Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated which of Dante’s works highlight his love for her. The version below has been corrected.
Lisa A. Phillips, an assistant professor of journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz, is the author of “Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession.”`
When Sam Smith accepted his fourth Grammy last Sunday, he acknowledged an unusual muse. “I want to thank the man who this record is about, who I fell in love with last year,” Smith said of the inspiration for the hit song “Stay With Me.” “Thank you so much for breaking my heart, because you got me four Grammys.” The award show’s best record had been inspired by unreturned affection.
Unrequited love can be incredibly painful, especially around Valentine’s Day. But Smith and others remind us that it can also be an inspiring creative force — perhaps the most powerful muse there is.
Sure, unrequited love can drive people toward self-destructive behavior, such as stalking. I know this from my own intense crush on a guy I met in grad school. At first, the possibility of love gave me extra energy, which I channeled into a novel I’d been writing. But once it became clear that the object of my affection wasn’t going to leave his long-distance girlfriend for me, I fell apart. I called and e-mailed him repeatedly — and even showed up at his apartment unexpectedly; he threatened to call the cops on me. I certainly wasn’t being creative or productive.
But decades later, in my reporting for a book about romantic obsession, I found that, under the right circumstances, unrequited love can be good. Think of all the artists, writers and musicians who credit their achievements to a muse they couldn’t win over. Van Gogh made some of his best work after Kee Vos, his beloved cousin by marriage, broke his heart. Dante fell in love with Beatrice when he was 8, and as an adult immortalized his devotion to her in “La Vita Nuova” and “The Divine Comedy.” In the wake of romantic rejection, legendary dancer Isadora Duncan had a crucial epiphany about her approach to movement. As she wrote in her autobiography, she directed her emotions “toward my Art which gave me the joys which Love withheld.” In our own time, Smith, Adele and Taylor Swift are giving voice to unrequited love in their music.
What happens with frustrated love — where does that energy go? There’s the Freudian idea of sublimation: We shift our drive for sex into other activities. Advice books tell the lovelorn to find distractions, and making art can certainly be a good one.
But there’s also some science connecting unrequited love to creativity. British neurobiologist Semir Zeki at University College London has observed that cultures across the world hold up an ideal of love as an experience of complete union: two beings merged into one. Yet in mutual love — and especially in love that’s unrequited — we have to deal with the fact that this ideal is impossible. Even the closest of lovers remain two separate people, with different needs and expectations. Zeki argues that creativity is a natural, though not necessarily inevitable, reaction to love’s frustrations.
Humans’ neural responses to love and art overlap. When love or art is satisfying to us, blood flow increases to certain areas of the brain. One of them is the caudate nucleus, which integrates complex thoughts and emotions from other parts of the brain with the feeling of desire — which in turn is fueled by the activation of areas of the brain that manufacture dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with increased focus and exhilaration. Both making art and seeking love are about trying to achieve that elusive satisfied feeling.
This brain activity suggests that striving for love has a lot in common with creative effort. Both the lover and the artist — or the poet, the entrepreneur, or anyone engaged in invention and problem-solving — face the challenge of creating something real out of a concept in their heads. Both will try again and again to get it right and feel satisfied.
Additionally, psychologists have found that for people who have a high need to feel unique — a common trait of artists and innovators — social rejection causes them to score higher on tests of creativity.
And then there’s the practical advantage of the lovelorn: You’re left alone, without the distraction of being in a relationship and looking after another person. “Be gone from me! Love for you so engages me that I have no time for you,” Majnun tells his beloved Layla in a renowned Persian fable. Apparently her presence kept him from writing love poems about her!
For female artists throughout history, requited love often led to marriage, children and the considerable burdens of domesticity, with a lot less time and space for their creative work. There’s plenty of great gossip about the unrequited loves of Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson, who never married. But those impossible crushes may have helped them grow as writers. They could experience intense romantic feeling while remaining free to pursue their craft.
Today, unrequited love’s power to inspire is just as potent. An opera singer I interviewed told me how, as a conservatory student, she was obsessed with her conductor. She spent as much time as she could in his orbit. Instead of overtly pursuing him, she “brought the compulsion of a stalker” to her education, absorbing everything he had to say about music. She credited the power he had over her with guiding her through challenging musical passages she wasn’t sure her voice was ready for.
Her feelings for the conductor, who was gay, lasted years. Once she was no longer studying under him, they would see each other occasionally in the music world, and their encounters were at times disappointing. He wouldn’t give her the attention she craved. When her own career took off, she was asked to sing Leonard Bernstein’s “Songfest” cycle, which includes “Music I Heard With You,” with mournful lyrics about a lost love. Once again, her unrequited attraction became her inspiration. Rehearsing the piece, she often choked up, thinking about the conductor. But in performance, she was flawless.
Afterward, to her surprise, the conductor walked through the backstage door and embraced her. He had witnessed her triumph. The encounter “really allowed me to let go,” she said. She no longer needed him in order to be the performer she wanted to be.
Creative inspiration isn’t the only positive outcome of romantic rejection. More than a third of the 260 women I surveyed for my book reported that the experience “changed my life for the better.” Some credited their unrequited feelings with pushing them to leave fizzling marriages, begin their lives anew in another state, come out or learn a new language. Because desire, as one Jungian analyst recently described it to me, gives us a sense of possibility, it may help us see what’s missing in our lives.
What is the difference between the unrequited love that goes bad — the stalkery, self-destructive kind — and the kind that doesn’t? It’s complicated. What does seem key is whether you can feel passionately for someone yet not expect that person to return your love. In this kind of unrequited love, you might find insight, motivation, maybe even pleasure. It is possible to honor impractical passion without letting it completely absorb you.
Once my crush on my grad school classmate got out of hand, the creative inspiration he had provided disappeared. I wish I’d had the self-control to keep channeling my emotions into my writing instead of chasing him. But in the long run, the experience did send me back to my desk to make something out of romantic failure: a book that sheds light on unrequited love, in all its pain and glory.