What makes a man or woman desirable, of course, is a complex and highly personal mix of many qualities and traits.
Pain of Unrequited Love Afflicts the Rejecter, Too
by Daniel Goleman
SINCE Young Werther died from it and Cyrano de Bergerac was so noble about it, unrequited love has been one of the great themes of literature and drama. Now, at last, unrequited love is getting systematic scrutiny from psychologists.
The first studies to look at the two sides of unrequited love — the would-be lover and the rejecter — show there is pain on both sides and, surprisingly, the rejecter often suffers just as much as the rejected.
And in studying the dynamics of love that goes unreturned, psychologists are gaining greater understanding of common hurdles in the sometimes tortuous route to finding a lasting love.
“We rarely hear about the agony of those who are the target of an unwanted love,” said Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University who has done much of the new research. “Literature and film almost always tell the story from the viewpoint of the rejected lover. But both rejecters and would-be lovers can end up feeling like victims.”
The experience of unrequited love — not just a minor crush, but an intense, passionate yearning — is virtually universal at some point in life. Dr. Baumeister and Sara Wotman, a graduate student, found in a study of 155 men and women that only about 2 percent had never loved someone who spurned them, or found themselves the object of romantic passion they did not reciprocate. Their findings will be published later this year in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Despite the eventual heartbreak that is the destiny of the unrequited lover, by and large the incidents revealed that there was often more unhappiness on the part of the person pursued than on the pursuer. The unrequited lovers spoke of hope and passion before the final disillusionment; those who spurned them told of an initial flattery that soon gave way to bewilderment, guilt and anger at an intrusive, relentless pursuer.
Evaluating the emotional ups and downs in accounts of more than 200 incidents of unrequited love, Dr. Baumeister found that unpleasant emotions like frustration, anger, anxiety, or guilt were mentioned about a third more often in the accounts told by those who had been pursued than in those whose pursuit was futile. Moreover, despite their rejection, most pursuers said they still held a soft spot in their hearts for those who had spurned their love.
Typical was a tale told by a college woman who spent one summer living in a coed dormitory. “There was one young man whom no one liked, and whom she felt sorry for,” said Dr. Baumeister. “One night she and some friends were playing Parcheesi in the basement, and she invited him to join them. He apparently misinterpreted this kindness as romantic interest on her part, and began following her around telling her how much he liked her. She was horrified, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so she never told him how uninterested in him she was, nor how upset his unwanted attention made her.” The Pain of Saying ‘No’
The inability to tell an undesired suitor that there is no hope is very common, Dr. Baumeister found. “The rejecter usually feels guilty and doesn’t know how to say ‘No’ without hurting the pursuer,” he said. “So the most common tactic is to lie low, continue to be nice, and wait, hoping the infatuation will fade. It’s like a conspiracy of silence, where one person doesn’t want to openly speak rejecting words and the other doesn’t want to hear it.”
That strategy, however, feeds the fantasies of romance of the would-be lover, and so inadvertently encourages pursuit. “People send mixed messages, saying to the unwanted lover something like, ‘You’re a nice person, and I’d like to be your friend, but I don’t want to get into a relationship just now,’ ” said Dr. Baumeister. “Even when telling the would-be lover the bad news, the rejecters often sugarcoat the rejection with conciliatory words.”
The would-be lover sometimes seizes on the positive side of the message, remaining hopeful. Moreover, for most people it is clearer how one goes about wooing someone than how to spurn someone gracefully.
“The aspiring lover has many guidelines for pursuit — what to say, how to let them know you like them — and why to keep going despite an initial cold reaction,” said Dr. Baumeister. “There must be a thousand B movies where at first the girl rejects the hero, who persists and wins her in the end. So the would-be lovers just keep trying, like in all those movies.” Platonic Relationships
Things are not so clear for those who are trying to put off unwanted advances. “While the pursuer has all these tactics to try, over and over people who were being pursued told us, I didn’t know what to say, I never hurt anyone before.”
One frequent path to unrequited love is through what starts as a platonic relationship. “One of the most common stories told by people in our study was of being in a friendship with an undercurrent of attraction on one side,” said Dr. Baumeister. “Over and over people said, We were good friends, but I secretly was in love.”
Another typical route to unrequited love is perhaps the most predictable: falling for someone who is much more desirable than oneself, whether because of physical beauty or attributes like charm, intelligence, wit or status. Dr. Baumeister calls this kind of mismatch “falling upward.”
“Most of us think of ourselves as more desirable than others actually see us,” said Dr. Baumeister. “So people we think of as of equal desirability may not see it the same way.”
What makes a man or woman desirable, of course, is a complex and highly personal mix of many qualities and traits. But among those, a few stand out as more potent than others. Many researchers have found, perhaps to no one’s surprise, that in seeking a mate men are drawn more by physical beauty and women by the earning potential of their partners.
Men are more likely than women to fall in love with someone who does not return their feelings, Dr. Baumeister’s study found, by a ratio of about three to two. The romantic lure of great female beauty seems to account for a great part of men’s added susceptibility to finding their love unreturned.
“In my research with singles, I find that men invariably say they want an attractive woman,” said Dr. Deborah Then, a psychologist at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California at Los Angeles. “A lot of men have a fantasy image of the woman they want that is completely unrealistic — the tall, thin, big-busted models they see in Playboy — and their standards of female beauty get increasingly unrealistic as time goes on.”
Such men, Dr. Then said, are “prone to romantic crushes on women who are far more desirable than themselves,” and so find their love unrequited. That such relationships are doomed, Dr. Then added, is suggested by other research showing that “relationships tend to be happier and last longer if men and women are more or less even in attractiveness.”
Despite the heartbreak unrequited love brings, some men and women appear particularly prone to falling in love with people who will reject them. Most vulnerable are men and women who are so anxious about being loved that they drive their partners away through being too clingy, according to findings by Dr. Phillip Shaver at the University of California at Davis.
In a study of more than 1,000 men and women, Dr. Shaver, with Dr. Cindy Hazan, was able to identify three distinct types of romantic styles. In one, the “anxious” type, people’s experiences in infancy and early childhood have made them fearful of being abandoned by people they love. As adults, such people are clingy and emotionally demanding of their romantic partners.
By contrast, the “secure” type has had more positive experiences with being loved in childhood, and so has more realistic expectations of mature relationships in adulthood. And the “avoidant” type, whose childhood was lacking in secure, loving relationships, tends to shy away from romantic links. 10% to -20% Percent Called ‘Anxious’
Studies by Dr. Shaver and Dr. Hazan, as well as research by Dr. Elaine Hatfield at the University of Hawaii, find that 10 to 20 percent of adults fit the “anxious” pattern. “The anxious types fall in love easily and with great passion, but they are so terrified of being abandoned that they actually drive people away,” said Dr. Hatfield.
Signs that this is the case for anxious types come from data on 2,040 men and women studied by Dr. Susan Sprecher, a sociologist at the University of Illinois, who found that the anxious types reported falling in love as often as the secure types. But those in the anxious group were far less likely than those in the secure group to say they were involved in a romantic relationship at the moment, suggesting that their love life was marked by more false starts.
On average, during their dating years people report feeling an unrequited love about once a year, with a major passion every five years and moderately strong crushes in the years between, according to data reported by Dr. Baumeister and Ms. Wotman in “Breaking Hearts: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love,” published last year by Guilford Press. But some people, perhaps more given to romantic passion, report a strong unrequited love plus two or three major crushes each year.
As time passes, people seem to cherish the times they were the object of an unwanted love while the memories of times they were spurned fade.
“Since every incident of unrequited love involves one would-be lover and one who rebuffs, you’d expect the total number of memories of pursuing and being sought after to be the same,” said Dr. Baumeister. “But we find that on average people report having been loved more than they report loving.”
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