Ever had a crush on a celebrity who had no idea you existed? Lingering feelings for an ex after breaking up? Or maybe you fell deeply in love with a close friend but kept your feelings secret.
These experiences describe unrequited love, or love that isn’t mutual. If your feelings don’t deepen much past a serious crush, you might not feel too distressed by them. But the pain of one-sided love can linger when you truly love someone.
At some point in life, you’ve probably had at least one romantic interest who didn’t feel the same way. Unfortunately, this is a pretty universal experience. But it isn’t the only way to experience unrequited love.
“Unrequited love can show up in a variety of ways,” says Kim Egel, LMFT.
She shares some common types:
- desire for someone unavailable
- pining for a person who doesn’t have similar feelings
- mutual feelings between people involved in other relationships
- lingering feelings for an ex after a breakup
Unrequited love can also happen in casual dating if your feelings become serious but the other person’s interest never deepens.
Unrequited love can look different across different scenarios. But Melissa Stringer, LPC, describes a key sign of unrequited love as “intense longing that spans a significant timeframe and involves little to no reciprocation from your love interest.”
Here are some more specific things that might suggest the love isn’t mutual.
Your love interest doesn’t seem interested in progressing the relationship
You want to explore a deeper connection, so you start inviting them to spend more time together. But they keep their distance as you try to get closer. Maybe they call what you see as a date a “hangout,” or they invite other friends to join the intimate evening you planned.
Their lack of interest can also show up in your emotional connection. When you try asking questions about their beliefs and values, for example, they may not offer much in their answers nor ask you similar questions in return.
They’re slow to reply to invitations, texts, and calls
Feel like you’re doing most of the work to hang out? Maybe they take forever reply to messages. Or when you invite them out, they say, “Maybe! I’ll let you know” and don’t confirm until the last minute.
If this pattern persists and they don’t offer any reasons, such as a prior obligation, there may be another explanation for their behavior.
Denying signs they’re not interested
No matter how you dice it, unrequited love hurts. To deal with the pain, it’s not unusual to go through a phase of denial.
Maybe you ignore the more subtle signals you’re getting and choose to focus on how often they:
- hug or touch you casually
- compliment you
- confide in you or ask your opinion
But some people are just affectionate and open, which can be confusing when you’re trying to gauge their interest in you.
“Identifying unrequited love,” Egel says, “requires your ability to be honest with yourself about what’s going on.” This involves paying attention to the other person’s signals, even though accepting how they feel might be tough.
Using what you know about them to get closer
You might find yourself thinking of ways to make yourself more attractive to the other person. Maybe snowboarding is their favorite hobby, so you suddenly take it up — despite hating both the cold and sports.
Experiencing a lot of unpleasant emotions
Unrequited love often involves a cycle of emotions, according to Stringer.
“This pattern usually begins with hopefulness as you form strategies geared toward igniting a romantic relationship,” she explains. But when these attempts fail, you might be left with “feelings of rejection and accompanying emotions, including sadness, anger, resentment, anxiety, and shame.”
Struggling to get them off your mind
“Unrequited love is usually partnered with a feeling of longing that can begin to take over your emotions and taint reality,” Egel says. Your feelings for the person might come up throughout your day, in different areas of your life.
For example, you might:
- check Facebook to see if they’ve liked your post (or shared anything you can comment on)
- write letters or texts (that you don’t send) to confess your feelings
- shop in their neighborhood in hopes of seeing them
- talk about them often
- imagine scenarios where you tell them how you feel
It hurts when your feelings aren’t reciprocated. In fact, a small study from 2011 suggests rejection activates the same areas in the brain as physical pain. These tips can help you cope with the pain until it lessens.
Talk about it…
A conversation with the other person about how you feel can seem frightening, but it’s often the best way to address the situation.
If you sense some confusing signals, like flirty behavior or affectionate gestures, from the person you’re interested in, talking about those things can help. It’s not always easy to interpret someone’s behavior, so you may not know exactly how they feel unless they tell you.
Feel too overwhelming? It’s also perfectly fine to just talk to a trusted friend about what you’re going through. Sometimes, just getting these feelings off your chest can offer relief.
…but don’t linger
You confess your love for a friend, but they reject you. You’re hurt, but you want to remain friends. The best way to do this is to focus on your friendship.
If they’ve made it clear they aren’t interested in any romantic involvement, drop the subject of romance. Continuing to pursue them or hoping they’ll have a change of heart may eventually frustrate them, damage your friendship, and cause you more pain.
But don’t feel like you have to force your friendship right now, either. It’s completely normal to need space and time to heal.
Feel your feelings…
Unrequited love generally involves a lot of emotions, not all of them negative.
You might feel excited to see the person you love, on top of the world when you get to spend time with them, and deeply sad when you realize you’ll never have more than their friendship.
Try practicing mindful acceptance of all of these feelings. Accept them as they come up without attaching judgment to them. Just notice them and let them pass. Journaling about them as you notice them (even the ones that hurt) can help, too.
…and then distract yourself
All of your feelings are valid, and noticing and accepting them can help you move forward.
But try to maintain some balance, as too much time wallowing can end up making you more miserable. During the day, it can help to set the feelings aside until you have time and space to address them.
Find meaning in the experience
“It’s not so much about what happens to us in life, it’s more about how we to respond to the situation at hand,” Egel says.
You loved someone and wanted to be loved in return. Maybe you didn’t get the outcome you hoped, but that doesn’t mean your love is meaningless. Did you learn something about yourself? Grow in some way? Develop a stronger friendship with the person?
Rejection can certainly cause pain, but love can also linger and mellow into a different love that’s more like friendship. It may not seem very comforting now, but someday you might value this friendship even more.
Ask yourself what you really want
“Your feelings are always communicating with you,” Egel says. “As you pay attention to the truth of your experience, your feelings can help point you in the right direction for you.”
Maybe your experience taught you more about the kind of person you’re attracted to, for example.
If you keep experiencing unrequited love, it could help to consider whether this pattern says something about your needs. Falling in love with people who don’t return your feelings could suggest you feel like you should be in love with someone when you’re really happier on your own. Maybe you don’t really want a relationship — there’s nothing wrong with that.
Dealing with unrequited love is an absolutely valid reason to seek the help of a qualified therapist.
Stringer suggests therapy may be especially helpful if:
- You’re unable to stop pursuing the other person after they’ve said they aren’t interested.
- You spend so much time thinking about the other person it interferes with your daily life.
- Friends and loved ones express concern about your behavior.
It’s also wise to seek professional help if your feelings lead to potentially problematic behaviors, such as following the person, waiting around their house or work, or other actions that could seem like stalking.
According to Egel, being drawn toward one-sided love might also suggest you’re dealing with some emotional residue or an unhealed past. Therapy can help you address this, which may help clear the way for a mutual attraction.
Rejecting someone kindly isn’t always easy, especially if you really care about the person.
You might even consider trying to date them instead to see what happens. But if you’re certain you don’t have any romantic interest, this may complicate things for you both.
Here are some tips for navigating this situation gracefully
Avoidance generally doesn’t help
You might want to avoid them until their feelings fade, but this can hurt you both, especially if you’re good friends. Instead, try talking about the situation. This may be slightly uncomfortable, but an honest discussion could help you both move forward.
Take care in how you express your lack of interest. Be honest, but kind. Mention things you do value about them before explaining why you don’t see the two of you as a couple.
Chances are, you’ve had feelings for someone who didn’t return them at some point. Think back on how this made you feel. What would’ve helped you at the time?
Even if you haven’t experienced unrequited love, offering kindness until the sting of rejection fades could help the other person take comfort in your existing friendship.
Make your rejection clear
It’s important to clearly say you aren’t interested. You may not want to hurt their feelings with an outright, “I don’t feel that way about you.” But vague or ambiguous refusals could encourage them to keep trying.
Being up front now can help prevent later pain and frustration for you both.
- “You’re important to me and I value the time we spend together, but I only see you as a friend.”
- “I’m not interested in you romantically, but I want to stay good friends. How can we make that work?”
Avoid saying things like, “You’ll find someone who’s right for you,” or, “I’m no good for you.” These could seem dismissive. They might also inspire reactions like, “Well, how do you know unless we try?”
Unrequited love can be rough for everyone involved, but things will get better with time. If you’re having a hard time, therapy can always offer a safe, judgment-free space to work through your feelings.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.