Unrequited love: it's the topic of many a love song and sad movie. And with so many of us experiencing it at one point or another, it's no wonder why. Loving someone who doesn't love you back can hurt just as much as (or even more than) a breakup, but it's often the less talked about form of heartbreak.
So, what is unrequited love, why is it so painful, and how can you deal with it?
What is unrequited love?
Unrequited love is basically love you have for someone that isn't returned back. This can mean someone you're not with that you want to be with (which is probably the kind we hear about most often), or it can also happen in a relationship that has become one-sided.
Other forms of unrequited love can include falling for someone emotionally unavailable, pining for an ex, or being in a 'relationship' with someone who won't formally commit to you, explains Kendra Senn-Allen, founder of Break Up Bestie, and who runs courses helping people deal to with breakups and heartbreak.
You might also have unrequited love for someone completely unattainable, like a lecturer at uni, a work colleague who already has a partner, or even someone famous, says Relate counsellor Holly Roberts - and the fact that they're out of reach can actually intensify your feelings of love for them, she explains.
How do you know you’re experiencing unrequited love?
Sometimes, it can be hard to pinpoint where your feelings are coming from. But if it's unrequited love you're feeling for someone in your life, it might mean that the reality of their interactions with you are different to the idealised version of them you already have in your head.
"It’s possible to romanticise and project wonderful qualities onto someone when you’re not living the daily mundane routine with them," says Holly. Instead, she suggests taking a step back to see the situation more clearly. "Try to take a realistic view and notice whether the object of your desire is expressing the same level of love that you are for them."
Similarly, if you're in a relationship, you might notice signs that your love for your partner is becoming one-sided, particularly if they start to distance themselves from you, Holly adds.
What does unrequited love feel like?
When you love someone who doesn't feel the same way, it can be confusing to understand why, particularly if you've expressed your affection - which can make things even more frustrating.
"If we have such strong feelings for someone else it may be hard to understand why they don’t feel the same way about us," explains Holly. "We’re too immersed in our own feelings to get some distance to properly empathise with how the other person is feeling."
Unrequited love can also lead to feelings of rejection, which can make you doubt yourself and think you've done something wrong (even though that's not the case).
Kendra says this can really take a toll on your self-esteem. "People will often blame themselves for why they're not getting reciprocated love," she explains. "I often hear things like, 'I'm not good enough, if only I was prettier or smarter they would be able to commit or show me love,'" she adds - and this can also create a lot of anxiety.
When it comes to why unrequited love is so painful, it's actually because it's pretty similar to grief.
"We are chasing after something we’re never able to reach, so we have feelings of loss which are the same as grief," explains Holly. "It hurts to mourn the loss of someone, whether it was a romantic relationship that never even started, or reaching the end of the road with a long term partner," - so it's totally OK to feel heartbroken over a relationship that never happened.
How to deal with unrequited love
Just like getting over a breakup, it's possible to get over unrequited love too. Our experts recommend trying the following:
1. Reflect on the situation objectively
When you're wrapped up in how you feel about someone, it can be hard to see things from their point of view. But looking at things from a more objective perspective can be helpful, says Holly. "This will allow you to be kind to yourself, knowing that there are other factors influencing what’s going on; them not loving you is not just because you’re a terrible person."
2. Take off the rose-tinted glasses
If you're loving someone from afar, you've probably created an idealised version of them - but it can help to try to see them for who they really are, says Holly.
"Doing this will help you see their flaws and work towards knowing that they aren’t the best person for you," she explains.
3. Be honest with yourself
When you're hoping someone will love you back, it can be hard to admit that your love is unrequited. But, "determining that there is a problem and how it's affecting you is a great first step," says Kendra.
"I always recommend that clients get really honest with themselves through journaling; ask yourself how the relationship [or the situation] is going and how it makes you feel," she explains.
"Unfortunately, we can't change other people, so it's usually unlikely that [someone] will go from being unavailable to available," Kendra adds - and it helps to be realistic about that, no matter how difficult it is.
4. Set boundaries
If you're in a relationship or situationship where your love isn't returned, Kendra suggests setting boundaries about the kind of commitment you expect. "The key to that is, if they can't meet your boundary, then you have to walk away," she explains.
"Another exercise I have my clients do is write down what they picture in a long-term relationship," Kendra adds. "Once that's written down and is compared to their current situation, it usually becomes clear that what they're in isn't working.
"The more clear you can be on what you want, the less likely you'll stay in a relationship with unrequited love."
5. Reflect on your internal beliefs
While it's never your fault that somebody else is emotionally unavailable, Kendra suggests that if you notice a pattern of experiencing unrequited love, it's worth thinking about how that might link to your internal beliefs about yourself.
"For example, I had a client who kept going after emotionally unavailable men, and she had to realise it was because she didn't think she was worthy of being committed to," Kendra explains. So, if you do think your self-beliefs are affecting your relationships, Kendra says therapy is an option to help you work through them.
6. Learn from it!
At the end of the day, our experiences make us who we are. Holly says learning from unrequited love will help you to know yourself better, and to have a better idea of the love and care you deserve - which can only be a good thing.
Relate provides relationship counselling to couples, families and individuals. They are also offering FREE 30 minute WebChats with Relationships and Wellbeing Advisors to anyone aged 18+ who is living in England and affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Find out more at the Relate hub.
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