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Carrying a Torch? Here Are Words That Should Douse It

Photo by Stephen Klein via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Love is a beautiful thing except when it isn’t.

Most people, when they realize a relationship isn’t working, go through a period of mourning and move on. Then there are the torch carriers—people who pine long past the point of good sense. People who can’t let go even after they’ve been rejected. I know about them. I’ve been there and I’ve done some casual research on the subject that I’ll share with you.

Torch carrying feels like OCD—in fact, researchers have found that low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, addiction, OCD…and the first thrilling, obsessive stage of love. Is torch carrying a plunge of serotonin that gets stuck, like a toilet tank that won’t refill, causing that endless, irritating sound of rushing water?

And addiction sounds right, too–which is why cold turkey is probably the best way for torch carriers to end a relationship. It works for smoking, drinking, and drugs. Being friends is probably just methadone; you have to kick that eventually, too.

Psychology plays a part, of course. One woman told me she resorts to torch carrying as a distraction from more important issues, such as her troubled marriage. If you read the literature of torch carrying—Scarlett’s torch for Ashley in Gone With the Wind, Philip’s torch for Mildred in Of Human Bondage—you’ll find that a lonely childhood is a recurring theme. I grew up in a family that was better at intellectual stimulation than emotional nurturing, perhaps that was the embers that ignited my torches.

A torch carrier I know told me her childhood home was chaotic and her father was distant. Another said her father “worked a lot” and her mother was uninvolved. “I was in choir and my friend’s mom came to see everything we did. Not my mother.”

But if a relationship is two pieces of a puzzle coming together, then the black hole of need that is the torch carrier seems often to be filled by the nob-headed need that is the narcissist, who will offer just enough to keep you hanging on. One friend’s torch phoned her to apologize for being distant the last few times they spoke. Is this a man trying to break it off or keep her hanging?

When another friend’s torch from her long-ago college days called her, “I still had to pull myself away,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, he wants to talk to me. I’m married, and he still wants to talk to me.’”

Sounds like collusion to me.

Not that all torchees are that insensitive. Nice people don’t like having a torch carried for them. It’s not all basking in the glow of your finest qualities. After all, points out Dr. Roy Baumeister, who wrote a book called Breaking Hearts: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love, the person who is rejected has the belief that the rejector really did return the feeling at some point. This allows hope, which feels good. Meanwhile, rejectors have nothing but the certainty that they’ve hurt someone, and the awkward task of standing firm despite a torch carrier’s persistence.

Here are the facts from one of Dr. Baumeister’s research papers, presented in the kind of stark academic terms that make one wince:

Unrequited love emerged as a bilaterally distressing experience marked by mutual incomprehension and emotional interdependence. Would-be lovers looked back with both positive and intensely negative emotions, whereas rejectors were more uniformly negative in their accounts. Unlike rejectors, would-be lovers believed that the attraction had been mutual, that they had been led on, and that the rejection had never been communicated definitely. Rejectors depicted themselves as morally innocent but still felt guilty about hurting someone; many rejectors depicted the would-be lover’s persistent efforts as intrusive and annoying.

Wow. There’s a bucket of cold water for your torch.

So if you’re carrying a torch this Valentine’s Day, try thinking of yourself as “intrusive and annoying.” That should help you move on.

Carrying a Torch? Here Are Words That Should Douse It

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). Carrying a Torch? Here Are Words That Should Douse It. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 14 Feb 2011
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