Reciprocated love is the ideal for most people looking for a romantic bond. But it doesn’t always go that way. If you’re ready to move on from unrequited love, recognizing its signs is the first step.

Man hugging a cactus in an example of unrequited loveShare on Pinterest
What is the meaning of unrequited love? The answer may be in your childhood relationships. (Ruben Earth/Getty Images)

Unreciprocated or unrequited love is when you long for someone who doesn’t share your sentiments.

Perhaps you have romantic feelings, sexual attraction, or an intense desire to be close to someone, but they don’t express or acknowledge the same interest.

If this is your case, you’re not alone. Unrequited love is common and the emotional pain that may come from it can be managed.

Unrequited love means you love or desire someone but they don’t love you back, so you can’t act upon your feelings.

Examples of unrequited love:

  • having a crush on a friend or classmate who hardly knows you
  • wanting to get together with someone who already turned you down
  • fueling your feelings for an ex-partner who’s moved on
  • staying in a one-sided relationship
  • loving someone who’s in a relationship with someone else

Here are some common signs of an unrequited love:

  1. They don’t make the same effort to spend time together.
  2. They’re involved and happy with someone else.
  3. They don’t know you or have any interest in establishing a relationship.
  4. They see you as a friend.
  5. They talk with you about their romantic interest in someone else.
  6. They’re not nice to you.
  7. They’ve turned you down or clarified their non-romantic interest.

Other possible signs of unrequited love include how you feel regarding the other person or your feelings:

  1. experiencing anxiety about the situation
  2. daydreaming about unlikely interactions
  3. firmly believing they do love you in secret, or that they will, despite evidence to the contrary
  4. feeling intense longing or lovesickness even if you haven’t had a relationship with them
  5. initiating contact that goes unnoticed or is quickly dismissed
  6. having your emotional needs not met
  7. feeling jealousy or possessiveness outside of a romantic bond
  8. dismissing or neglecting some aspects of your life to pursue an uninterested person

Is it worth trying to pursue an unrequited love?

In some cases, if someone doesn’t know how you feel, it may be worth being vulnerable and expressing your feelings to find out if it’s a reciprocated love. But if they’re in a relationship with someone else, have previously turned you down, or show no interest in you, it may be time to move on. Working with a therapist can help with this.

If you’ve experienced unrequited love multiple times, you may want to explore the reasons behind your tendency to pursue unavailable partners. Attachment theory may offer one explanation.

“The concept of unrequited love is usually spoken about in therapeutic terms as insecure attachment,” says Amber Robinson, a licensed psychotherapist in Los Angeles.

If you go from one unrequited love to the next, you might have experienced:

“It is important to note that attachment styles are learned and can therefore be unlearned,” adds Robinson. Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) can help.

Unrequited love and obsession aren’t the same thing, though they may overlap sometimes, says Dr. Jonathan Tomlin, a licensed certified professional counselor in Pittsburgh.

An obsession is an intrusive, often unwanted, thought that keeps popping up in your mind. Often, you can’t control obsessions and they cause a great deal of distress. They’re formal symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

An example would be limerance in OCD, where you think about your love interest so much that it interferes with your work, school, social life, or home life.

Although not always the case, some “individuals who live with unrequited love convince themselves, in an unsupported way, that the object of their desire corresponds to their feelings,” he explains.

This is often more similar to delusions — firm beliefs that you hold onto despite evidence to the contrary.

One example would be erotomania, also known as delusions of love, where you believe a public figure or celebrity loves you.

No, unrequited love and love addiction aren’t the same thing.

Unrequited love simply means that the love you have for someone is not reciprocal, says Dr. Nancy Irwin, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.

Love addiction isn’t a clinical diagnosis and it’s often a controversial term because there’s no evidence that shows people can be addicted to anything other than some chemical substances.

“The term love addiction applies when someone cannot accept that another’s feelings are not reciprocal, or cannot tolerate being single,” she explains.

In this case, individual therapy and support groups may help you cope.

Unrequited love: Is it real love or idealization?

What you feel is real and valid. However, it may not fit what some experts define as real romantic love.

One older study showed that unrequited love is less intense on scales that measured:

  • commitment
  • dependency
  • passion
  • practical love
  • sacrifice

Real love is often based on your close knowledge of who the other person is — their beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and interests.

Without these key elements in place, your desire for someone else may be infatuation — an intense but short-lived interest — and stem from idealized beliefs about the other person.

Sometimes unrequited love goes away. Other times, it may linger and cause you great distress. You may need support to overcome the pain.

1. Try to practice acceptance

It’s natural to have romantic feelings for people. When you feel shame or embarrassment about this, it adds an unnecessary layer to your healing process.

If possible, try to view an unrequited love as an invitation to learn more about yourself and experience personal growth. You will get through this.

2. Try to reflect on your needs

Self-awareness is often the first step toward change.

“If you feel like you have a pattern of unrequited love, I suggest doing some introspective work,” says Robinson. “Look into where these patterns may have originated. Once you’ve found the source […] you can take action into disrupting these patterns.”

A reflective journaling process may be one way to start this process.

You may find it helpful to ask yourself:

  • is this the first time I’ve felt this way?
  • when did these feelings start?
  • what did my childhood teach me about love?
  • what are my needs?
  • how would it feel to start a relationship with someone who cares about me?

3. Consider some boundaries

Laying down some boundaries may help you feel more empowered.

These can include:

  • limiting interactions
  • redirecting your thoughts
  • unfollowing on social media
  • avoiding daydreams or fantasy interactions

4. Reaching out to a therapist can help

You may find it helpful to connect with a therapist to explore your early childhood relationships, says Tomlin.

“A cognitive-based therapist (CBT) can help employ cognitive restructuring techniques to identify and change thoughts and behaviors,” he says.

5. Consider learning more about attachment theory

You may find it helpful to learn more about your attachment style.

“You can start by reading ‘Attached’ by Amir Levine and Rachel SF Heller or ‘Bad Boyfriends’ by Jeb Kinnison,” says Irwin. “We can learn how to attach securely, but it is a process and requires insight, time, and commitment to doing so.”

6. Broadening your horizons may work

Expanding your social circle may help you find new connections.

Perhaps try:

  • dating other people
  • new hobbies
  • reconnecting with old friends
  • spending time with family
  • engaging in altruism

Unrequited love refers to having romantic feelings for someone who doesn’t feel the same way.

It can be a painful experience, but there are ways to cope and move on. You may find it helpful to reflect on your feelings, work with a therapist, set boundaries, and learn more about attachment theory and relationships.