Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you it feels pretty freaking great, but, uh...only when that love is reciprocated. When it’s not? That, my friends, is called unrequited love, and whether it’s with a coworker or a friend who never sees you as *more* than pals, it is, quite frankly, pretty heartbreaking. If you’ve ever experienced that longing-so-hard-you-think-you’ll-explode feeling, you likely know just how painful the situation can be, because it’s more than just a crush—it can feel all encompassing and overwhelming. And just because your feelings aren’t returned doesn’t make them any less valid.
“At its core, unrequited love is a love that’s not reciprocated from one person to another,” explains Leanna Stockard, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist with LifeStance Health. “One person either has stronger feelings for the other or there is no feeling at all from the other.”
When you think about it, the term “unrequited” is pretty spot on. Since “requited” means “returned,” unrequited means all those ooey-gooey feels you have aren’t being returned. Clinical psychologist Monica Vermani, PsyD, says this imbalance of affection can cause “tremendous emotional turmoil” and can make someone feel anxious, depressed, stressed, and unworthy—not ideal, to say the least.
And even though unrequited love sounds a lot like an intense crush, it’s typically much stronger because there are real feelings…on one end, at least. The good news is that—despite how miserable and earth-shattering it feels—Vermani says unrequited love is actually pretty common. “Most of us have been attracted to or had feelings for someone who did not feel the same way about us,” she explains. “It’s something many of us experience at some point or another.”
Just because it’s common, though, doesn’t mean unrequited love isn’t majorly painful. So if you’ve found yourself longing for someone you can’t have, read on for everything you need to know about unrequited love, from what it looks like to how to stop it when it takes over your life.
What Does Unrequited Love Look Like?
Essentially, unrequited love looks like an imbalance of effort, affection, and attention. Stockard says you can tell if your love is unrequited because the person you have feelings for might be slow to respond to your texts or calls, might hesitate or avoid spending time with you, or might not even really know who you are.
Unrequited love often happens between friends, when one person starts developing romantic feelings while the other remains platonic. Another common scenario is unrequited love for someone unavailable, such as a person in a relationship, someone who lives far away, an ex, an authority figure, or a celebrity.
What Are Some Signs of Unrequited Love?
If you’re trying to figure out whether you’ve entered unrequited territory, here are some signs Vermani says could mean your feelings are one-sided:
- The person doesn’t reciprocate your efforts to spend quality time together or include you in their life.
- Affection—such as gifts, texts, notes, DMs, or acts of service—isn’t mutual.
- They seem uninterested or unavailable.
- They’re already committed to someone else.
- They show no interest or desire in establishing a relationship with you.
- You find yourself making excuses for why they show a lack of interest. (They’re busy, they’re in a controlling relationship, if they only knew you existed, etc.)
- They flirt with other people in front of you. They also rarely, if ever, flirt with you.
Why Does Unrequited Love Happen?
Vermani says unrequited love usually has more to do with someone’s perceived shortcomings or expectations than the person they’re pining for.
“Unrequited love is often based on pursuing from a romantic partner what is lacking in our own lives,” she explains. “The reality of this quest for love as a means of filling in the gaps or deficits in our lives (and ourselves) is that it comes from a place of lack. When we set our sights on an ‘ideal’ partner who ticks all the boxes on our must-have list, we often create the ideal conditions for unrequited love.”
It’s sort of like the white knight phenomenon. Here’s this beautiful, charming, talented person, and you know if they just loved you, your life would instantly be perfect. Instead of doing the work to figure out what traits you need to work on to become your best self, it’s easier to get wrapped up in the drama of unrequited love. This way you can essentially blame someone else for your deficits without putting any self-improvement work in. Beyond that, you can also avoid risking the potential disappointment of a mutual relationship failing.
“Many of us are brought up to believe that to be happy and fulfilled in life, we need someone—the one—to complete us,” Vermani says. “The main reason we suffer, though, is that we don’t accept people as they are, or accept situations as they are.” Oftentimes, people experiencing unrequited love don’t actually know the object of their affection on an intimate level. They might know facts—like their favorite food, birthdate, or middle name—but the person they think they love hasn’t opened up about who they really are. Or if they have opened up, it’s from a place of friendship, not romance.
So Is Unrequited Love Real Love?
While experiencing unrequited love might make you feel like you’re in a romance novel, the truth is, these feelings can be more accurately described as intense longing or obsession. Even if you think you know everything there is to know about them, you might actually not know them as well as you need to to really fall in love. Why? Because they might not have opened up to you the same way they’d open up to someone they were in love with too. (Which doesn’t make the situation hurt any less. It’s painful! We get it.)
“When love is mutual, there’s balance, give and take, shared intimacy, trust, mutual transparency (meaning a lack of secrecy), and commitment that grows over time,” explains Vermani.
Many people experience unrequited love at some point in their lives—usually in adolescence—when they’re figuring themselves out and discovering what traits they value in a potential partner. So in general, unrequited love isn’t inherently bad, but it becomes unhealthy when it’s left unchecked, impedes your well-being, or becomes a pattern.
“Being in a one-sided relationship may lead to further feelings of rejection and increased anxiety,” Stockard says. By staying in the fantasy, you’re limiting your ability to have a happy, healthy, and genuine relationship. Not only can this make it easier for you to miss out on a true connection, but it can also intensify, leading to more serious, unhealthy levels of obsession. “Unrequited love can be dangerous when a person takes their love to a level such as stalking, manipulation, or other dangerous forms of obsession,” she adds.
If your feelings for someone aren’t causing you or them harm, and you’re not concerned about whether they love you back, there’s less reason for concern. It’s perfectly possible to simply care for someone from afar and wish them the best without those emotions negatively affecting anyone’s well-being and ability to have healthy relationships.
How to Handle Unrequited Love
While you don’t necessarily have to stop liking someone just because they don’t return your feelings, attempting to refocus your energy is a good idea, especially if the situation causes you anxiety or pain. The sooner you reframe your feelings, the better, because trying to get someone to like you back (when their lack of interest is clear) is a recipe for repeated anguish and self-doubt.
Stockard says there are a few different tactics you can try, but they’re all going to take some work and effort on your part. “Determine if you need time away from the other person to gain clarity, and respect their needs as well,” she suggests. “As much as your feelings for them are valid, their feelings of not wanting to pursue something further with you are also valid.” This might mean actively putting yourself first before running to their aid, or checking your own needs before theirs. It could also involve physically distancing yourself from them and limiting interactions until the feelings have lessened or gone away.
If that doesn’t work, Stockard also recommends seeking therapy. “This process can help you feel confident that a partner who values you and wants you exists, and lessen the fixation on someone who does not,” she explains. You’ll also be able to pinpoint in what areas of your life there are deficits, and learn how to identify a partner who truly aligns with who you are and what you want.
Like most things in life, a little time and perspective can do wonders in this situation. “Often unrequited love is a fantasy—an intense, entirely one-sided romantic infatuation—rather than actual love. Over time, infatuations fade and neutralize,” Vermani says. “It’s important to focus on self-love, self-care, and self-fulfillment, because when we’re content with ourselves, we’re able to walk away from unrequited love that’s not in our highest and best interest. Once that happens, we’re able to recognize and find reciprocal love.” Aka the kind of love you deserve!
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.
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