What Is Unrequited Love?

In This Article

There are times when we have strong romantic feelings toward someone, only to find out that they do not feel the same way about us. That is called unrequited love—love that is not returned or rewarded. It is a one-sided experience that can leave us feeling pain, grief, and shame.

You may think it would be easy to tell if love is unrequited but it isn't always clear and can cause a lot of confusion and emotional turmoil. Learn what to look for and how to address the situation.

Signs of unrequited love
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell.

Types of Unrequited Love

Unrequited love may take a few different forms:

  • It might involve loving someone who does not return those feelings
  • Pining for someone who is not available
  • The mutual attraction between people who are both in other relationships
  • A desire for an ex after a relationship has ended

Signs to Look For

There are signs that can help you understand what is going on and if the love you are feeling for someone is being reciprocated. People describe feeling as if they are getting "mixed signals" from a love interest only to find that it is, in fact, unrequited love.

Initiating Contact

Are you the only person making effort to communicate? Are you the only one reaching out to check in with the other person to see how the day is going or find out what important things are happening in their life?

When you are the only one taking the time to reach out and connect with the other person, follow up with them about things, or inquire about their life, it can be a sign that this love is unrequited.

In healing dynamics, two partners who care about each other are motivated to connect with each other and share in the pattern of fluid, healthy communication. The exchange of energy between partners in a healthy relationship feels balanced, not leaving one person to bear the responsibility of reaching out to connect.

Research has shown that people who reject other people's affections often experience guilt. Rejectors tend to view would-be lovers as unreasonable, self-deceptive, and annoying—would-be lovers, on the other hand, tend to view their rejectors as mysterious and inconsistent.

Physical Touch

Do you desire to touch the other person, to hold hands, to kiss or hug? Our longing for connection includes physical contact and when people are equally attracted, there is a reaching out by both parties to want to connect on a physical level.

If you find that you are always the one initiating any physical touch, or that when you attempt to physically connect you are met with resistance or the other person pulling away, it can signal that this is a one-sided longing.

Unrealistic Views

Many times, in situations of unrequited love, one person has the other on a pedestal. The love interest is perceived as near perfect and any imperfections are easily explained away. There are rarely healthy boundaries set in unrequited love.

When people build a healthy romantic bond, they can both still see one another's faults, vulnerabilities, or imperfections. Healthy relationships allow for space for people to make mistakes and use those opportunities to help create closer bonds.

Each party can see and hear each other and their areas of vulnerability. In an unrequited love dynamic, only the emotionally invested person is able to see and hear the other party. There is not a mutual, healthy acknowledgment of each other in unrequited love.

Familiarity

Getting to know another person takes time. Over the course of time, partners in a healthy relationship go through experiences together, ask questions, and make an effort to understand and get to know each other. In an unrequited love dynamic, there is emotional investment on only one side.

You might find that you are always asking questions, initiating contact, and making efforts to invite the person into conversation or experiences. In turn, the other person may know nothing about you at all, never ask you questions, or seem to invite you into any meaningful conversation about you, such as your desires, interests, goals, or hobbies.

You may long for the other person to know you but the opportunities for sharing with them never seems to come.

How to Move Forward

There are many things we can do to successfully move forward after the heartbreak of unrequited love. It may feel impossible now, especially as you begin the healing process, but know that this takes time and healing can happen.

Although unrequited love can feel extremely painful, it can offer us an opportunity to grow in unexpected ways.

Through an experience like this, we can gain a better understanding of our needs, our patterns in a relationship, and how to become a healthy, positive partner in the future.

Allow Time to Grieve

Unrequited love usually results in deep heartbreak and feelings of rejection. When we are emotionally invested in someone and they don't seem to feel the same way about us, we might question our worth or wonder if we will ever feel loved.

Taking time to grieve your loss is important. You are certainly not alone in your experience, as many people have been through situations in which their love for another person has not been reciprocated.

Challenge the thoughts that might creep in telling you that there is something wrong with you or that you are not enough. There are variety of reasons why love may not be reciprocated that have nothing to do with your worth or being "enough."

Stay Busy

It's hard to move past the pain of rejection if you are dwelling and ruminating over your heartbreak. This doesn't mean that you should completely avoid thinking about what has happened, but find ways to stay busy so that you are not dwelling over negative thoughts. Spend time with friends who can offer support. Over time, you will find that the pain lessens and you are in a better place to look back at the experience with greater objectivity.

Understand Patterns

This may be your first experience with unrequited love or you may find that this seems to be a pattern for you. Much of the way we view and experience adult relationships has to do with what we learned growing up, what we observed, and what we were taught about love and relationships.

Attachment style can influence how we develop and maintain adult romantic relationships. Attachment, as described by famed psychologist John Bowlby, is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects people to each other. Primarily referenced within parent-child dynamics, more research is showing that attachment style has quite a bit to do with our adult romantic relationships as well.

Understanding your attachment style can allow you to gain insight into your own patterns of relationship, your needs, and how to develop healthier connections.

Invest in Yourself

When you have experienced unrequited love, it is likely you have poured a lot of emotional energy into another person and this may leave you feeling drained. To move forward in a healthy way, it is critical that you reinvest energy into yourself, your interests, your hobbies, and your personal goals.

Our sense of self can become lost when experiencing unrequited love since our sense of self can often be strongly connected to our love interest and our continual longing for them to return that love to us. Take inventory of your interests, things that bring you a sense of peace and joy, and the things that make you, you. Evaluate your goals and your values and become intentional about letting your decision making and behavior reflect those parts of you.

When To Get Help

Dealing with unrequited love, a breakup, or another type of relationship distress can lead to complex feelings of sadness, anger, and sometimes depression. If you are struggling to cope because of unrequited love or some other relationship issue, consider getting help from a mental health professional.

A therapist can help if you:

  • Struggle to get back to your normal routine
  • Experience feelings of breakup depression
  • Ruminate on negative emotions or having thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • Want to explore patterns that contribute to poor romantic relationships

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Unrequited love hurts, but it is possible to heal, grow, and move on from the experience. It is important not to take the other person's lack of feelings personally—it probably has more to do with them than with you. Once you can accept the reality of the situation, you can gain distance and perspective that will allow you to move on and start building a relationship that is reciprocated.

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