Why Unrequited Love Can Hurt And How To Heal

Medically reviewed by Kayce Bragg, LPCS, LAC, LCPC, LPC, NCC
Updated May 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Loving someone who doesn't love you back is called unrequited love, and it happens to many people at some point during their lives. It can be challenging to cope when you have strong romantic feelings for someone who doesn't reciprocate your feelings. 

The rejection and potential grieving process that may be involved with unrequited love can feel difficult to experience and contribute to poor self-esteem, but keeping busy, maintaining a solid support network, and learning to love yourself can help. If you're having a hard time getting over unrequited love, you may consider working with mental health resources, such as a therapist, so that you can move forward in a healthy way.

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Unrequited love can be painful

Unrequited love

Unrequited love refers to a situation in which a person has strong feelings for another, but the feelings aren't returned. It’s generally the opposite of reciprocal love, in which the person you’re longing for doesn’t return your feelings. It may be the case that the romantic interest is not aware that the other person has feelings for them.

There can be a fine line between unrequited love and infatuation since both typically involve people that are not in a relationship. However, love usually involves a deep sense of caring and affection for another, as well as a desire for the person you love to be happy, while infatuation may focus more on the self and what you are interested in or admire about another.

Unrequited love does not only happen to single people or those in love with a friend who doesn't feel the same way. Unrequited love may also happen to people who are in relationships. People can change and may grow apart over time, which can mean that one partner falls out of love with the other or does not feel the same way they once did. This can be very challenging to deal with and accept. If you’ve ever experienced unrequited love, you may know that this type of rejection hurts and be able to more easily recognize the signs of unrequited love if it happens again. Love between two people is a unique experience, as is unrequited love. 

While the situation described above isn't the usual definition of unrequited love, it may be the type that couples encounter. This type of one-sided love can be complicated because people may hesitate to admit that their feelings have changed. In some cases, they may seek other avenues of affection, such as infidelity, rather than explain to their partner that their feelings have changed and risk losing the relationship altogether. They may prefer to focus on other relationships, rather than cope with the immediate danger of losing their partner.

Falling out of love may happen in a relationship for many reasons. Communication may have broken down, the couple may have different interests, or there may be previous issues, like unfaithfulness, that have damaged trust and made one partner more closed off or unavailable. Perhaps a person feels differently than they used to but isn’t sure exactly why.

Despite the cause, it can be possible to fix a relationship where love has been lost if both partners are willing. Online couples therapy may be an effective method of repairing the relationship, and it can give each partner the opportunity to talk about their perspective and how they see the reality of the situation.

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Why rejection can feel painful

Experiencing unrequited love may involve a rejection of some sort, which can induce negative emotions and psychological pain, potentially damaging your self-esteem. Social rejection can activate the same parts of the brain as physical pain, which can explain why unrequited love hurts so much.

Many individuals do not want to think of themselves as unlovable, so being rejected can cause them to question why they are not the love interest of their desired partner. It may be challenging to realize that rejection is often only a reflection of the other person's feelings and not something we have control over. Dealing with unrequited love can be quite difficult in this way.

Physiologically, rejection uses the same neurological pathways as physical pain. The idea of rejection goes back to survival instincts honed when humans lived in tribes. In the past, rejection by the tribe could mean death, as you would likely not survive on your own. Psychologically, rejection can feel like a threat to your life.

The feeling of rejection caused pain, much like putting your hand into a fire. Those that didn't feel pain with rejection may have been less likely to survive. The brain can release natural painkillers (the same as those for physical pain) during a rejection situation, such as unrequited love, because it processes the pain as physical pain. Recognizing the signs of unrequited love and setting healthy boundaries can help you navigate this difficult situation and begin the healing process.

Unrequited love can be painful

Grieving over lost love

When you experience unrequited love and the mixed signals that can accompany it, you may be launched into a grieving process over the future you had hoped would occur with another person. Feelings of heartbreak may arise as you wonder whether things will ever get better and whether that person will ever realize how great a romantic relationship with you could have been. You may even experience the loss of a good friendship after expressing your feelings and finding that they aren’t returned by the other person.

Grief and loss can bring their own set of physical pain. Grief is often a personal experience, influenced by one's attachment style. When grieving over unreciprocated love, it may be challenging for others to comprehend your negative emotions because you could be experiencing deep sadness over an imagined future. Fear, anger, denial, and other emotions may also be associated with grief over unrequited love, affecting your ability to develop romantic feelings and maintain healthy relationships.

The grief that can occur due to a death or a breakup typically has a definitive "before" and "after" the loss, which may make it feel simpler to come to terms with. In the case of unrequited love, however, the situation may not be as clean-cut, so reaching a place of closure and acceptance can be more challenging.


While time may be one of the most valuable resources when you feel heartbroken over unrequited love, there are other tools at your disposal to cope with the pain of rejection and work on developing romantic feelings in a healthy relationship. Here are three strategies you can try if you are experiencing unreciprocated love and yearn for mutual attraction and reciprocated love.

Keep yourself busy

Like a breakup, remaining busy may help you keep your mind off the challenging emotions you're experiencing. By engaging in work, having fun with hobbies, spending time with friends, and bonding with family, you may help yourself understand the other person's feelings and give the pain a chance to fade. Try to stay busy in daily life and engage in physical activity if possible, as exercise can release endorphins that may help with the emotional pain you’re likely experiencing.

Build a solid support network

You are not wrong or alone in experiencing unrequited love. Many people may have walked in your shoes before, and many more are likely to follow. Delve into social psychology and attachment theory to better understand these experiences. You may even find that people you know have experienced a similar situation before, and they may be able to offer up insights and advice.

Try to surround yourself with a strong support network of people who can be there for you as you work through the grief and other emotions surrounding the situation, and as you seek reciprocated love. Hugs and other forms of physical touch from loved ones may prove to be helpful during this challenging time.

Strengthen your relationship with yourself before focusing on a new love interest

While having a relationship with someone else can certainly be rewarding, you may forget that you always have someone there for you: yourself. Perhaps it would be helpful to take this opportunity to learn more about yourself and fall in love with who you are, or at least develop a healthy friendship with yourself. Spend time nurturing your self-worth and you may very well be surprised by what you find. This can enable you to release any guilt or negative feelings you may be living with and embrace more positive emotions.

Online therapy for overcoming unrequited love

Unrequited love may feel so upsetting that you find it hard to leave the house to attend therapy sessions at a traditional office. If this is the case, online therapy may be the right path for you. You can attend sessions and receive help from a licensed professional from the comfort of your own home, as long as you have a stable internet connection.

The feelings experienced because of unrequited love may be akin to grief. A study showed that online therapy was an effective intervention for participants experiencing grief and those with symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress due to loss. It was also noted that online therapy's availability and low cost could benefit many people experiencing these issues after losing someone they cared about.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

If you’re ready to try online therapy, platforms such as BetterHelp may be beneficial to you. Read the counselor reviews below from users who have experienced similar concerns.


Unrequited love refers to a love that goes unreturned. It can be a challenging experience to cope with, but keeping busy, relying on a support system, and working on yourself as an individual may help. Online therapy is another potential method of working through the feelings surrounding your unrequited love and learning new healthy coping skills.

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