From masterpieces in literature and verse to canvases and symphonies and performance art — through the ages, unrequited love has inspired all of these and more. Experts who’ve studied the phenomenon say that unrequited love is in fact a vastly different experience from love that is returned — and not just because of the angst of not having your passion reciprocated.
Apparently, when we nurture a one-sided passion, it affects our brains and our behaviour in very different ways than a two-way love does. So if you’re among the great majority of people who have (at one point of time or the other) moped about the man or woman who didn’t return your love (or even shed a bitter tear or two over it) then you might want to understand just what happens to us when we experience a love that isn’t requited.
It is universal
American psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister is one of the leading authorities, in a sense, on the subject of unrequited love, having conducted several studies on the same. Along with his student Sara Wotman, Dr Baumeister even authored a book called “Breaking Heart: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love”. Baumeister and Wotman found that in a group of students they studied, only two per cent reported never, ever having experienced unrequited love, or being spurned by the object of their romantic interest.
In another study, Dr Baumeister found that most subjects reported having experienced unrequited love at least once a year, with one “major passion” every five years and several strong crushes in the period in between. And while general perception may hold that women are more likely to experience unrequited love — it is actually men who report more such instances.
It’s also a delusion
In unrequited love, we do have an ability to delude ourselves, make ourselves believe that yes, our emotions really are returned even if he or she doesn’t seem to be showing it at the moment. Perhaps if we hang on or try harder, things will change. Psychologists say there is a principle called “motivational distortion” that is at work here.
Given a strong enough reason to believe that something must be true (even if it isn’t) we modify our thoughts, memories and perceptions in a way that reflects this “truth”. So you’ll remember his or her actions as encouraging your love or interest — even if he or she didn’t mean it that way at all.
At least one of the reasons the love experiences of the average individual tend to be of the unrequited sort is because of our — well, there’s no other way to put it — inherent narcissism. Social scientists have found that we all have a tendency to think of ourselves as more desirable and attractive than we actually are, or other people perceive us to be.
So very often we end up nursing an interest or a passion for someone who we believe is our “equal” in terms of desirability, whereas, in reality he or she may be considered far more attractive/desirable than you by others in society.
Why it hurts
Scientists have found that emotional rejection triggers the same areas in the brain that are activated when you experience physical pain. In his book Emotional First Aid, psychologist Guy Winch described the results of a study in which subjects who were engaged in a simple game of tossing a ball registered emotional distress when they were excluded from the activity by the researchers (who were the other participants in the game).
Clearly, if even such a small, inconsequential “rejection” can trigger pain within us, imagine the distress caused by having your affections spurned. Winch also went on to describe how taking a painkiller like Tylenol could actually reduce the emotional distress caused by rejection!
Experts have broadly classified unrequited love (UL) into four types: “Crush on someone unavailable; crush on someone nearby; longing for a past lover; an unequal love relationship”. What they’ve found is that UL tends to be less emotionally intense, but four times more frequent in occurrence, than equal love (or EL).
They’ve also determined that UL scores lower than EL on these factors: Intensity of passion, sacrifice, dependence, commitment and practical love — however, (and this where the whole misery of being in a one-sided relationship comes in) it scores higher than EL on “turmoil” experienced. So in short, it doesn’t have as many of the positives of a love that is returned, but has more than its fair share of negatives!