Return to Sender: Unrequited Love is Painful for the Rejector Too
It seems safe to say that nearly everyone has been disappointed in love at least once in their life. Whether the feelings were never returned, or whether they started out mutually before finally fading, we've all known the pain of unrequited love—and this is true even for researchers. Flies, too, as it turns out.
In fact, a recent study found that jilted flies drink more alcohol than their libido-satiated counterparts, which may move us to show a little understanding the next time we find one floating in our whiskey glass. After all, we can easily empathize with a jilted lover, can't we? But what about the other fly? The one who jilted it. There wasn't much talk of her (or him?), which, when you think about it, tends to be the case in the human arena, too. Poets have written about many a broken-hearted lover over the centuries, but oddly, the rejector has been almost completely ignored. That is, until the 1990s when psychologists Roy Baumeister and Sara Wotman published Breaking Hearts: The Two Sides of Unrequited Love.
In their research, Baumeister and Wotman found an interesting and even surprising trend: like rejected lovers, rejectors also felt significant emotional pain, but would-be lovers were largely unaware of this fact because they were more self-oriented than rejectors. This was traced to the fact that the would-be lovers were "in a state of need rather than caring."
Another problem is that cultural ideologies about love tell us to persist in the face of rejection, a value which seemed to encourage would-be lovers to feel justified behaving in ways that would be considered irrational and inappropriate in other contexts. According to the researchers, they were "mostly oblivious" to the possibility that their actions might make the rejector uncomfortable. In contrast, rejectors felt guilty and pained by their own inability to return the other's love.
"Without the blinding effects of one's own needs," observed the researchers, "rejectors may tend to have a relatively clear notion of what the would-be lover is going through, so that, ironically, the person who is not in love will be the one with the greater level of empathy."
Unfortunately, the emotions of both actors may prolong the awkwardness. Reluctant to cause pain, the object of affection may express rejection too gently to impress the would-be lover; especially considering that would-be lovers have a natural tendency to filter out rejecting messages and amplify positive ones.
Overall, would-be lovers emerged from the study "fairly unaware of what the rejector goes through," noted the researchers. "Perhaps they did, dimly, sense that their attentions may have become unwelcome or even intrusive at times, but, being themselves overwhelmed with the catastrophe of doomed passion, they had little sympathy or compassion to spare for anyone else."
One may well wonder whether it is a hallmark of love to be so preoccupied with one's own needs that one ignores the needs of the "loved" one. Rather, it's probably the first clue that it's time to pick up the pieces of one's heart and move on with at least a little dignity intact.
And it is possible to move on. Contrary to the cultural messages we receive from our first fairy tale, pairing off in a romantic relationship isn't the end-all on the road to happiness; and there really isn't one—and only one—possible love in the world for each person. People do find deep, fulfilling love again after the death of a beloved spouse; and many in arranged marriages have grown to love one another as profoundly as any couple who believe that they "fell" in love at first sight.
Come to that, love is not something you "fall" easily into, is it? We may have an initial attraction, but in reality, turning attraction into love requires purposeful commitment, time, attention and a great deal of good, old-fashioned hard work.
Unfortunately, when it's us and the relationship we want, it can be easy to ditch reality in favor of a mistaken hope that this really is our one "true" chance at love and that if we are persistent enough, he or she will become as convinced of that as we are. But trying to force another to return our emotion is self-focused and destructive to both parties.
Admittedly, picking up the pieces of one's heart and moving on isn't easy, but there's a common denominator among those who are successful at it. The successful ones tend to reach out to their other social and family relationships, making the most of them for support, encouragement and human connection. On the other hand, the unsuccessful ones end up floating like a jilted barfly in a whiskey glass. Or worse, perhaps: like the jilted lovers you'll read about in the next post.
Social Issues: Family Violence