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Sad Love

Most people understand exactly how sad love feels.

Sad love. The concept is seemingly as ineffable as love itself, although most people understand exactly how sad love feels. Separately, sadness is felt as a heavy emptiness that may be coupled with a yearning to have what is unattainable or to bring back what was lost. Love adds intensity and complexity to sadness: the desire, passion, or craving experienced with love become flavored by the anguish, dejection, and helplessness felt with sadness.

As a psychotherapist, people often describe to me their sadness as a result of love—often as the ghost that remains of the good things about a relationship that has ended or is about to end. The beautiful memories, not the ugly ones, are those that trigger what I would now describe as sad love. And sad love evokes further reminders of what once was, in stark contrast to the actuality of the present. In vivid emotional memory, sad love holds on tight to what has been lost or to what is fading away.

People who are having, or who have had, an extramarital affair seem to possess an abundance of potential sad love triggers that involve yearning to have more moments with the object of their affection or the weighty sadness of deprivation. Cheating results in feeling cheated, which is ultimately a trigger for sad love. But the difficulty with such stolen moments is that they exaggerate a craving to have in reality what one has in fantasy—and fantasy's impact on emotions can be profound as well as deceptive. Fantasy indulges you by creating what could be out of transient interactions that are idealized, rather than recognizing what actually would exist in perpetuity.

On a more academic angle, I do want to clarify that love does not technically meet the criteria of an emotion, although sadness does. Given that they are reflexive and automatic, emotions are a reaction to something specific that triggers them. Emotions instantly affect your sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system resulting in bodily changes that are experienced as feelings, which in turn create cognitions that account for them. And ultimately, as I repeatedly stress in my posts about emotions, they command your attention in order to give you immediate but vague information about a situation that can lead you to take action. Love can be described as an emotional state, a mood, or a mixture of emotions such as excitement, joy, happiness, or sensory pleasure. However, if we are going to be picky about what constitutes an emotion, then love does not qualify.

Sadness, however, is a painful emotion of disconnection from someone or something that you value. Profound sadness, as it relates to love, can be triggered by an observation, event, a remembrance that your love is unrequited, or an acknowledgment that the object of your affection is inaccessible. Sadness helps you to remember, rather than forget. Nevertheless, when you are sad you may think that you'd rather not remember whatever it is that triggered the emotion within you.

Researchers who studied the concept of love among people in the United States, Italy, and China found that it has both similar and different meanings cross-culturally, including the presence of love-related concepts among Chinese people, such as "sad love," "sorrow-love," and "tenderness-pity" (Rothbaum & Tsang, 2004). In reading that study of emotions I came across the notion of sad love which, in all my years of practice, I unfortunately had not encountered. Finding a way to articulate the experience of sadness can provide relief to those who cannot find words for what they feel. In this vein, Shakespeare wrote in his play, Macbeth, "Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break." Similarly, the concept of sad love struck me as a descriptor that profoundly and succinctly captures the emotional impact of love that has gone sadly.

Find more information regarding my books about emotions here.

This post is in no way intended as a substitute for medical or psychological counseling. If expert assistance or counseling is needed, the services of a competent professional should be sought.


Rothbaum, F. & Tsang, B.Y.P. (2004). Lovesongs in the United States and China. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(2), 306-319.