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The Psychology of Feeling Unloved

Would you rather have love, or everything else?

Key points

  • Going back to the work of Abraham Maslow, behavioral scientists have found lots of evidence for the importance of love in one's life.
  • Feeling unloved is, just as Maslow suggested, a wretched feeling that stunts growth and happiness.
  • Finding love, which comes in all kinds of varieties, is, without question, an essential part of the human lived experience.
pixel2013 / Pixabay
Source: pixel2013 / Pixabay

Thought experiment: You have to decide between one of two lives.

In life A, you are fortunate to have been brought up in a very wealthy family and it is clear that you will never have financial concerns as long as you live. Yet, as bad fortune would have it, in this life, you have never found love. And this fact cuts across relationship types. You have a lukewarm relationship with your parents and siblings. And in spite of paying for the upgraded version of every dating app that you can think of, you have never found a special someone, to the point that you've kind of given up on thinking that it might even be possible. And you often feel lonely, in spite of all your material riches.

In life B, conversely, you are deeply in love with someone who you are sure is the person of your dreams—your soulmate, as it were. You share everything together on a daily basis and you each find so much joy in spending time together—even in such mundane events as going through the Burger King drive-through together. And you trust one another in every single way—completely. This said, you and your partner are often in over your heads financially and you find yourself struggling to pay your bills on time each and every month. You manage, but it's not easy.

I don't know about you, but personally, I'd choose Life B; love without money. No question.

Maslow's Hierarchy and the Importance of Love

As Abraham Maslow first suggested in the 1940s1,2, love is one of the basic human needs. Beyond feeling like one has their physiological and safety needs met (e.g., having food and shelter), one of the foundational needs in the human experience is, according to Maslow, the need to feel truly loved.

While love often gets a bad rap as some nebulous experience that is really only for dreamers, all kinds of evidence suggests that, in fact, love is a real feature of our evolved psychology3. Love, which seems to encourage people to form deep connections and bonds with others, plays a powerful role in not only cultivating happiness, but in helping people develop healthy alliances and communities that have the capacity to lead to all kinds of benefits. Further, love actually is represented in various neurological and hormonal processes4. In short: Love is a real thing.

In the human evolutionary story, forming close, trusting, and loving connections with others is a core feature of how we thrive at all levels. Love is, in short, a foundational element of thriving. And this fact is true for people across the globe5.

A great thing about love is that it can characterize a broad array of relationship types. Sure, romantic or intimate-relationship-based love is usually what the term love conjures up. But, in fact, there are all kinds of important types of loving relationships. Love often characterizes relationships between siblings, parents and children, grandparents and grand-offspring, close friends, and even pet owners and pets.

Love, which is a complex emotional state that is typically characterized by a genuine and selfless caring for the welfare and happiness of another—often to the point that people will make all kinds of sacrifices for that other—can be found in all kinds of relationships. And this is a good thing.

The Adverse Consequences of Feeling Unloved

Unfortunately, love is not always easy to find. And it often has a way of dissipating over the course of relationships. So love is a tricky beast, to say the least.

In fact, if you think about your lowest moments in life, my guess is that a good proportion of such moments might be found at times when you felt decidedly unloved. Such experiences might include:

  • Feeling unappreciated and unseen from your own parent or parents
  • Experiencing betrayal in a long-standing friendship
  • Experiencing betrayal in a long-standing romantic relationship
  • Being abandoned by a loved one
  • Feeling dismissed or insulted by someone close to you

We evolved to seek, develop, and cultivate truly loving relationships. And for this reason, feeling unloved, which can happen via a variety of pathways, is about as horrible an experience as one might find in life6. In fact, breaches of love, such as found in the fallout of romantic affairs, have the capacity to lead to genuine, full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Think about that.

Bottom Line

The older I get, the more convinced I become that the best things in life are free. And of those freebies that have the capacity to make life so worth living, the experience of love—true, genuine, mutual love—is very much the key to happiness, growth, and thriving at all levels.

On the flip side, feeling unloved, for any number of reasons, is about as low a feeling as one might ever experience. If you ever find yourself feeling unloved (hey, it happens), from a Maslowian perspective, it makes full sense that seeking love should be a core goal toward emotional restoration and balance.

Want to get the most out of the ride during your limited time here? I say that, in one way or another, you might want to seek out truly loving relationships. As Maslow wrote years ago, love genuinely is a foundational experience toward thriving at all levels. When Paul McCartney and John Lennon sang, in 1967, "all you need is love," they totally nailed it.

Love is all you need.

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1: Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96.

2: Kaufman, S. B. (2020). Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. New York: TarcherPerigree.

3: Fisher, H. (1993). Anatomy of Love - A Natural History of Mating and Why We Stray. New York: Ballantine Books.

4: Acevedo BP, Poulin MJ, Geher G, Grafton S, Brown LL. (2019). The neural and genetic correlates of satisfying sexual activity in heterosexual pair‐bonds. Brain Behav. 2019;e01289.

5: Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

6: De’Jesús, A. R., Cristo, M., Ruel, M., Kruchowy, D., Geher, G., Nolan, K., Santos, A., Wojszynski, C., Alijaj, N., DeBonis, A., Elyukin, N., Huppert, S., Maurer, E., Spackman, B. C., Villegas, A., Widrick, K., & Zezula, V. (2021). Betrayal, Outrage, Guilt, and Forgiveness: The Four Horsemen of the Human Social-Emotional Experience. The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 9(1), 1-13.