a giant waste of time

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Unattainable objects of desire

All teenagers have crushes… but what if you’ve grown up and that infatuation has turned into a refusal to face facts? Craig Taylor asks the experts
Craig Taylor
The Guardian, Saturday 15 September 2001

Forget for a moment that it’s called a “crush”, a word associated with bubbly handwriting, giggly pre-teens and folded pieces of coloured paper. And forget that the term may define those heartbreaking moments in your early romantic life when you roamed school hallways, edging closer, with that silent mantra echoing in your head: “Please look over at me, please look over at me, please look over at me.”

They may be childish, or they may be dangerous, time-wasting exercises in futility, but the way we deal with our secret love of unattainable people starts early in life and, in most cases, never completely ends. Though the teenage version is usually the first type we encounter, the crush plays just as big a part in our adult life as it does in our youth.

For years, the teenage crush was thought to be relatively harmless, but a few months ago, an American study released by the sociology departments of Cornell University and the University of North Carolina announced that the more time a teen spends on romantic thoughts, the more he or she is at risk of depression. It was once referred to simply as “moping about”, using valuable homework hours to choose what you will wear when Ben Affleck finally calls. But the new research hints that the crush may be the start of a slippery slope towards locked bedroom doors, black clothes, goth music and an all-out depression which could carry on into adulthood.

That is not the only downside. Where a normal crush gives off the warm glow of affection, with infatuation upping the temperature, at the far end of the spectrum there is a delusional disorder called erotomania, which makes people believe that another person is in love with them, even if there is no reason for that person to be so. The object of affection is likely to be someone socially prominent – a doctor, say, or a celebrity – and mostly the crush is limited to the erotomaniac’s own perfect world. But if they begin to take action to gain the attention of the crushee, an entirely different category opens up, called pathological infatuation.

The crush that gradually drifts into infatuation – the one that leaves you in a haze of absolutely desperate love – has its own inherent dangers. For people already in relationships, it can act as an entrée to the world of infidelity, secret rendezvous and calls from payphones.

But for most of us, happily, the crush is a far more innocent affair, a small spark that adds interest to one’s life. “A crush brings a little texture, a little colour to the world,” says Ingrid Collins, a consultant psychologist based at the London Medical Centre. “It feeds fantasy.”

Crushes are a “what if” game full of interesting but ultimately unattainable options, according to Karen DeMars, CEO and co-founder of the website e-crush.com, which has been charting the phenomenon for the past two years. “Say you’re in a grocery store,” DeMars explains. “You spot someone when you first come in, you keep passing each other, there’s something there. By the time you get to the frozen foods, you’ve had a crush for a while. These things just add a little decoration to life.”

The fast, minor crush usually evaporates by the time you’ve bagged your groceries. It has a built-in sense of honourable defeat – alas, fate has dictated that this was never meant to be. When crushes are lived out on this level, nothing can go wrong or disappoint; there is no time for faults to appear. These tiny, secret affairs don’t imply that you seek escape from an existing relationship; they’re just a way of acknowledging that attraction still exists out in the world, whether or not you’re involved with someone.

Some adults go on to become serial crushers, with one main object of affection following the next. Others begin a series of what DeMars calls “player-type crushes”, a wild polygamy of anonymous affection that could range from the grocery store shopper, to politicians, to the person in the cubicle next door. Both types of crush may at first appear to be time-wasters, but they can help you perform better in your everyday life. “If you’re visualising this perfect man,” DeMars says, “you can also visualise the sort of person you could become to get this guy.” On this path, crushes become catalysts, leading to bouts of self-improvement as a person with a crush tries their hardest to become noticeable. If handled the right way, the dream of being noticed by a crushee can force people to make changes in their lives that they would otherwise never have had a reason to make.

Then again, “There is always the possibility that the crush will just take over your life and you’ll become a big loser,” DeMars warns. For most, however, the risk of loserdom is small compared with the promise of that thin tremor of excitement, those extra palpitations, every time a certain someone rolls their cart down the frozen food aisle.