Unrequited Love

Pepé Le Pew

Unrequited love is love that is not openly reciprocated or understood as such. The beloved may or may not be aware of the admirer’s deep and strong romantic affections. ‘Some say that one-sided love is better than none, but like half a loaf of bread, it is likely to grow hard and moldy sooner.’

Others, however, like Nietzsche, considered that ‘indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.’ The inability of the unrequited lover to express and fulfill emotional needs may lead to feelings such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, and rapid mood swings between depression and euphoria.

Unrequited love has naturally been a frequent subject in popular culture. Movies, books, and songs often portray the would-be lover’s persistence as paying off when the rejector comes to his or her senses. The presence of this script makes it easy to understand why an unrequited lover persists in the face of rejection. Platonic friendships provide a fertile soil for unrequited love. Thus the object of unrequited love is often a friend or acquaintance, someone regularly encountered in the workplace, during the course of work or other activities involving large groups of people. This creates an awkward situation in which the admirer has difficulty in expressing his/her true feelings, a fear that revelation of feelings might invite rejection, cause embarrassment, or might end all access to the beloved, as a romantic relationship may be inconsistent with the existing association.

In terms of the feelings of the hopeful one, it could be said that they undergo about the same amount of pain as does someone who is going through the breakup of a romantic relationship without ever having had the benefit of being in that relationship. But, there are two dark sides to unrequited love; research suggests that the object of unrequited affection experiences a variety of negative emotions on a par with those of the suitor, including anxiety, frustration, and guilt. As Freud long since pointed out, ‘when a woman sues for love, to reject and refuse is a distressing part for a man to play,’ and vice versa. The role of the rejector will often force them to ‘feel morally repugnant and guilty’; and whereas the unrequited lover may always retain some hope, ‘the rejector’s potential outcomes are nearly all bad.’

Unrequited love has long been depicted as noble, an unselfish and stoic willingness to accept suffering. Literary and artistic depictions of unrequited love may depend on assumptions of social distance which have less relevance in democratic societies with relatively high social mobility, or less rigid codes of sexual fidelity. Nonetheless, the literary record suggests a degree of euphoria in the limerence (romantic compulsions) associated with unrequited love, which has the advantage as well of carrying none of the responsibilities of mutual relationships: certainly, ‘rejection, apparent or real, may be the catalyst for inspired literary creation…’the poetry of frustration.’

Eric Berne considered that ‘the man who is loved by a woman is lucky indeed, but the one to be envied is he who loves, however little he gets in return. How much greater is Dante gazing at Beatrice than Beatrice walking by him in apparent disdain.’ Ovid in his ‘Remedia Amoris’ provides advice on how to overcome inappropriate or unrequited love. The solutions offered include travel, teetotalism, bucolic pursuits, and (ironically) avoidance of love poets. American psychologist Dorothy Tennov has suggested that the only cure for being in love is to get indisputable evidence that the target of one’s love is not interested.

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