Unrequited Love Definition
Unrequited love refers to instances when one person (the would-be lover) feels romantic, passionate feelings for an individual who does not return the same feelings (the rejector). Research indicates that unrequited love is quite common. Almost everyone in the United States has either loved someone who did not love them in return or been loved by someone they did not love in return by the time they reach college.
Unrequited Love Background and History
For centuries, unrequited love has been a prevalent theme in the cultural arts (e.g., poetry, music, literature), as well as the popular media. If you turn on your radio, there is a good chance you will hear a melancholy singer lamenting over having his or her love refused by the object of his or her affection. Despite societies’ fascination with the topic, psychologists devoted little attention to the topic until more recently. In the early 1990s Roy Baumeister and colleagues collected autobiographical narratives written by college students from the perspective of the rejector and from the perspective of the would-be lover. Comparisons made between the roles of would-be lover and rejector provided insight into the process of unrequited love, forming the basis of what social psychologists know about unrequited love to this day.
Common Pathways in Unrequited Love
Unrequited love occurs for multiple reasons; there is no one specific reason why romantic attraction goes unreciprocated. Several common reasons emerged in the collected narratives, however. For instance, people will reject offers of love if they come from people who do not live up to standards they hold for a romantic partner. For example, one important standard people set is physical attractiveness. Research in social psychology indicates that people tend to prefer a romantic partner who is as physically attractive as, if not more physically attractive than, they are. So if Lauren develops a romantic attraction for Joe, she runs the risk of having her love rejected if Joe thinks that he is more physically attractive than Lauren.
Physical attractiveness is not the only mismatch that can lead to a rejection of love. People tend to marry those who are similar on a whole host of domains, such as level of intelligence and socioeconomics. Thus, when people fall in love with targets perceiving themselves to be superior on mate-valued traits, the admirer is liable to having their love rejected. Luckily, as people grow older they learn to better estimate their mate value and level of physical attractiveness. Consequently, they experience fewer instances of unrequited love and more instances of reciprocated love.
Platonic friendships can also lead to unrequited love. Friendships can exist between two people who differ in mate standards. Even though love will often go unreciprocated because of mismatches in mate value, would-be lovers could misread or misinterpret positive gestures and intimacies from a platonic friend as romantic feelings. This can lead would-be lovers to overinterpret the likelihood of gaining the love of their friend and want more from the platonic friendship than is desired by the target of their affection.
Developing relationships can also lead to unrequited love. Sometimes the rejector is initially interested but, after several dates, loses interest in the would-be lover for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the rejector is put off by certain values the would-be lover holds, the would-be lover could resemble the rejector’s mom or dad, or maybe the rejector comes to realize that he or she is not sexually attracted to the would-be lover despite finding the would-be lover to be physically attractive. Long-term relationships can even end in unrequited love, with one person wanting to continue the relationship while the other is losing interest. Although one may think all these different pathways will lead to very different experiences of unrequited love, research indicates that they are surprisingly similar.
Experience of Unrequited Love
Unrequited love is characterized by mutual incomprehension. Would-be lovers characterize the rejector as sending mixed signals and acting in inconsistent ways, whereas rejectors typically do not understand why the would-be lover continues to pursue them past the point of rejection.
Rejectors commonly grapple with feelings of guilt. Despite the portrayal of rejectors in the mass media as uncaring and cold, rejectors typically are quite concerned about whether they are leading the would-be lover on. Rejectors typically do not want to hurt the would-be lover, who is often a friend or colleague, and struggle with guilt that can accompany rejecting a person’s offer of love. Guilt, combined with the difficulty in delivering bad news to others, can often cause the rejector to send the message of rejection in a more indirect way to spare the person’s feelings and salvage the relationship. This, in turn, can confuse the would-be lover as to the rejector’s intentions. Or it can cause the would-be lover to maintain hope, prolonging the experience of unrequited love for both parties.
Would-be lovers, who do not want to hear the bad news of rejection, will often misconstrue, reinterpret, or completely ignore such ambiguous messages of rejection. If the rejector says no to Friday because he or she is busy, what would stop the would-be lover from trying for Saturday? No one wants to be rejected; it is very painful to know that someone does not feel the same way about you that you do for him or her. To ward off the negative experience of realizing the offer of love will not be returned by the object of affection is potentially one reason would-be lovers typically pursue the rejector long after the rejector feels it is appropriate to do so. Research indicates that once the would-be lover picks up on the message of rejection, he or she experiences a decline in self-esteem, signaling the end of the pursuit and the beginning of recovery.
Who Is Worse Off?
Despite the pain that often accompanies having love rejected, would-be lovers look back at the experience with a mixture of positive and negative emotions. Would-be lovers describe the experience as a roller coaster of emotions, filled with many euphoric highs but also devastating lows. For example, the state of being in love with someone alone can keep the would-be lover in pursuit of his or her target. Rejectors, however, typically describe the experience as mainly a negative one consisting of few, if any, positives. Targets of affection may gain slight boosts in self-esteem from the flattery of being loved by someone, but this is offset by the moral guilt of rejecting someone and by the annoyance and frustration experienced if the would-be lover does not desist pursuit.
Unrequited love has allowed researchers to examine reasons why people reject love despite humans’ fundamental need for mutually caring relationships. That people should endure personal costs, such as emotional discomfort and personal humiliation, to find such a person highlights just how important the search is for humans.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Wotman, S. R. (1992). Breaking hearts: The two sides of unrequited love. New York: Guilford Press.
- Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., & Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 377-394.