Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Will You Give Me Love In Return?

People like to hear that they are desired.

"It feels so right, so warm and true, I need to know if you feel it too." —Foreigner

"I can't keep on loving you one foot outside the door." —Brandy

The issue of reciprocity is central to love. Mutual attraction is for both sexes a most highly valued characteristic in a potential mate. People like to hear that they are desired. The lover wants to be loved in return, to be kissed as well as to kiss. The lover is ready to be committed but expects to find a similar commitment to the beloved's attitude.

The lack of reciprocity, that is, the knowledge that you are not loved by your beloved, usually leads to a decrease in love intensity and, ultimately, to humiliation. This decrease does not tend to be immediate; the one suffering from unrequited love persists in trying to win the other's heart. Indeed, many books and movies feature as their theme aspiring lovers persisting doggedly to win the hearts of their beloved. In some cases, love may even briefly intensify while one tries to win the other's heart.

Whereas lovers care about their beloved's attitude and want their beloved to prosper, in sexual desire, the partner's needs and attitudes are less of a priority. Nevertheless, sexual activities are not completely devoid of concern for the partner, as this person's satisfaction often increases our own. However, this is a more superficial and egoistic concern, which does not focus on the fulfillment of the other's wishes. Sexual desire has a purposive nature which is not typical of love (see The Subtlety of Emotions).

In light of the reciprocal nature of romantic love, a major characteristic of love is the lack of indifference. Indifference expresses the absence of evaluative preference and, hence, the absence of emotional sensitivity. Therefore, people in love prefer to be hurt by the beloved rather than treated indifferently.

Similarly, the saying goes that it is better to break someone's heart than to do nothing with it. In her song "A second-hand love," Connie Francis says, "I'd rather have this kind of (second-hand) love than not see you at all."

It is easier to express reciprocity in cyberspace, as it requires fewer resources or real actions, and self-disclosure is greater. Reciprocity is most evident in cyberlove, which consists of very long conversations—these can sometimes last as much as a few hours every day of the week. Conversation is essentially reciprocal activity, and long conversations can take place only when genuine reciprocity prevails. The reciprocal nature of cyberlove is also expressed in the significant, mutual self-disclosure and supportive attitudes typical of these relationships (see Love Online).

Some people deny the importance of reciprocity in love by taking it to be a mechanical kind, involving perfunctory calculations of what each person gives to and gets from the other. Such a calculation is indeed incompatible with genuine love. When I do something for my beloved, I do not do it because I expect to get it in return. I do it because I want to do it, as I believe it increases my beloved's well-being.

Genuine romantic love should involve, however, profound reciprocity in which each person seeks the happiness and well-being of the other. The actions that result from such symmetrical care may be asymmetrical, as they take into account special personal and contextual deeds. We would find it hard to accept if only one partner gave the other birthday presents, remembered anniversaries, or offered cups of tea—while the other offered none of these symbolic acts of giving gifts. Here it is not the mechanical giving that matters as much as the symbolic act of gift-giving or remembrance, acts that signify the other's significance.

The issue of reciprocity is less dominant in parental love. A mother can love her son even if, at this point in his life, the son is extremely ungrateful. At the heart of parental love is responsibility, rather than reciprocity; nevertheless, reciprocity does play a part here as well, though to a lesser extent than in romantic love.

Unrequited love, which lacks reciprocity, is a painful experience that significantly damages our self-image. When the romantic rejection is perceived as irrevocable, it is a humiliating blow to our self-esteem, as it reflects a significant negative evaluation of our worth. We deeply want someone, but this person does not care for us. Someone who we believe is extremely good and suitable for us does not think that we are good enough.

The pain of romantic separation is exacerbated by the feeling of personal failure, because of the expectation that it should be otherwise (even when the current divorce rate is quite high). This may explain why people take romantic separation, and in particular romantic rejection, in such a harsh manner. It is evident that the separated or rejected lover can find another lover who may even be more suitable; nevertheless, some lovers cannot stand the separation or rejection and commit suicide or kill their beloved (see In the Name of Love).

People look for a heavenly haven in love. The intensity of love and the perceived unity of the lovers create the illusion of feeling secure: The desire to live happily ever after in the safety of the beloved's arms underlies romantic love. However, love is not safe but rather risky. Lovers are quite vulnerable to the risk of being separated from the object of their love. The dynamic and changing nature of romantic reciprocity constantly threatens the existence of love.

Adhering to Romantic Ideology further complicates and intensifies the painful situation of the rejected person. In such a case, it is harder to interpret romantic rejection as normal behavior that could happen to anyone. There is no normative framework in which the rejected lover can find consolation. On the contrary, the framework he or she believes in denies such an option, as the Carpenters ask about the reason why the sun goes on shining, and the sea rushes to shore: "Don't they know it's the end of the world because you don't love me anymore?"

No doubt, reciprocity is crucial in romantic love. However, the lack of it, and hence the end of a romantic relationship, is not the end of the world.

More from Aaron Ben-Zeév Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today