yes, yes we totally should. The prospect of leaving the house would mean he’d hopefully take a bath. He skimmed through the movie listings, and timidly looked up after five minutes to suggest: “Half Girlfriend?” It took all my self-control to bite back a dismissive “Ch****e ho kya?” The last thing he needed right now was another film that glorified a bereft lover, running around an unfamiliar city and ignoring all road safety rules in search of the person they think of as their “better half”. (I know how much we enjoyed Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam back in the day, but can we please move on?)

I’m not a cold-hearted ice queen, but for how long is it appropriate to mope over a broken relationship? “Well, forever,” the abyss of pop culture seems to be telling us. Science, though, tells you something you’ve obviously never heard before: It’s not your heart, it’s your brain. A New York Times report quoted Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist from Rutgers University who described how the ventral tegmental area of the brain, which is linked with creating dopamine, shows an increase in activity when jilted lovers are shown photographs of their ex. “When you’ve been rejected by someone, you love them even more.” She calls this “frustration attraction”.

Of course, heartbreak can be crippling. In fact, researchers have found that pining can be physically addictive. The condition was dubbed the “Miss Havisham Effect” in 2008 after the Charles Dickens’ character from Great Expectations. Researchers learnt that neurons in the brain’s reward centres are activated because of long-lasting grief resulting in addiction-like responses.

Longing for someone who means the world to you, and whom you can’t be with, is completely natural – and will draw a sympathetic response from your friends for a few weeks. But spare a thought for them. How long are your friends and family supposed to see you wallowing? Eventually, friends will stop inviting you out to lunch and literally no one will let you near a bottle of whisky.

You don’t actually want that. Even Dev.D. cleans up his act in the modern update on the Devdas story. If the legend can do it, so can you.