What Is Unrequited Love?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on November 15, 2023
6 min read

Unrequited love isn't just for books and movies -- it's a reality that many people experience. When you develop romantic feelings for another person who doesn't feel them back, it's unrequited love. Whether you're longing for your crush to make a move or you've told them how you feel and are rejected, this kind of love remains one-sided. 

If the other person doesn't have romantic feelings like you do, there are ways to move forward. At the same time, if someone expresses love for you that you can't return, there are ways to address it. 

Unrequited love can distort your ideas about the person you're in love with. You may be so caught up in your romantic thoughts for this person that it’s hard to notice they don’t feel the same. Signs of unrequited love include: 

  • Unreciprocated emotions
  • Having an unrealistic view of the person you’re in love with
  • One-sided contact through phone calls, texts, and social media
  • Longing for your love interest’s touch

There are five types of unrequited love: 

  • A crush on someone unavailable
  • A fixation on someone nearby
  • Pursuing a love object
  • Longing for a past love
  • An unequal love relationship

A study on the five types of unrequited love found that all kinds of these relationships are less emotionally intense than "real" reciprocated love. That might be why unrequited love is also found to be four times more common than the love shared by two people. 

Unrequited love is less intense in passion, sacrifice, dependency, commitment, and practical love than equal love. It can also cause less inner turmoil than reciprocated love. For some people, that may feel easier.

One-sided love can start in similar ways to equal love, but one person doesn't have mutual feelings of attraction or care. Causes of unrequited love include:

Romantic feelings for a friend. Strong friendships that last over the years are prime opportunities for intimate feelings. Some people believe good friendship is a foundation for romantic relationships. You may start to see your friend as more than a friend over time.

Your proximity to a person. Whether at work, school, or somewhere else you go on a regular basis, you may develop feelings for someone the more you get to know them. 

Love interests due to shared hobbies. If you find someone who likes the same things as you, you may see them as the perfect romantic partner. 

Mixed signals between friends. If your friendship consists of flirty jokes or physical affection, you may start to see your friend as a romantic interest. Mixed signals won’t make you fall in love with someone, but if you already find them attractive, it can make you more likely to look at them romantically. Especially if they’re acting like the feeling is mutual. 

An unbalanced attraction level. If there’s a perceived difference in attraction, the person seen as more attractive might not feel intimate with a person they believe to be less attractive. 

Insecure attachment style. According to attachment theory in psychology, you can develop one of three attachment styles: secure, anxious, or avoidant. One study examined how adults with different attachment styles handle daily social situations. It found that anxious and avoidant people felt less cared for by others and less close to the people they were with than secure study participants. If you struggle to have healthy relationships, you may be drawn to unrequited love. 

One-sided love can cause both positive and negative feelings, including:

  • Excitement
  • Passion
  • Infatuation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety

Overall, this form of love isn't emotionally fulfilling or healthy, so it's important to protect your mental health while going through it. 

Unrequited love is a common occurrence, but that doesn’t make the pain less real. Studies have shown that your brain reacts to rejection the same way it does to physical pain. 

If you experience the rejection of unreciprocated love, know you’re not alone. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from a trusted person if you’re having difficulty moving past the unrequited love.

Depression due to one-sided love

Unrequited love could cause you to reach a depressed state. If you're struggling, talk to a therapist about your feelings. If you are so unhappy that you're considering harming yourself, reach out for help. You can call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to reach free, live support if you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, a mental health or substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress.

Getting over unrequited love is possible.

If your love interest was already a friend, and they rejected your feelings, here are some ways to try to maintain your friendship:

  • Give it time. Give yourself and them space to move past your declaration of love. Start casually chatting again once you’re ready. 
  • Reassure your friend. Let them know that you can accept their feelings and still want to maintain the friendship. After the initial conversation, try not to dwell on the rejection.
  • Return to your usual routine. You may automatically try to avoid them. But your friendship has a better chance of surviving if you keep talking and seeing each other as you did before the declaration. 
  • Keep it friendly. Tone down flirting or sexual jokes that may have previously been part of your relationship. This will help keep you both from feeling confused or uncomfortable. 
  • When ready, talk about new relationships. Sharing details about a new love interest may ease any remaining awkward feelings about the unreciprocated love. 

If you’re struggling with overcoming the rejection, you may need to pull back from your friendship. It may help to spend time with them only in group settings. It's OK to need some space and time to heal after the rejection. Your friend might also need space. If they're distant after you’ve shared your feelings, they may feel guilty or sad and not want to hurt you further. 

If you aren't on speaking terms with your love interest, you can still get over unrequited love. Try these strategies:

  • Stay busy. Beyond job or school activities, revisit your hobbies or make plans with friends and family. 
  • Invest in yourself. Try something new, whether it's a class to help further your career or physical activity to help relieve stress. 
  • Use humor as a coping mechanism. One study examined how humor can help change your perspective after facing the rejection of unreciprocated love. 
  • Think about your relationship patterns. Before you open another dating app, think through the qualities you're looking for in a partner. Write down what you want to see change from previous relationships. You can even reach out to a therapist to discuss past challenges.
  • Try meeting new people. When you feel ready, finding new people to talk to or date could help you heal from the rejection. 

Remember that it's OK to grieve this loss. Give yourself time to move though and process your feelings. 

What if someone else is in love with you but you don't feel the same way? You may feel like you're in an awkward position, but there are ways to gently explain how you feel to the other person. Try these strategies:

  • Don’t avoid the other person. Without a response, the person may keep trying to contact you. 
  • Discuss things face to face. A text or phone call may not be enough to get your point across. If you're worried about meeting in person, bring a support person or meet in a public place. 
  • Be compassionate and honest. Share how you're feeling. If you're currently friends with the person, you can discuss if you want to continue the friendship or not. 
  • Be clear about your feelings, and don't give false hope. Rejection hurts, but you don't want to tip-toe around telling them that you're not in love with them. It only delays the healing process
  • Don’t apologize. You are not required to fall in love with someone who falls in love with you. If the feeling isn't mutual, it's not meant to be. 
  • Get outside support when necessary. A therapist can help you deal with the emotions of rejecting the other person. If their behavior ever makes you feel unsafe or puts you in immediate danger, call 911.