Why Does Unrequited Love Hurt?
By Sarah Fader
Updated January 02, 2019
Reviewer Laura Angers
Unrequited love is complicated. It's often said that love hurts but when you're the only one in love it hurts twice as much. When you're in love with someone you envision a future with them, you think about them, even obsess a little, but the truth is all you want is the best for them which is what makes it different from infatuation. Not getting the love you want back can be extraordinarily painful, to the point it feels like your heart is being physically ripped out. While logically you know that the person isn't physically hurting you (unless they are, in which case seek help asap), the feelings associated with unrequited love can be felt physically nonetheless.
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, that 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 someone who isn't in a relationship with the person and who they don't know very well. Since love is about caring for the other person over yourself the difference between these two is that an infatuation is all about self while unrequited love can be love, it's just not returned.
Unrequited love, in it, 's very nature means that often your feelings are just that - only yours.
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. 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 risked 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, there may even be previous issues like cheating that have damaged trust and made one partner more closed off or unavailable. Despite preconceived notions, it is possible to fix a relationship where love has been lost if both partners are willing to try.
Unrequited love isn't about proving anything to the other person or making them love you; it's about a fiction created in your head that love exists because real love goes both ways.
The Love Chemicals
Love isn't just about sex. 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 after/before. You can have sex without being in love, and you can have love without sex despite what most people think. These two hormones are quite minor when it comes to unrequited love. Most of the hormones involved in the love process like noradrenalin 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 a feeling of 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 and the feeling dies down 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. 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 bonding, and it's found in all bonding situations such as those between a breastfeeding mother and a baby and between humans and pets. When we bond with another creature we create a sense of contentment and calm that is created by being 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.
It's not just the chemical pain we experience with unrequited love. Rejection has it's own set of psychological pain that can do a whammy on 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 that 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 ancient history when humans still lived in a tribal society. 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 would help you survive. 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 beating us up when love isn't returned.
Grieving And Mourning
When you're rejected you start a grieving process for the future that will never happen. While this is all likely to be created in your head love often leads us to fantasize about our future so imagining one without the person we love in it (which is then lost) means you'll mourn not only their absence but that future. 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 have its own set of pains. Grief is a very personal feeling; it's something no one understands in this situation 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, that's 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 at the same time. 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.
Getting Over Unrequited Love
Getting over a relationship that never 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 at the same time. Hopefully, over time the feelings will lessen, and you'll be able to move on. A healthy relationship means both parties feel the same so any situation like this isn't fair to yourself or what you deserve. If you're struggling to move on and find yourself obsessing about the unrequited affection, then maybe it's time to seek professional help.
A licensed psychologist can help you find a healthier way of expressing your emotions and give you techniques that focus on yourself to improve so that the object of your affections loses their importance. Sites like BetterHelp allow you to search therapists and counselors and find someone who will work for you. They also have relationship counselors if you're looking to try and fix your relationship and bring love back.