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6 Ways to Get Past the Pain of Unrequited Love

The hurt is real, but you're not alone.

Key points

  • Some experts estimate that 98% of people have suffered from unrequited love at one time or another.
  • Recent research has shown that people feel an emotional wound in a way similar to how they feel physical injury.
  • One way to get past the pain of unrequited love is to see if it is a pattern, and if so, find out why.
Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock

It sounds romantic: To love someone with all of your heart and soul, whether or not they love you back. But the reality is very different. The pain of loving someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you can be almost unbearable. It certainly doesn’t feel romantic. It just feels devastating.

How do you deal with it?

1. There’s no way to get around it: Rejection hurts. Your heart has been broken, and there’s a real physical sensation of pain. I talk about this in my post on dealing with break-ups, but it’s worth repeating here. Even if you know that your heart can’t really break, you’re feeling like it’s doing exactly that. There’s a physical pain in your chest, and the rest of your body feels bruised and aching as well.

Recent research has shown that we feel an emotional wound in a way similar to how we feel physical injury. Phrases like “broken heart," “wounded spirit,” or “hurt feelings” are not simply metaphors. According to a group of researchers headed by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, evidence shows that emotional pain activates the same part of your brain as physical pain. (See the terrific blogs by my PT colleagues Peg Streep and Melanie Greenberg on some of the fascinating research into the physical connections to emotional pain.)

So to start with, acknowledge that you’ve been injured and you need to take care of yourself. You need to be gentle and kind and nurture yourself just the way you would if you had a physical illness. This doesn’t mean you should go to bed and waste away. It actually won’t help. But whether you’re at work or school, go easy on yourself. Don’t expect yourself to deliver a peak performance. But by plugging away, putting one foot in front of the other, all the time acknowledging that you’re feeling hurt and sad, you’ll gradually get your life moving forward.

2. Know that you aren’t alone. According to social psychologist and my PT colleague Roy Baumeister, 98% of us have suffered from unrequited love at one time or another. One of the problems with this kind of rejection is that it’s not enough that you feel sad, lonely, and broken-hearted. It also makes you feel bad and ashamed—and you start to worry that there is something deeply wrong with you.

You start to ask yourself painful questions, like what does this person, whom you value so much, see in you to make them want to stay away from you? You start to soothe yourself with food—a pint of ice cream, a bag of cookies—and then you feel even worse. Oh yes, you say to yourself, I’m a sloth, I'm a pig, that’s why I’m not lovable.

But if this happens to other people, which it does—many of them smart, attractive, and very lovable—then perhaps it’s not about not being good enough. It may be about this not being the right moment for the two of you, or about you not being the right partner for you both.

One friend who suffered miserably from an unrequited love told me, when she finally came through on the other side, “I’ll always have a tender spot for him. It’s just that I wasn’t the right person for him. I understand that now, and it doesn’t even hurt. But boy was it hard to get here!”

3. Try to see if falling for someone who doesn’t love you back is a pattern in your life. According to psychologist Phillip Shaver, falling in love with someone who will reject you can be a repeated pattern for some people. This may be particularly true if you had repeated experiences in childhood with what is called “insecure attachment,” that is, a sense that the adults on whom you depend are regularly not accessible at the times when you most need them (it is important to note that this does not result from a parent who doesn’t respond to every childhood need immediately or exactly the way a child wants!).

One way to try to think about this is to ask yourself if you have ever fallen in love with someone who rejected you before. Try to honestly assess whether or not there is some sort of pattern here. If so, you may be trying to find someone who will undo the pain of childhood rejections or abandonments; but unfortunately, in many cases in these situations we end up unconsciously choosing someone who will repeat, not undo the pattern, reinforcing feelings that you really are unlovable, as perhaps you believed as a child; or that you’re doomed to be disappointed, rejected and abandoned. You may end up more convinced than ever that you simply cannot trust anyone. Either way, your choice is likely to end up confirming your fears of abandonment rather than providing you with a new experience.

4. Ask yourself if you would rather not have loved the person at all. Is it true what Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem says?

"I hold it true, whate'er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; 'Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all."

Maybe in the moment of the worst pain, you’d rather never have loved; but there is sometimes something exquisitely beautiful in such a love. It makes us feel alive in a very special way. It also, of course, hurts like very few other things do.

5. This might not help you much, but there is evidence that unrequited love hurts the person who is loved as well as the one who is doing the loving. In a study of more than 200 incidents of unrequited love, Baumeister found that rejecters suffered from guilt and anxiety and often reported feeling like they were victims. Baumeister reports that many of the pursued said things like, “I never hurt anyone before” and talked about how awful it made them feel to know that they were doing it now.

6. Finally, give up the quest for closure. Everyone agrees that one of the hardest parts of unrequited love is accepting that it is not ever going to be what you want it to be. You may keep looking for evidence that it’s over, but what you may really want is proof that it could happen.

In the song “Chasing Pavements,” Adele captures the never-ending loop of the search for proof:

"I build myself up and fly around in circles; Wait then as my heart drops and my back begins to tingle; Finally could this be it? Should I give up or should I just keep chasing pavements, Even if it leads nowhere?"

The answer? It may sound harsh, but there are actually two solutions: In one, you learn to accept that, for whatever reason, and for however long, this circle is the pattern you’re going to live with. If you come to that conclusion, then try to find some ways to be comfortable with it, to let go of your self-criticism for being in this place and with your fantasy that closure of some sort is just around the corner. Or: Let go and move on, without the closure that you think you want.

Copyright @ F. Diane Barth 2014


    Further Reading:

    Love as attachment: The integration of three behavioral systems. By P.R.Shaver, C. Hazan, & D. Bradshaw. (1988). In R. J. Sternberg & M. Barnes (Eds.), The psychology of love (pp. 68- 99). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). By John Bowlby (1982). New York: Basic Books. Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. By Ethan Kross, Marc G. Berman, Walter Mischel, Edward E. Smith, Tor D. Wager. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 April 12; 108(15): 6270–6275. Published online 2011 March 28. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102693108 (link is external) PMCID: PMC3076808 Accessed November 1, 2014
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