The experience in which one individual expresses passionate feelings towards someone who does not reciprocate the feelings in return
Fromm (1956) emphasizes the importance of the act of giving unconditional love and how it relates to one’s own happiness and satisfaction. However, this happiness and fulfillment could be at stake, or even absent, when the one who is loving is not being loved back. Although unrequited love is an experience of a passionate desire for an individual that is not reciprocal, it is worth noting that Dorothy Tennov (1979) coined the term limerence, which is similar to the concept of unrequited love. Tennov (1979) defines limerence as an experience of overwhelming sexual and emotional attraction towards an individual. The experience of limerence has many components including the fear of rejection, the hope of the desired individual returning the feelings, and the constant lookout for nonverbal cues of interest from the desired individual. Not everyone experiences limerence, but the experience of passionate love is thought to be culturally universal to the human experience (Hatfield et al. 1989). Passionate love, also thought to be very similar to unrequited love, is described as a strong passion for someone accompanied by intrusive thoughts (Hatfield et al. 1989). As one might imagine, the one who has the passionate feelings may experience unpleasant feelings if the individual knows that the feelings are not being reciprocated.
In unrequited love, the individual who has the passionate feelings is often referred to as the “would-be” lover (Baumeister et al. 1993). The would-be lover’s role could either be to remain silent about their feelings and make no attempt in trying to have a relationship with the target, they can attempt to form a relationship but it ends up not lasting long, or they can attempt to form a relationship and it could end in humiliation on the would-be lover’s end. However, before the initial rejection of the would-be lover, the experience of unrequited love can be a much better one for the would-be lover than it can be for the rejector (or the “target”), the individual who does not reciprocate the would-be lover’s feelings. The would-be lover may be hopeful that they can change the rejector’s feelings and make them feel passionate feelings too, keeping them persistent with their advances (Baumeister and Dhavale 2001). On the other hand, the rejector may become very annoyed or, in severe cases, even uncomfortable with the would-be lover’s advances, especially if the would-be lover does not stop. This can leave the rejector feeling helpless with regard to how to respond (Baumeister et al. 1993).
These persistent advances from the would-be lover may become stalking if they do not stop or if they become more frequent (Sinclair and Frieze 2000). However, from a different perspective, Sinclair and Frieze (2000) have shown that if the would-be lover, or the pursuer, does not believe their advances to be bothersome or the rejector has not explicitly stated that it was, the would-be lover has no perceived reason to stop with their advances.
Baumeister et al. (1993) concluded that both roles, the would-be lover and the rejector, are aware that their outcomes depend on the response of the other, thus creating a situation with little control for either party involved.
Why Do Unrequited Love Experiences Occur?
Unrequited love is a unique experience upon which there may be many different reasons for its occurrence. In fact, unrequited love appears to be a fairly common experience. Hill et al. (1997) found that most people surveyed reported such experiences several times over the course of adolescence and young adulthood. How do unrequited love experiences come about if they are so common?
First, equity theory may provide one potential description as to why situations like this transpire. This theory suggests that people ultimately match up with someone similar to them; however, they initially are not attracted to someone like themselves but rather the most desirable partners (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). This act of becoming attracted to and falling in love with someone more desirable than oneself has been termed “falling upward.” This mechanism requires, however, that the less attractive people will be disappointed in their initial attraction to partners more desirable than themselves. These disappointments should form one category of unrequited love experiences (Baumeister et al. 1993).
Another category that may serve to explain unrequited love experiences is that of platonic friendships. Friends who spend a lot of time together usually develop strong feelings of closeness and intimacy (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). The intimacy and mutual liking may encourage one partner, perhaps especially the less attractive one, to develop romantic feelings for the other. The result may be to have one person wanting to move to a romantic relationship while the other prefers that the relationship remain platonic (Baumeister et al. 1993). Platonic friendships provide especially excellent grounds for an unrequited experience to occur. While one of the friend’s feelings may flourish, the other may end up in a state of stagnation.
Similarly, the early stages of a potential romantic relationship also provide fertile soil for unrequited love involvements to develop. Unrequited love can thus be considered a “false start” on the way to mutual love (Baumeister and Dhavale 2001). Two people may develop a mutual interest in one another and after a few interactions, one person’s feelings diminish, whereas the other’s flourish (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). This instance may be particularly distressing, as there was an initial and mutual attraction at the beginning.
Lastly, the self-expansion model may be another indicator as to how unrequited love situations emerge between two people. This model treats love (the desire for a relationship with a particular other) as arising from a desire to expand the self by including that other in the self, as well as by associating expansion with that particular other (Aron and Aron 1996). There is a possibility that individuals’ innate motivation to expand themselves by establishing intimacy with another may drive their actions when entering into an unrequited love experience. Aron and Aron (1996) described three potential motivations for why unrequited love may occur. One is that the partner is high in desirability and if a relationship with that person would be extremely self-expanding, it is worth it to love them even if there is a low chance of a relationship occurring. Another potential motivation is simply that a person developed feelings when they believed a relationship was likely, but in reality it was not. The self-expansion model details one last motivation – the desire to experience love and thus get the self-expansive benefits of this experience without actually being in a relationship (Aron and Aron 1996).
Results of Unrequited Love Experiences
Although an unrequited love experience may be obvious to both the would-be lover and the rejector, their perspectives of the experience may differ. The stories of would-be lovers revealed that these individuals looked back on the whole incident with quite fond memories, despite their initial disappointment, pain, and heartbreak. In fact, many of the would-be lovers’ memories were bittersweet and warm (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). For the would-be lover, the situation does not always have to end badly, because the would-be lover perceives outcomes ranging from very negative to very positive (Baumeister and Dhavale 2001). Conversely, most rejectors had very negative recollections and feelings about the entire episode (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). The rejector’s outcomes are almost always bad due to the ambiguity of what exactly the right thing to do is. The rejector perceives the outcomes only from bad to neutral (Baumeister and Dhavale 2001), and they may not know how to act. In general, people found themselves acting in ways that were inconsistent with normal, established patterns of behavior (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). Overall, the would-be lover and the rejector both perceived the episode of the unrequited love experience differently, with the would-be lover having more positive feelings about it.
Individual Differences in Unrequited Love
As well as the differences in how would-be lovers and rejectors feel after the unrequited love experience, various individual differences and personality traits are related to unrequited love. These might impact who experiences it, how frequently they experience it, results of experiencing it, and why they experience it.
Researchers examined differences in unrequited love in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (Hill et al. 1997). They found that the amount of unrequited love experiences increased from children younger than 10 to those between the ages of 10 and 15, culminating in a peak in these experiences between the range of 16 and 20 years old, and lastly decreasing during 21–25 years of age.
The evidence is mixed on whether males or females experience unrequited love more frequently. Some evidence suggests females may experience unrequited love more frequently than males (Dion and Dion 1975), but others find evidence that males are more often the ones experiencing unrequited love whereas females are more likely to be the rejectors (Baumeister et al. 1993). Looking at the frequency of unrequited love in younger adulthood, men reported more unrequited love in the 16–20 year age range than women in this same range (Hill et al. 1997). Interestingly, they also reported more unrequited love in this 16–20 year age range than at other times in their life from childhood to 25 and more than mutual love in the same age range.
Self-esteem is also related to experiences of unrequited love, although it is difficult to determine the direction of the effect. Those with lower self-esteem reported more incidents of unrequited love than people with higher self-esteem (Dion and Dion 1975). In this study, self-esteem was measured weeks before the assessment of unrequited love instances; however, it is difficult to say whether having low self-esteem leads one to experience unrequited love or if unrequited love experiences lead someone to have lower self-esteem. Additionally, would-be lovers experience decreases in self-esteem as rejections become more frequent and the potential for a relationship with the object of their affection becomes less likely (Bratslavsky et al. 1998). On the other hand, the rejector may experience slight boosts in self-esteem due to being desired, although this may be short-lived as they may experience negative affect from not reciprocating the feelings. Even though it is difficult to determine whether those with lower self-esteem are more likely to experience unrequited love, or whether those who experience unrequited love experience decreased self-esteem, this research is important in highlighting an unfortunate correlation.
In looking specifically at Aron and Aron’s (1996) model of unrequited love related to self-expansion, people higher in the avoidant attachment style reported stronger desirability of the love state, regardless of whether it was likely to be reciprocated, than did people higher in anxious attachment style. This suggests that those higher in avoidant attachment might actually enjoy unrequited love, as they are less likely to actually want to be in a relationship – allowing them to receive positive and self-expansive feelings of love without worrying about a relationship or commitment. For those higher in anxious attachment, their main motivation for their unrequited feelings was desirability of the person (Aron and Aron 1996).
Unrequited love can be a potentially negative experience for both the would-be lover and the rejector. The would-be lover is being rejected which can be a negative experience, and potentially affect self-esteem. However, the rejector also experiences negative affect in the form of guilt, although at first they receive slight self-esteem bumps. There are three major reasons unrequited love occurs: equity theory, platonic friendships, and self-expansion. Self-expansion in particular provides an interesting motivation that involves wanting to experience the expansive properties of being in love without actually being in a relationship. This motivation is also higher in avoidantly attached people, rather than anxiously attached. In looking at unrequited love by age, it seems the ages of 16–20 are when the most unrequited love experiences occur, especially for males. The research is mixed on whether males or females are more likely to experience unrequited love, as evidence points to both having a higher frequency at some point.
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