Unrequited love is a universal experience which has been acknowledged and written about by poets for centuries. It has also been researched by social scientists. Roughly 98 percent of the population has been on either one or both sides of an unrequited love (Baumeister, 1993). In the simplest terms, unrequited love is any love that is not returned to the same degree with which it is given. Not surprisingly, it is particularly prevalent among the young. For college and high school students, unrequited love is four times more common than reciprocal love (Bringle, 2013). To better understand how this type of relationship develops, Bringle and associates identified five basic forms of unrequited love.
1. A crush on someone who is unavailable.
“I have to admit, an unrequited love is so much better than a real one. I mean, it's perfect... As long as something is never even started, you never have to worry about it ending. It has endless potential.” ― Sarah Dessen, The Truth About Forever (2004).
This form of love is most often a crush on a movie star, professional athlete, or anyone in the limelight but not personally known by the infatuated.
2. A crush on someone nearby, without ever trying to initiate a romantic relationship.
“To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves.” ― Federico García Lorca, Blood Wedding and Yerma (1973).
There may be a variety of reasons for the infatuated person to not express their feelings or attempt to initiate a romantic relationship. The reasons, justified or not, do not change the experience of frustration due to unreturned love. A current example is seen in the contemporary Netflix series Sex Education, in which 16-year-old Otis falls in love with his high-school friend, Mauve, but never reveals his feelings to her.
3. Pursuing someone you’ve fallen in love with, in spite of their having rejected you as a romantic partner.
“Love Jo all your days, if you choose, but don't let it spoil you, for it's wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can't have the one you want.” ― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868).
This quote was taken from the classic novel, Little Women, in which Amy March advises family friend Lawrence (“Laurie”) about his unrequited love for her sister, Jo, to whom Lawrence has proposed marriage but been turned down.
4. Longing for a past lover.
“Is it too late to tell you that …Everything means nothing if I can’t have you.” — Shawn Mendes (2019).
An individual might experience this type of frustrated love after a breakup even if they know that the other person wasn’t a good match for them. Anthropologist Helen Fisher notes that one might be more attracted to a person who has left them. She calls this “frustration attraction” and associates it with continuing to pursue a relationship that has already ended. She has determined that being in love triggers the release of neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Simply looking at a photo of the beloved may trigger a similar release of dopamine, which is associated with pleasure (Fisher, 2004).
5. An unequal love relationship in which the partners stay together but love to different degrees or for different outcomes.
“It is a strange thing, this love of ours. Not strictly unrequited – for I know you still have love for me. But it is unbalanced. Unequal perhaps…un-something certainly. I suppose if nothing else, it is, without question…unending.” – Ranata Suzuki
This quote represents a poetic example of love to different degrees, best described as unequal. Love for different outcomes may include a couple that makes a commitment based upon one feeling infatuated love, while the other feels the fulfillment of a need for security and stability. Maybe she simply wants to be in a relationship while he can’t imagine life without her. Or he wants a “good mother” for his children, while she idealizes him as her “perfect soulmate."
How to Recover from Unrequited Love
The first steps in coping with the frustration of unrequited love involve asking yourself a few questions to gain self-awareness.
1. “Is this a pattern for me? Has this happened multiple times within a few years? Is this the only type of love relationship I’ve experienced during adult years?” If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, then it is to your advantage to understand why you are repeating this type of relationship. Unrequited love is “less emotionally intense than equal love” in all the positive ways, yet involves as much or more emotional turmoil (Bringle, 2013). In other words, it is characterized by all of the lows and fewer of the highs when compared to mutual love.
2. “How does this love serve me?” “Am I avoiding the risk of rejection that comes with mutual love?” For some individuals who repeatedly experience unrequited love, self-esteem is suffering in a way that leads the person to feel essentially unlovable. Staying in a relationship in which the affection isn’t returned confirms the false belief that one is unlovable.
The next steps are directed at self-compassion. Whether or not you see a repetitive pattern, you are likely having a difficult time and putting a lot of your energy into thinking about someone else, rather than your own well-being.
3. Shift your thoughts and your behavior away from the pursuit of the unattainable person. As noted by Fisher, those whose love is not reciprocated experience craving, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse, similar to the experiences of those with other addictive behaviors (Fisher, 2015). Recognize the addictive nature of your pursuit, and disengage from that behavior. This likely includes NOT following them on social media and not responding to their posts.
4. Don’t start new romantic relationships until you’ve recovered from the unrequited love relationship. As with any life adjustment, this may take a minimum of six months, and maybe significantly longer. In the meanwhile, build upon relationships with current friends, family, or others in the community. Getting involved with community service is an effective way to decrease self-focus and to meet the emotional need for belonging.
Finally, consider the following ways to protect yourself from a repeat of this unhappy and frustrating experience.
5. If you are not recovering on your own, see a therapist who can be helpful in getting you through this and preventing a reoccurrence. If you are dealing with a history of childhood neglect or abuse, then you’ll likely need professional help to work through those painful experiences. Early attachment trauma is a common cause for seeking out a “fantasy bond” with an unattainable person (Mellody, 2003).
6. Try to accept the other person as they are, and that they are unable to feel the same type of attraction that you feel for them. The individuals who have done the rejecting often feel at least as badly as those they’ve rejected. In many cases, they also experience frustration, as well as guilt and anxiety over the situation in which they have no control (Baumeister, 1992).
Individuals dealing with this situation can recover through gaining self-awareness, building self-compassion along with self-restraint, and seeking professional help if needed. Sometimes the pattern is repetitive and even addictive, requiring more effort to overcome. But the reward for such effort is the opportunity to experience greater self-acceptance as well as mutual love.
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Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 377-394.
Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R. (1992). Breaking Hearts: The two sides of unrequited love. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Bringle, R. G., Winnick, T., Rydell, R. J. (2013). The prevalence and nature of unrequited love. (Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/15150/215824401349…)
Fisher, H. (2004). Why We Love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. New York, NY: Henry Holt.
Fisher, H. (2015). In the Brain, Romantic Love is Basically an Addiction. (Retrieved from https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/in-the-brain-romantic-love-is-bas…)
Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., Miller, J. K. (2003). Facing Love Addiction: Giving Yourself the Power to Change the Way You Love. HarperOne Publisher.