How to Heal from Unrequited Love

By Ginny Brown on Friday May 18th, 2018

Six Ways to Get Past the Pain

New Year’s Eve 2009 found me sprawled across my bed and sobbing.

I had been hoping against hope for a romantic New Year’s invite from my friend Shea, who I’d been crushing on since college. I had spent the entire afternoon hanging out and chatting with him at the bar where he worked, thinking maybe, just maybe, this would be the day he revealed that he felt the same way about me.

It wasn’t.

So I spent the night alone, crying, and wrestling once again with the heartbreak of being rejected by someone who liked me–a lot–but not the way I wanted them to.

I was in my late twenties at this point, and this was an unhappily familiar feeling. For my teens and most of my twenties, my standard romantic situation was ‘I’m in love with my friend, and they’re probably/definitely not interested.’

How to Deal Without Ruining the Friendship

If I’d been getting college credit for all those years, I’d easily have a PhD in Unrequited Love, with a specialization in How to Deal Without Ruining the Friendship.

It’s simple, if not easy, to deal with feelings for someone you don’t know well. You suffer, you cry, you write poems, and then eventually you move on. When it’s someone you’re friends with, though, it gets trickier.

You want them to stay in your life. You can’t always avoid seeing them while you nurse your broken heart. And because you know them better, your feelings for them have deeper roots and take longer to die down.

Feelings for a friend are trickierYou want them to stay in your life.

Nothing I’ve learned over the years makes unrequited love not suck. It hurt when I was thirteen, and it hurt when I was 28.

But I did learn a lot of things that made the hurt bearable, and enabled me to have relationships with the people I loved that were healthy for both of us.

So here are the five things I’ve found most helpful in coping with unrequited love.

1. Allow Yourself to Grieve

It is normal to feel grief, anger, denial, and all the other things a person might feel after a loss. Your feelings about the person you love are real, and the hopes you had are real.

In our culture, we don’t give space to mourn the loss of unrequited love. We tend to say either “Go get ‘em, try harder, your love will win out eventually!” or “Stop being pathetic and get over it.”

And neither of these are healthy.

If the person you love isn’t interested, continuing to pursue them is both disrespectful to them and hurtful to you, as it delays your ability to heal. But there’s nothing pathetic about feeling deep sadness when a love you feel deeply isn’t returned. It’s okay to mourn.

When the person you love is a friend, the fact that they clearly like you can make it even harder to process as a loss. No matter how many times you’ve said that you accept they aren’t interested in you romantically, moments of warmth and closeness can bring the fires of hope flickering back to life.

It is normal to grieveUnrequited love is a loss.

You may end up going through the grief process multiple times. I certainly have, with Shea and with many of the other friends I’ve pined for. It’s frustrating. It’s hard not to feel foolish, wrestling with the same anger and sadness you thought you’d moved past two months ago.

The important thing is to remember that these feelings are normal–and healthy. They take you toward healing, even if the road seems impossibly long and twisted.

2. Pick Your Distance

I’m not going to lay down rules like ‘You have to stop hanging out with the person you love!’ or ‘You can only call them twice a week!’

Every relationship is different, every person is different, and I can’t tell you what will work for you.

What I can say is that, most of the time, it’ll be helpful to create some extra space between yourself and the person you love while you work on healing from the loss.

Extra space could mean cutting in half the time you spend talking to them. It could mean taking a few weeks, or even months, off from seeing them at all. It could mean setting aside certain days and times where you focus on other relationships, other activities, anything but them.

Pick what seems to work for you–but do something to create some space.

This is extra important if you’ve been putting a lot of one-sided energy into the relationship. If you’ve been doing them a lot of favors or doing heavy emotional labor that they don’t return, this is the time to pull back on that.

Distance helps the healing processDo something to create some space for yourself from your friend.

Yes, you’re still friends, and friends help each other out, but it’s important to separate the nice things you do for your friend from the hope that they’ll love you back if you just give enough. You can do that by being very attentive to how much energy you’re pouring into the relationship.

3. Understand what Your Brain is Doing

We’ve known since the beginning of humanity that unrequited love can make you feel despondent, panicked, and obsessive. In the last few decades, neuroscience has given us a little more insight into why we feel those things.

Everybody experiences love and loss a little differently.

For me, for example, my feelings tend to be expressed in obsessive, intrusive thoughts rather than surging rushes of emotion or impulsive actions. But when you look at the neurobiology of lost love, you can see a lot of common threads in the thoughts, feelings, and actions that unrequited love tends to create.

Saying “I can’t stop thinking about the person I love because my dopamine is high and serotonin is low” doesn’t change the reality of that feeling. The feelings are just as strong and real after we have names for the hormones that contribute to them as they were before.

But knowing the biological basics can give you hope, though. I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling something strongly, I tend to assume I will feel that way forever. I know it’s not true, but I have a hard time really believing that I’ll ever experience anything but the soul-searing pain I’m in right now.

The neuroscience behind unrequited loveEverybody experiences love and loss a little differently.

In those moments, it can be helpful to remember that my feelings are related to the surges of hormones in my brain, and that it is completely normal and expected for those hormones to show up under these circumstances.

It doesn’t negate the feelings or diminish their importance. It just puts them in context.

Another helpful insight that neurobiology gives us is this: romantic, passionate love tends to burn brighter and longer when there are obstacles. In the normal run of things, in a happy and healthy relationship, the butterflies and thrills of new love will fade away in anywhere from six months to two years, with 18 months being the most typical lifespan.

When our love is thwarted, though–whether it’s by external barriers or their not feeling the same way–the lifespan of the infatuation can be extended by years.

So if you’ve been passionately in love with your best friend for five years, and no love in any other romantic relationship has lasted as long, that might be precisely because it’s not working out between you–not because you are special soulmates who belong together.

It also shows why it’s so important to accept the loss and start moving through the breakup feelings. Miserable as they are, they’re the road to a new life.

4. Find Non-Romantic Media to Consume

One of the things that makes it hard to settle into a friendship when you’re yearning for a romance is how hard our culture promotes romantic love as the be-all, end-all of life.

There are so many good things in life that have nothing to do with either romance or sex! It’s hard to remember this, though, when you’re bombarded with stories and songs about love, as if that’s all that’s worth thinking and talking about.

Avoid consuming romantic mediaGo easy on the love stories while you’re working on healing.

When I’m dealing with romantic loss, whether it’s unrequited love, break-up aftermath, or just an unwanted dry spell, I consciously avoid romantic media as much as possible. I make playlists of songs that are about other things. I stay far, far away from movies and books that center around a romantic plot.

Romantic media, at those times, makes me feel like I’m failing at what’s most important in life. Happy love scenes stoke up all the longings I’m already struggling with.

While I may find some songs about heartbreak and longing cathartic, I pay attention to whether it’s actually helping me or just keeping me down.

There’s another pitfall in romantic media when you’re dealing with unrequited love. So many of our romantic stories paint an unrealistic view of love. They show someone persistently pursuing the object of their affections and finally winning them over. They show unrequited love as something that haunts your life forever.

Rarely do our stories show the things that happen more often in real life: relentless pursuit only drives away the person you’re pursuing; people who weren’t in love with you five years ago continue to not be in love with you; and the torment of unrequited love subsides with time as you find happiness (and, often, romance) elsewhere.

Even if you know all this is true, consuming media that’s hammering in the opposite message can make it hard to believe and internalize. So in my experience, it’s best to go easy on the love stories while you’re working on healing.

5. Treat Your Feelings Like a Third Person in the Relationship

If your feelings for your friend were a person, what kind of person would they be?

Weird question, I know. Bear with me.

Treat your feelings like a third personIt’s helpful to think of your feelings as a separate person with their own agenda.

Sometimes I’m sitting having coffee with the friend I’m in love with, talking about our lives, and actually feeling happy in our friendship. And then they say something that makes me feel again how wonderful they are and how great it would be if they loved me the way I love them, and—hey look! My other pal, Feelings, has joined us!

It changes the dynamic, almost as if an actual other person came over and sat down with us. We can’t relate in quite the same way we could before, because Feelings is bringing in a whole new vibe.

As a third party in a relationship, Feelings is pretty high-maintenance. It’s hyper-sensitive and doesn’t get a lot of your jokes. It’s incredibly self-absorbed. Whatever the subject of conversation, it finds a way to connect it back to what it wants and what it thinks is important. It’s a terrible listener.

But, as with many actual people who have these qualities, there’s something attractive about the drama Feelings brings. It gives an intensity and a focus to your time with them. You’re certainly never bored.

So your feelings for your friend are like a third person who keeps coming to hang out with the two of you–whether you’ve invited them or not. Maybe you wish they’d go away and never come back, and maybe you also kinda like the spice they bring. Unfortunately, because they ride along in your brain, you can’t stop taking their calls.

But for me, it’s helpful to think of Feelings as a separate person with their own agenda.

It helps me deal better when they show up. It helps me say things like, “It’s not all about you, Feelings. Hey, Feelings, my friend is trying to tell me something and you’re making it hard to listen. Look, Feelings, I know this is a rough time for you, but you’re not the only one that matters here.”

Channel the energy into something elseUnrequited love can be a tremendous source of energy to get creative.

Maybe, someday, Feelings will go away completely and leave your friendship in peace. Maybe it will settle down and learn to take responsibility for itself, so that it doesn’t disrupt your friendship but just adds a poignant sweetness to it. Only time will tell.

6. Let Your Feelings Inspire You

If Feelings is a third party in your relationship, then this is like taking them out for some quality time, just the two of you, so they won’t keep hijacking your time with your friend.

As big and needy and disruptive as unrequited love can be, it is also a tremendous source of energy.

For me, a lot of the pain of unrequited love comes from feeling that energy wasted and meaningless. My feelings for my friend are powerful and important and real, and to think of them as something that I just need to squash or ‘get over’ feels wrong on a very visceral level.

So instead, I think of other things I can do with it.

Making art–whether it’s writing or music or visual–is one use, of course. It can also drive me to accomplish other things. To learn a new skill. To seek out new experiences. To travel and expand my world.

True story: in the aftermath of the most devastating heartbreak I’ve ever experienced, I decided to become a lawyer. For months, most of my free time was consumed in studying and practicing for the LSAT. I had my sights set on a top school, and I wanted to get a score that would make it attainable.

It turned out that “I want to be a lawyer” really meant “I want to be a steely badass who feels no pain and doesn’t need anyone,” and that those two things aren’t actually the same. Also, I am hilariously unsuited for a career like law.

Falling out of loveThe beauty you see in a friend never really goes away, but the intensity of desire does.

Fortunately, I figured all that out before actually going to law school. But I have a really impressive LSAT score to show for all those months, and more importantly, a boost of self-confidence in what I can achieve if I set my mind to it.

Your feelings can’t make the person you love, love you back. That’s not the kind of magic they do. But try listening to them and seeing where else you might be able to channel their energy.

While I was getting over Shea, I made a hat. I spun the yarn myself and knit it in a design that reminded me of one of the things I loved most about him. While I was working on it, I let myself really dwell on my feelings for him, my sadness, all the things that were wonderful about him that made me want to be his partner.

When I set down the knitting, I tried to set aside the thoughts, too, and work on building other good things in my life.

The hat was done before my feelings were. In truth, it’s hard for me to say when I fell out of love with any of the friends I’ve been in love with. When I see the magic and beauty in a person, that never really goes away. But the intensity of desire does.

Now when I talk to Shea, my happiness is straightforward, not mixed with longing and pain.

The me who spent New Year’s 2009 crying in her room might disagree, but looking back on it, I’m glad for the many, many times I’ve been in love with friends who didn’t love me back.

Most of the time, it’s given those friendships a depth that they might not otherwise have. And it’s given me lots of practice at those essential feminist skills: respecting others’ boundaries and being kind to myself.




The Neurobiology of Love and Relationships


How Romanticism Ruined Love

are you in love or in need feature

Are You in Love Or in Need?

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8 Responses to How to Heal from Unrequited Love

  1. Unrequited love is mentally and physically painful. I have only loved people who have given me the feeling that I have to merit their love, but I don’t quite make the cut. A lot of internal searching revealed that I believed this merit program was correct – oh, I was so wrong. We are all so deserving of mutual love, in all of its forms (friendship, family, lovers). And there is no prerequisite other than allowing the special light that resides within to shine, actively live, and develop its unique loves and passions. I no longer desire men who can’t see what I see when I look in the mirror.

  2. A man who is honest with himself will admit that they have become emeshed in a bond with a person who may, at best, tolerate a partner while waiting for something better to come along. As mentioned in the article, American Society promotes unrealistic and romantic expectations for both men and women. Women, however, have the advantage of being allowed to be rejected with the blame falling on an unappreciative partner. Men, on the other hand are remonstrated for being “too needy”, “too nerdy” or “too whatever”. For better or worse, guys are suppose to be able to “make the cut” or at least problem solve to win the Lady. Women are not expected to have the answers because they are the ones who are suppose to be the gatekeepers to relatio ships. This is supposed to be their “turf”, as it were.

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I just have one question, what if all these things are felt by a man. You would say it’s allowed. But reality doesn’t let me share this article with any of my guy friends, or that friend who I’m so badly longing for because hey! you can’t be feeling like this, you’re 30 and a man.


  4. I am experiencing this unimaginable pain now. However it is not a lover that I am hurting over but my child. For some reason they have pushed me from their life as an adult. With no goodbye, no screw you, no, I never want to see you again,no you screed up my life, no Reason why. They won’t return my calls or give me an address for sending letters. All communication had been denied. Not with words. Just ignoring. Just Silence. When this happened with a lover, I could eventually come to grips with moving on. Yes it hurt but, it was so much easier than what is happening with my child. How do I tell my heart that it’s over? How do I give up hope? How do I get closure? I have had divorces, lost a parent to death at a young age. Lost my 7 year old daughter to a tragedy. I’ve known pain. I’ve found closure in all these things. I am no stranger to grief. Nothing, NOTHING!! COMPARES TO THIS UNRESOLVED PAIN. HOW DOES A MOTHER STOP LOVING HER CHILD?????
    By the way! The best essay writing service – https://www.easyessay.pro/
    And Happy New Year!

  5. For myself? i have often wondered if i am attracted to unavailable men because i am lacking something in myself? it seems to connect with me being emotionally unavailable to the men that are interested in me?! also i have found through the years that if a guy is hanging out with you? it is (more often than not ) he is interested in more than just being friends! so to put a spin on this guy Shea whom you were in love with? maybe he was attracted to you? but is lacking something in himself and you were just too good for him!

  6. I just love this. I swear sometimes I’ve felt like a squirrel in the road, with a car barreling down on it; so indecisive due to a crush on a good friend. And I love how you speak about redirecting your energy, because I have found that that helps tremendously. I’m a writer, and sometimes I wonder if I allow my feelings to be, because I get a creative kick out of it. But I also believe that because she has moved far away, my feelings continue to surface sporadically, and maybe it isn’t so much that I “allow” my feeling to be, especially after reading this blog post. I swear I feel like a dog chasing it’s tail sometimes. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. It helps.

  7. All good food for thought. I find myself in this s situation quite often, as I gravitate towards what ultimately turn out to be emotionally unavailable men. However, keeping the friendship going keeps the pining alive, and with the added dimension of the future envy and jealousy I think I will feel if they get together with someone else! This is s contradiction because generally you would want a friend to find happiness, but in this case their happiness will likely take away st least some of your friendship.

    • When they do find someone and you are left in the lurch , it will be better if we keep them out if sight once and for all.

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