Unrequited love is part of the human experience. At some point in life, most people will develop romantic feelings for someone who doesn’t feel the same way about them. A study of college students and high school students found unrequited love was 4 times as common as reciprocated, equal love. This type of one-sided love is typically more intense than a passing crush, and it often lasts longer.
Experiencing rejection after you’ve risked telling someone how you feel can cause a great deal of pain. In fact, some research has suggested pain associated with rejection causes brain activity resembles that caused by physical pain. Yet knowing unrequited love happens to most of us may not make that pain any easier to bear.
If you’ve ever loved someone who doesn’t return your feelings, you may have tried to cope by turning to your friends for support. But what happens when the object of unrequited love is a friend? Dealing with the pain of unrequited love may be even harder if you’re already close to the person you’ve fallen for. You might not understand how they can reject you when you’ve shared so much.
Over time, though, you may come to believe it’s more important to treasure the friendship you do have instead of wondering about other possibilities. If you want to sustain the friendship through the challenge of unrequited love, know that it’s often possible to do so.
Keep in mind, though, that it’s important to consider your intentions honestly. If you continue the friendship because you’re secretly hoping they’ll change their mind, you’re not honoring yourself, your friend, or your friendship. In the end, this deception can lead to more pain for you and your friend.
Why Do We Fall for Our Friends?
Developing romantic feelings for friends isn’t uncommon. Love grows over time, and strong friendships that last for years often provide numerous opportunities for intimacy to flourish.
- Friendship as a gateway to love: Many people believe a strong friendship is an essential foundation of a romantic partnership and prefer to build a friendship with potential partners first. This belief could help create a tendency to see friends as potential love interests.
- Proximity: People generally spend a lot of time with close friends. Eventually it may become difficult to imagine not seeing a particular friend often.
- Shared hobbies: Friendships often grow out of shared interests. Having multiple hobbies, interests, or other things in common with one person can make them seem even more like an ideal romantic partner.
- Mixed signals in a friendship: Some friendships are characterized by flirtatious jokes, physical affection, or other behaviors typical of romantic relationships. Mixed signals won’t “make” you fall in love with someone if attraction isn’t already there. But frequent touching or affectionate nicknames can fan the flames, so to speak, by giving the impression of a mutual interest.
- Attachment style: A 1998 study found people with an anxious/ambivalent attachment style were more likely to experience unrequited love. Attachment styles have their basis in childhood. If your primary caregiver was unpredictable with affection or met your needs inconsistently, you may grow up unconsciously reenacting that dynamic in adulthood. In other words, you may be more likely to develop romantic attraction for people who are unlikely to return your feelings.
Can Friendship Survive Rejection?
You told your friend how you feel. They apologized and said they just didn’t feel the same way, though they valued your friendship. You agreed the friendship was important and assured them you wanted to stay friends. You feel sad and hurt, but you’ve experienced rejection before and know the feelings will pass in time. In the meantime, how do you deal with frustration and pain while continuing to spend time with your friend as if nothing had happened?
First, it’s important to understand your feelings are normal. It’s normal to grieve, to feel hurt, sad, confused, or angry. But it’s also important not to direct those feelings at your friend. As long as they didn’t lie to you or lead you on, they’re simply being honest about their feelings, just as you were with yours. Your friend can’t help having platonic affection for you, just as you can’t help having romantic affection for your friend.
When your friend doesn’t return your romantic feelings, you both might struggle to deal with the situation. Yet friendships can recover from unrequited love if the situation is addressed with care and maturity. What happens next depends on both you and your friend.
Dealing with Awkwardness
Some friendships may continue but feel slightly different. You might experience some awkward interactions or occasionally feel embarrassed around each other. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault—this can happen even if you both truly want to remain friends. It may simply indicate you both need time to recover.
According to research published in Michael Motley’s Studies in Interpersonal Communications, friendships often end after a confession of unrequited love when awkwardness or embarrassment develops. To avoid awkwardness, it may help to avoid bringing up the situation once you’ve agreed you want to stay friends. Instead, move forward from it.
Jealousy is a common emotion, and it’s not inherently harmful. However, it’s important to manage jealousy in safe and healthy ways. Acknowledging what you feel is often a helpful way to start.It may feel more natural to completely avoid your friend, but Motley’s research suggests friends who continue to talk and see each other are more likely to remain friends than those who stay away from each other. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t give yourself some space. Even if you don’t feel you need it, it can help to take time for healing.
Your friend might also need space. If they seem distant after you’ve told them how you feel, consider that they too may need to work through what happened. They may feel sadness or guilt and wonder how to act to prevent hurting you further. Give them some time. If you communicated daily in the past, after a few days you might send a casual message letting them know you’re there when they’re ready. Then wait for them to reach out.
On the other hand, your friendship could also bounce back right away. But this scenario can present other challenges. If your friend has a partner already or begins dating someone before you’ve fully healed from the rejection, you may feel hurt and jealous. You may end up comparing yourself to their partner, and anger or resentment can develop.
Jealousy is a common emotion, and it’s not inherently harmful. However, it’s important to manage jealousy in safe and healthy ways. Acknowledging what you feel is often a helpful way to start. Open communication can also help. If this isn’t possible in your situation, try talking to another close friend or a counselor.
Tips for Moving On
If you’re struggling to get over the rejection after an extended period of time, it may be best to draw back from the friendship while you heal. It may help to interact with your friend in group settings rather than one-on-one. If you find yourself texting or calling them frequently, it may be best to take a break from contacting them.
If your friendship was characterized by affectionate gestures or flirtatiousness in the past, it’s probably better for you both to avoid this behavior, at least until your friendship has healed. Otherwise you might give your friend the impression you aren’t actually okay with remaining friends.
It is common to feel a decreased sense of self-worth or low self-esteem after rejection. Rejection can have an even more significant effect if your friend has been supportive through other instances of heartbreak. Reaching out to other loved ones can help when you’re having trouble separating the pain of rejection from your worth as a person.
Meeting new people can also help. Trying to date when you’re still recovering from rejection may not seem appealing at first. If you’re still feeling heartbroken, you may not feel ready to consider any other potential romantic partners. But dating casually—meeting someone for a short coffee date, for example—can actually help you begin to heal. Even if you plan to keep things casual, a few fun dates can distract you from what you’re feeling. It can also help you realize that you have plenty of romantic options.
Getting Help for Heartbreak
Grief and jealousy often accompany rejection and heartbreak, and it’s not always easy to cope on your own. Therapy is highly recommended when painful emotions interfere with daily life or make it hard to think about anything else. If you’re struggling, we encourage you to reach out to a mental health professional.
It may seem hard to believe, but you will heal in time. A therapist or counselor can support healing by helping you work through what you’re feeling in a productive way. Our therapist directory can help you find a compassionate mental health provider in your area.
- Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Allen, J. (1998, August 1). Motivations for unreciprocated love. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(8), 787-796. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0146167298248001
- Bringle, R. G., Winnick, T., & Rydell, R. J. (2013). The prevalence and nature of unrequited love. SAGE Open. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/bitstream/handle/1805/15150/2158244013492160.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
- Davis, S. (2018, October 22). Anxious/ambivalent attachment style: An examination of its causes and how it affects adult relationships. Retrieved from https://cptsdfoundation.org/2018/10/22/anxious-ambivalent-attachment-style-an-examination-of-its-causes-and-how-it-affects-adult-relationships
- Morain, C. (2009, January 21). Unrequited love: How to stay friends. Retrieved from https://www.ucdavis.edu/news/unrequited-love-how-stay-friends
- Weir, K. (2012). The pain of social rejection. Monitor on Psychology, 43(4). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/rejection
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