Most of us go through it and never tell a soul. Not because it’s a shameful secret, but because it feels so inconsequential: just a slight preoccupation, the teensiest attraction to a certain someone who isn’t our partner. We might joke about our fascination with a friend or go a little out of our way to feel confident when our target is near — brushing on mascara though we typically go bare-lashed, opting for a push-up instead of a boob-squashing bralette. We idly wonder about them, what they’re up to, what they think of us. But ultimately, we’re secure in our relationships, love who we’re with, and have no intention of leaving. We’re content to enjoy the zing we feel in the other person’s presence. Call it the Happily Coupled Crush (HCC). And while it’s true that HCCs are somewhat inconsequential, in that they don’t threaten your relationship, the personal effects of these fixations really do matter.
Crushes are powerful things — just ask every teenager ever — and when we experience that power, we have a couple of options. We can take the attraction at face value, deciding that it’s rooted entirely in the qualities we admire about the person we’re crushing on; or we can dig deeper to figure out what the crush may be telling us about our desires and how they are and aren’t being fulfilled. That’s what Lisa A. Phillips, author of the thorough, daring, and fascinating book Unrequited: Women and Romantic Obsession, has to say on the matter. “Generally speaking, crushes are wake-up calls,” she says. “If you think about them with regard to puberty, they’re a wake-up call to the beginning of sexuality, the possibilities of adult attachment.” (Phillips is currently working on a book about teens and relationships.)
Phillips continues, “No one has ever figured out definitively why crushes exist, but there are theories. This other person might represent unexplored possibilities, whether sexually or emotionally or just generally — a means of asking yourself, ‘Have I made the right choices?’” Of course, the two most famous minds in psychology have some thoughts. “I’ve always vibed with the Jungian idea that the person you’re crushing on could be a projection of something you’re afraid to be yourself,” says Phillips. Meanwhile, on the Freudian side, she says, “there’s the basic psychoanalytic idea of repetition compulsion, where you unconsciously seek out a person who is like someone you encountered earlier in life.”
Phillips offers an example: Say you had an erratic, unpredictable father, so you marry someone hyper-stable and together. But one day a new guy starts at work, and though you don’t know it, a part of you senses that he has the same flighty instability as your dad. If you start crushing on this guy, it might be because you have unfinished business with your father. Because we tend to crave dynamics that are familiar — even if they’re bad — a part of your brain may be screaming, Life isn’t supposed to be stable, it’s supposed to be with a dramatic person you can’t count on! Your intellect may know better, but the psyche wants what it wants.
Jung and Freud’s doom and gloom aside, Phillips believes an HCC is usually a positive thing. “A lot of the peer-reviewed research on this is hopeful,” she says. “For many adults in committed relationships, a crush is just this exciting thing that makes you feel sexy or flirty and doesn’t do much else.” (Keep an eye on things, though, if they start to feel too intense — says Phillips, “at first you might be playing with something at work, dressing up more and having a little fun, and all of a sudden it’s like, oh shit, what’s going on here? That’s how affairs start.”)
So, if you have a crush, how do you decide if you’re projecting, compulsively repeating, just having fun, or something else entirely? The task, says Phillips, is self-reflection. “Think about how you grew up,” she says, “and the ways your life could have been different. Think about what’s missing —an outlet, a creative project? Do you have a crush on an adventurer, or someone who’s highly creative? If so, what might that tell you about what you really value and want in life?” By the way, this line of inquiry isn’t just helpful in times of HCC-ness. “Whenever you reach a point in life that’s like, I was well, now I’m not,” says Phillips, “taking this kind of inventory can help you confront the real issue.”
The bottom line, Phillips says, is that crushers need to go easy on themselves. “It’s important that you validate the feelings you’re having,” she says. “Because a lot of people fight and shame themselves about it. But you’re not doing anything wrong. Crushes deserve to be talked about in a more nuanced way—they’re not some hideous sin, they’re trying to tell you something.” So, the next time that sleepy-eyed J. Crew clerk gets your heart all aflutter, try your best to listen.