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The five kinds of unrequited love

Why do we pine for people who don’t love us back? Science reveals the five types of unrequited love, and how they compare to the real deal.

You and your best friend have known each other for three years. You’ve been inseparable since you met – so much so, that people are always calling her your girlfriend. If only that were true! You’re totally in love with her, obsessed with her, but you know she doesn’t feel the same: ‘We’re just friends,’ she tells anyone who asks.

Sweet sorrow?

Why do you long for a relationship with her when you know she’s not interested? You’re in the throes of unrequited love: romantic attraction to another person who doesn’t feel attracted to you back. It’s an experience that’s about as common as it gets.

This being the case, is there a chance that unrequited love could – on some level – feel good in the way equal love does?

To answer this question, a group of US researchers first noted down five different kinds of unrequited love. They organised them in terms means how much the person you pine for actually influences you, and how involved the two of you are in each other’s lives. So the five kinds of unrequited love go all the way from crushing on someone you’ve never even met, to loving a partner who doesn’t love you as much in return.

The five kinds of unrequited love

Movie star crush

A huge crush on someone you don’t know personally, nor ever really expect to know, like a movie star, rock star, or athlete.

So near yet so far

A huge crush on someone you know, but for one reason or another have not told about your feelings.

Hot pursuit

A relationship in which you’re actually pursuing the person you’re in love with but so far have been unable to win that person’s love in return.

Old flame

A love relationship that ended for whatever reason, but one in which you still long for that partner although there’s no chance of getting back together.

Rocky relationship

A romantic relationship you’re currently in, but one in which you feel you love your partner more, are more committed to, and put more effort into, than your partner.

From Bringle et al. 2013

Everybody's doing it!

Armed with these descriptions, the researchers tracked down over 300 high school and university students and asked them how often they’d experienced each kind of unrequited love over the past two years. The researchers also wanted to know how emotionally intense the experience was on a scale of one (no feelings) to seven (extremely intense feelings).

In a second study, with a further 450 students, the researchers asked about the intensity of some of the positive parts of love, like passion and commitment, in unrequited relationships.

Unrequited love – in all its forms – was four times more common than equal love among the students, the researchers found! Almost 90 per cent had pined for someone they couldn’t have at some point during the past two years. That amounted to just under two unrequited loves per year.

A huge crush on someone you know but haven’t yet approached was the most frequent form of unrequited love in the study. Unequal love between romantic partners was also common.

And it hurts...

All kinds of unrequited love are felt less intensely than equal love, the study found. Unfortunately, that’s true for the positive things a fulfilling relationship brings like passion, intimacy, and being able to depend on a partner.

But how strong your feelings are for the person you desire does depend on the type of unrequited love you’ve got. In general, the greater the interdependence, the more intense the feelings. So crushing on a movie star probably won’t compare to the feeling of wanting to rekindle the flame with an ex.

The research debunks the theory that unrequited love provides some of the positive aspects of equal love – like the euphoria of passion and lust and the intimacy in identifying with someone – without some of the costs and hassles of a real relationship that has ups and downs. Instead, it seems to show that unrequited love is a rather tumultuous and decidedly unfulfilling situation to be in.

Why unrequited love?

So why do we all at some point pine for romance with someone we can’t have? Why is it so common for us to put ourselves through this torture?

The researchers have three theories:

1. Practice makes perfect?
Desiring someone who’s not into you could give you practice at love – the kind you wouldn’t get from a friendship – even if it is less than ideal. For example, obsessive thoughts are common to both unrequited love and the real deal. And thinking about a possible relationship and dreaming about being with that person might, on some level, feel better emotionally than no thoughts at all.

2. Love research?
Unrequited love might be a sort of trial and error process that helps you learn who you are and what kind of partner would make a good match.

3. In it to win it?
Finally, an unrequited love could have a sort of delayed payoff, say the researchers. Even though there’s short-term turmoil, the possibility of a fulfilling relationship in the future might just be worth it.


Reference: The Prevalence and Nature of Unrequited Love. SAGE Open. (2013) 3(2):1-15.


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