If you love someone who doesn’t love you back, it can feel like the pain is self-inflicted. You know that they don’t owe you anything, that they haven’t done anything wrong, and yet there’s an ache in your chest that won’t go away. You’re breaking your own heart, but you don’t know how to make it stop.
“Unrequited love” is the poetic name for this feeling of one-sided affection, and it’s extremely common. Researchers say that you’re four times more likely to experience unrequited love than an equal, complete relationship. Think about how many songs, movies and books are based on this agonizing feeling — there are many others who have felt exactly the way you do.
The good news is that unrequited love can make you stronger. It fuels creativity, self-compassion, and great self-awareness. In her book Unrequited, Lisa A. Phillips calls unrequited love a “primal teacher.” This is because overcoming obsession forces a shift in our perspective.
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“If we chase unrequited love too hard, we cause harm — to others, to ourselves, or both,” Phillips writes. But there’s another possibility “…that we may be able to do something with unrequited love and use it to our benefit.”
To unbreak your heart, you need to develop a fulfilling relationship with yourself. In the end, it could become a catalyst for change. As the toweringly influential psychologist Carl Jung writes, “Love is the dynamism that most infallibly brings the unconscious to light.”
The Many Faces of Unrequited Love
Unrequited love comes in many shapes and sizes. It’s even possible to love someone that you’ve never seen face-to-face. More common in teenagers and young adults, strong feelings towards an unavailable famous person can have negative side effects. For example, you might be altering your behaviour or mood based on what’s happening on their social media or in the news. It can also decrease your ability to form a relationship with someone who is available.
Before a relationship forms
Another possibility is that you love someone who is available, but you’re too shy to let them know. It feels like it’s easier to wait on the sidelines or just stay friends. The feelings might be mutual, but you’re too afraid to find out. If you express your feelings, but they aren’t reciprocated, that rejection will sting.
Some people don’t give up and keep pursuing the object of their affection. Others retreat, but still hold onto hope.
After a relationship has ended
For some, unrequited love can happen after a relationship has ended. One person has moved on, but the other person can’t accept that it’s really over. You are consumed by the idea that you’ll get back together. If so, you may be experiencing “frustration attraction,” a trait that causes some people to feel more passion after they’ve been rejected. This can lead to unhealthy behaviors like stalking or harassing your ex.
During a relationship
Lastly, even within a relationship, there may be love that is unrequited — t’s not always the case that both people are on the same page about their feelings at the same time. You might have stronger feelings and bigger expectations of the relationship. Or, contrarily, your partner might. This type of disconnection can negatively affect your self-esteem if the situation continues.
Regardless of the shape your unrequited love takes, it can become dangerous for your mental health if it persists. Giving love, and not getting it back in return, can often lead to depression and anxiety. It can also escalate down more destructive paths and result in behaviors that include violence or self-harm. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to speak to a therapist or medical professional.
Learning to Love Yourself
You know that expression, “You break it, you buy it”? Well, when it comes to unrequited love, it’s more like, “You break it, you heal it.” You broke your own heart and so you’re the only one who can fix it. Take this as an opportunity to grow — there’s a lesson that your heart is trying to teach you.
Jungian analyst Jacqueline Wright writes, “Rejection can be useful if a person can reflect on it.”
Did you have unrealistic expectations for the relationship? Are you having difficulty respecting the other person’s decision? Is this a distraction for something else that’s going on in your life?
“This kind of reflection takes courage because of our tendency to take the easy way and blame a failure on the other person,” Wright says.
By examining your role in unrequited love, you might discover areas for self-improvement. According to Wright, we’re always looking for “that missing piece.” Often, the person that we love has those qualities that we “don’t recognize or express in ourselves.”
Jot down qualities that you love about the person and compare them to your own self image. Are you idealizing someone for traits that you wish you had? If you develop those traits in yourself, you can start to let go of the other person.
The Power of Creativity
Even though your love is unrequited, it still proves that you have a big heart that’s capable of incredible passion. You also have a mind that’s creative — it just sometimes gets away from you. In fact, the link between creativity and unrequited love has been scientifically proven. Phillips writes, “Creative effort engages the brain in a struggle similar to the struggle to love. Both involve the reward system, the brain’s quest for satisfaction.”
Instead of wasting your energy on someone who doesn’t love you back, channel it into an artistic outlet. This could be a good time to focus on writing or painting. Try a new recipe, take an acting class, write a song, choreograph a dance routine in your living room. The options are endless — there’s something for every budget, schedule, and personality type.
Use your emotions for self-expression. Don’t push them away — they got you into this situation, but they can also get you out of it. Your heart will not be broken forever. You just need to take the steps towards healing and channeling your feelings toward a more receptive outlet.