Unrequited love: Both spurner and spurnee feel bad, study says

February 09, 1993|By New York Times News Service

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 graduate student Sara Wotman 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 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 unpleasant emotions like frustration, anger, anxiety, or guilt were mentioned about a third more often in the accounts of 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.

Kindness misunderstood

Typical was a tale told by a college woman who spent one summer living in a co-ed 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 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."

No guidelines for rejecters

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 would-be lovers keep trying, like in those movies."

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.' "

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