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When the One You Love Doesn't Love You (as Much)

Is it just a sign that someone's holding back?

Key points

  • The difference in the intensity of love is usually not discussed among lovers.
  • People whose romantic choices are decreasing or who do not prioritize romantic love may choose a partner who loves them more.
  • Those who believe they can change their partner's attitude may prefer to be madly in love regardless of their partner's feelings toward them.

"Most people have a harder time letting themselves love than finding someone to love them " —Bill Russell

"You never lose by loving. You always lose by holding back" —Barbara De Angelis

Unrequited love is said to be one of the saddest of all loving experiences. However, some people prefer it over a complete lack of love. Consider the following two types of relationships:

  1. You are in love with your partner but the partner does not love you (as much).
  2. Your partner is in love with you but you are not in love (as much) with the partner.

Which option will you choose? The answer is not obvious.

Here is a real story:

Albert is a handsome divorced man in his early fifties. He met Debra on a blind date and they were together for about a year. He left her on the grounds that although he liked her and enjoyed her company, he did not love her very much. After their separation, he dated a few other women. Then, on his birthday almost a year later, she invited him to dinner, after which he decided to go back to her.

Albert said to his friend: "This is the woman I want to live with." The friend was clearly surprised and reminded Albert that he said a while ago that he didn't love her enough to be with her. To this, he replied, "Yes, but she loves me like no one else ever has before and this is what is most important at the end of the day."

In fact, Albert had asked Debra the same question: "Why do you want to be with me, knowing that I do not love you as much as you love me?" Debra replied that she prefers being with a person she loves very much and who may not love her that much, than vice versa.

Which outlook would you choose, Albert's or Debra's? Students and friends whom I've asked have been divided.

G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
Source: G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock

When speaking about unrequited love, people usually refer to painful experiences in which one partner feels no love whatsoever toward the other. However, this extreme case is less common than those in which there is more nuance—where both people do love each other, but the kind and intensity of the love is different. In our example, while Debra is madly in love with Albert, Albert likes her but does not love her as much as she loves him. His attitude is not without any traces of romantic love. It involves caring and companionship, but a lesser degree of romantic love. There is a point of love's intensity below which it is not worth being together, but Albert's feelings are above this point.

The difference in the intensity of love is usually not discussed among lovers. When lovers do discuss it, one might say something like, "I love you so much—even more than you love me," to which a partner may reply, "This is not possible, because there cannot be a greater love than mine for you." Another prevailing reply is, "My love for you is so huge that it is enough for both of us." (A rational lover might say instead, "Darling, we have agreed that we cannot possibly measure our profound love.")

Of course, when the couple is on the verge of separation, the discussion is more of an accusation: "You love me less than I love you." The emphasis of people in love is on the more, not the less.

Being aware of differences in the intensity of love can be hurtful because it implies that one partner is inferior—it implies a certain type of rejection. Accordingly, people repress the issue or adopt a positive illusion concerning the partner. Similarly, people would not want to admit to a partner that he or she is a compromise.

The attitudes of both Albert and Debra involve romantic compromise, but it is unclear which is more painful. The major advantage in Albert's situation is the great love bestowed upon him and hence the greater probability that Debra will not leave him. The disadvantage in his situation concerns giving up a major human dream—to be madly in love with someone. Debra's situation is the opposite: She enjoys a profound love but gives up reciprocity and hence is more vulnerable and less certain about her relationship with Albert.

Albert has greater control of the situation: He can continue this relationship as long as he wishes because the love of Debra is almost guaranteed. And if he happens to find a woman with whom he is madly in love, he may pursue this new relationship. In a sense, Albert is compromising his present to secure his future. Debra is more vulnerable as she has less control of the situation. She gives up control of her future in order to enjoy profound love in the present.

Those who prefer Debra's position are optimistic concerning their ability to change their partner's attitude toward them. This optimism is associated with a prevailing belief that the world is inherently controllable and that their ability to influence events around them is exceptional. Experienced gamblers engage in a variety of behaviors that imply a belief that they can control what numbers turn up on the dice. Similarly, people prefer to choose their own lottery ticket rather than have it chosen for them; they believe that their choice will increase their chances of winning.

If you believe that changing your partner's attitude is indeed possible, the alternative in which you are madly in love with the other person is preferable. However, if this option is impossible—it is very difficult to change most adults—attempts to change the other partner may increase your frustration and disappointment.

Albert's mental state is calmer than Debra's. He may be dissatisfied from time to time with the fact that he does not experience genuine love, but he enjoys Debra's love and his future is secure. Debra's mental situation is less stable, as it involves both more intense positive emotions (love) and negative emotions (insecurity and frustration). The anxiety associated with Debra's behavior is greater than Albert's, and this can burn her out; eventually, her love for Albert may decrease.

Personality traits also influence the choice between Albert's and Debra's situations. People with more egotistic tendencies are more likely to prefer Albert's because they believe they will have no difficulty finding a new partner. More rational people might also take Albert's choice, while more romantic people would more likely take Debra's. Age may be another relevant factor: Older people whose romantic choices are decreasing, or who might look more for companion love than passionate romantic love, may tend to choose Albert's situation.

To sum up: It is often the case that the intensity of love is not equal among lovers; hence, lovers have to cope with such differences.

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