Why Does Unrequited Love Hurt?

By Dylan Buckley|Updated April 20, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

Unrequited Love

Unrequited love is complicated. It's often said that love hurts, but when you're the only one in love, it can seem as though it hurts twice as much. When you're in love with someone, you envision a future with them, you think about them, and you may even obsess a little, but all you want is what's best for them, which is what makes unrequited love different from infatuation.

Not getting the love you want back can be extraordinarily painful when you have so strong a connection with someone. Fortunately enough, there are always remedies, and we will cover some as we dive deeper into these issues.

If you're dealing with unrequited love, you can often feel alone in your struggle and unable to cope with your pain. But most people will encounter it at some point in their life. No matter how isolated you may feel during your experience, you are not alone and you are definitely able to move on and find someone who does feel the same for you!

Let's learn more about unrequited love and how to take the first steps toward healing.

What Is Unrequited Love?

Sometimes love isn't all it's cracked up to be. It's often said that in every relationship, there is a lover and a lovee-one person always loves a little harder. In unrequited love, it isn't just that one person loves harder but that the other partner (if they're even in a relationship) may not love them at all.

Unrequited love is when you have strong feelings for someone but they do not feel the same, they may not even know about your feelings. There is a fine line between unrequited love and infatuation, since both are usually about people not in a relationship together. But love is about caring for another person over yourself, while an infatuation is all about the self. That's why unrequited love can be love-it's just love that's not returned.

Unrequited love means that your feelings are just that-only yours.

That said, unrequited love is not something that only happens to singles. Unrequited love can also happen to people who are in a relationship together. People change and may grow apart, which means one partner may fall out of love with the other or may simply not feel the same anymore. While this isn't the usual definition, it is the most common one couples will encounter. Situations like this are difficult because they may be embarrassed about it or may seek other avenues of affection like cheating rather than come clean to their partner that their feelings have changed and risk ending the relationship.

Falling out of love can happen during a relationship for many reasons-communication may have broken down, the couple may have different interests, and there may even be previous issues like cheating that have damaged trust and made one partner more closed off or unavailable. Despite the cause, it is possible to fix a relationship where love has been lost if both partners are willing to try.

The Love Chemicals

While sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone are involved in getting us towards the physical act of love, they're not powerful enough to create the feelings that come before and after. You can have sex without being in love and you can have love without sex (despite what most people think). These two hormones are minor when it comes to unrequited love. Most of the hormones involved in the love process like noradrenaline and serotonin don't cause pain. They're involved in getting you pumped up and euphoric about love, especially in the beginning. The real culprits are dopamine and oxytocin.

Both dopamine and oxytocin have addictive qualities. Studies have found evidence of the way cocaine addict's brains react to dopamine which drives them to chase their next "fix." When we are in love, our brains release dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that gives you euphoria when you're near the person you love. It's heady and because we all enjoy feeling good, the moment that person is away, the feeling dies down and we crave more-so much so that our brains will do anything to get their "fix." This is where the pain comes in. We become stressed, anxious, and feel the physical need of being with the person to fix the "pain" from the drop in dopamine levels. But dopamine is only partially to blame for unrequited attachment.

Part of being in love involves creating a bond with a person. The chemical oxytocin creates this. It's found in all bonding situations, including between a breastfeeding mother and a baby and between humans and pets. When we bond with another creature we experience a sense of contentment and calm in their presence. It becomes reassuring to be near them and spurs our brains to produce even more dopamine, making the cycle even worse. If you have unrequited love, it's very possible your brain produced oxytocin as well as dopamine once you realized you were attracted to the person, which is why the pain is so much worse than if you had merely been attracted to them and it wasn't reciprocated.

Rejection Hurts

It's not just the chemical pain we experience with unrequited love. Rejection has its own set of psychological pain that can do plenty of damage to your self-esteem. No one wants to think of themselves as unlovable, so being rejected makes us question why we are not good enough or what is wrong with ourselves, rather than realizing it is only a reflection of that other person and not something we have control over. Physiologically, rejection uses the same neurological pathways as physical pain.

The idea of rejection goes back to survival instincts honed in prehistory when humans lived in tribes. At that time, rejection by the tribe meant death as you would not survive on your own. The feeling of rejection caused pain much the same way as putting your hand in the fire. Those that didn't feel pain with rejection would have been less likely to survive. The brain releases natural painkillers (the same as those for physical pain) during a rejection situation because it "thinks" the pain is physical.

When you're rejected, your body reacts the same way as if you had been physically hit or burned. With unrequited love, this rejection is often a repeated action that may be subtler but the body responds the same way. Our feelings are hurting us when love isn't returned.

Unrequited Love Can Be Painful

Grieving and Mourning With Unrequited Love

When you're rejected, you are launched into a grieving process for a perceived future that will never happen. While this is all likely to be created in your head, love often leads us to imagining a future without the person we love, meaning you'll mourn not only their absence but that future as well. You'll wonder whether things will get better and whether that person will ever realize how great the future you imagined together could have been-if only you'd worked out.

Grief and loss bring their own set of pains. Grief is a personal feeling-it's something no one understands because the "future" is entirely imagined within your head. No one knew or saw it, so you're grieving a fantasy. Our lives will never be the same as we imagine, which is normal, but with grief connected to love, it's doubly painful because we're often triggering additional fears and issues with that loss. The normal grief that involves death or a break up has a definitive before/after which makes recovery much easier. In the case of unrequited love, that doesn't happen, which leaves a vacuum where there is no closure.

Unrequited love is a complicated situation because you're simultaneously in love and mourning. You love the person but you're mourning something that will never happen or may never have existed. It shatters our hopes and with the loss of hope, many other psychological fears start to come out. Without hope, we become despondent and even depressed. However, this can be fixed over time.

Getting Over Unrequited Love: Effective Coping Mechanisms

While time is arguably the most valuable resource you have in the battle against the unwanted effects of unrequited love, there are other tools you have at your disposal you can use to combat the pain of rejection. Here are three effective strategies you can use if you are coping with unreciprocated love.

1. Stay Busy When Possible

As it is when you have broken up with someone, staying busy will allow you to keep your mind off the pain of unrequited love. By keeping yourself busy with your work, with some of your favorite hobbies, or by spending time with friends and family, you will allow yourself to get back to your own life and give yourself time for the pain to heal.

2. Build a Solid Support Network

Remember, you are not alone. Plenty of people have walked in your shoes and plenty more will follow. Surround yourself with a strong support network of people who will be there for you as you work through these issues.

3. Strengthen Your Relationship with Yourself

While having a relationship with someone else can certainly be pleasant, we forget that we have someone there for us 24/7: ourselves. Take this opportunity to learn more about yourself and to fall in love with who you are. You may very well be surprised with what you find.
Getting over a relationship that never happened can be tough. All the usual techniques don't work because the person was never yours to begin with, not to mention the fact that you're dealing with several other complex emotions as well. Hopefully, over time, the feelings will lessen and you'll be able to move on. If you're struggling to move on and find yourself obsessing about the unrequited affection, then maybe it's time to seek professional help.

Coping with Unrequited Love Through Therapy

Although you will have to do some of the work on your own, a licensed psychologist can help you find a healthier way of expressing your emotions and teach you techniques that focus on improving yourself. Sites like BetterHelp allow you to search therapists and counselors and find someone who will work for you. Additionally, they have relationship counselors if you're looking to try and fix your relationship and bring love back.
BetterHelp is an online platform, so you can easily connect with a certified therapist who will work with your schedule and help you in the comfort of your own home. The therapists at BetterHelp have a proven track record of making a difference. Consider the following reviews of BetterHelp counselor, from people experiencing similar issues.

Therapist Reviews

"A year ago I was experiencing difficulties in my relationship, which highly affected my psychological state and interfered with my work. At one point, I decided to try BetterHelp.com. My counselor Dr. Brewer helped me to see some things I couldn't on my own and encouraged me to prioritize myself. It was a huge help for me at that point, which led to the decisions I am happy about."

"Patricia is amazing. She helped me through some relationship problems. I am extremely grateful for her support. She is very kind and explains difficult situations in a way that they make sense. I especially loved the fact that she sends you a summary of your session so you can get back to it at any time. It helped me a lot. I felt very lucky to have had Patricia as my counselor."

Unrequited Love Conclusion

Unrequited love is a part of life, but the pain that accompanies it does not have to be forever. You are not alone. Move forward with a life that makes you happy, and you will be able to find love with someone who is going to love you back. Take the first step today.

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