Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Debby Herbenick Ph.D., M.P.H.

Unrequited Love and Lust: When the One You Want Doesn’t Want You Back

What can you do when the person you desire doesn't feel the same?

Love, desire and sexual attraction weave stories of bliss when they're reciprocated, but what happens when they're not? As much as we may wish it to be otherwise so, some people may not want to "play" with us in the way we want them to: as a date, a boyfriend, a partner, a wife. What do we do when the person we want doesn't want us back?

Early on, children have to endure the sad, frustrating lesson that certain children may not want to play with them. They may not get invited to a classmate's party and the child who they have a crush on may not like them back. In fact, the crush may even be convinced that the child in question has the cooties.

As we grow up, we continue to learn this difficult lesson. We may not get a Valentine's card shoved in our desk from the one person we hoped would send their love. The person we pine after may be taken and unable to play, romantically or sexually, in the ways that we hope. The kiss we offer may be greeted with a turned cheek rather than the lips—or worse, an awkward wave goodnight. Or we may be taken and someone else may not be able to reach out to us, even if we want them to carry us away with kisses and dreams, or even a mundane Sunday spent doing the laundry and rubbing each other's feet. The list goes on: he may not, as the book and movie say, be that "into" you. She may like you "as a friend." He may want you only as a booty call and not as a soul mate. She may want you only as long as you do X, Y, or Z.

These moments of unreturned love or lust may be tough. Scratch that—they may feel gut-wrenchingly sad, confusing, bare, lonely, and vulnerable. And yet they are a tough reality of togetherness and separateness. Sometimes the person you most want to play with—to love, to touch, to kiss, to bathe with—doesn't want to play your game. Sometimes it's even harder: they may choose to not even talk to you anymore.

And yet we can't control what other people decide to do with their lives. Not only can we not control it but sometimes the kindest, most compassionate response is to acknowledge that whatever the other person chose is perhaps best for them at the moment. Maybe they are not trying to be cruel. Perhaps they know themselves quite well and they've decided that they can't look into your eyes, take your phone calls, or come home to you anymore. Sometimes people won't play with us and we are forced to be OK with it, especially if it's what helps the other person to move on with their life.

There's no doubt about it: unrequited love and lust are hard. Research has shown how different an experience it is (in terms of brain activity) compared to love that's returned. Not that most of us need a scientist to tell them that: if you've loved and loved back, and another time loved and been left in the lurch, you know all too well what the difference is. You know how endings or breakups feel. And you may also know that moment in time when you decide it's okay that you or they decided to leave the relationship. That it was OK to move on, to not always be there for the other person or to stop taking their calls so often or listening to their longing for you.

That's not to say that one should always give up: there is something to be said for insisting someone talk to you, for asking for a second (or tenth) chance, for getting on a train or a plane and saying "I want to try" or coming home and saying "I know sex is out of the question, but can I just hold you? Can we kiss?" But how to tell one from another? Now that's the mystery of love and of lust, isn't it?

If you're moving on from a breakup, a divorce, or other relationship heartbreak, check out How to Survive the Loss of a Love. In upcoming posts, we'll also explore some concrete tips on how to move on gracefully and also how to re-connect with a partner.

Learn more about Debby Herbenick at


About the Author

Debby Herbenick, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Research Scientist and Associate Director at The Center for Sexual Health Promotion and a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute.