Why do we chase "the one"?

by Prachi Bhatia 
January 13, 2021
Why do we chase "the one"?

Ah, love!
Love, is not always reciprocated. Intuitively, one would think that humans then shouldn’t chase a person when their love is not returned by the other, but we still find ourselves doing just that, ever wonder why? This kind of behavior is what makes a ‘motivational paradox’, a phenomena that describes how an action that is counterintuitive to self-preservation, is yet performed by us with all our earnest motivation. As per evolutionary theories, human beings are motivated to act towards things/situations only when we gain positive returns. Then why is it that in matters pertaining to our heart, we are so capable of unselfishly loving or chasing someone who doesn’t love us back? What motivates us to keep loving? What is it that motivates us to chase “the one”?. To find an answer to this conundrum, we sought simplifications from Science. Unrequited, unreciprocated, or one sided love refers to intense romantic feelings experienced by one person, but a lack of reciprocation from another towards whom the feelings are directed. Unrequited love is a common phenomenon experienced by almost 82% of young adults once in their lifetime (no kidding!; c.f., Baumeister et al., 1993). Science points to certain motivations as well as attachment patterns to resolve this paradoxical question.

According to the theory of motivation, research suggests that there are three main motivators that drive people to desire another person who doesn’t reciprocate the same feelings of love, a.k.a., ‘The One’. The first is Perceived Desirability, which is the perceived potential value (desirability) of having a close relationship with The One. The lover imagines that The One has high potential value as a romantic partner, even when the possibility of forming this relationship is relatively low. This perceived benefit motivates the lover to rationalize or find meaning in their chase, even if the chances of a relationship actually materializing are near zero, because the desirability for a blissful, loving relationship (like one portrayed in literature and cinema), is overpowering. The second main motivator is Perceived Probability, which is the probability of ever having a close romantic relationship with The One. The lover perceives the probability of reciprocation as higher than actuality. This misperception can happen due to various reasons such as misreading certain cues/gestures by the beloved which the lover may have interpreted as interest in a romantic relationship. Misinterpretation of social cues may be stronger in cases of “platonic intimacy”; intimacy without being in a romantic relationship, also what we call friendship (perhaps?). Once love inhibits the lover’s mind, these misreadings help maintain the motivation to pursue unreciprocated love. The third motivator is deemed to be Perceived Desirability of the State, i.e., the “act of being in love” and the benefits associated with it by playing the role of a lover. Perceived benefits could be the excitement and passion involved, or being seen by others and oneself as a “romantic or tragic hero”. Moreover, people seek to expand “the self”, that is, our sense of personal identity and who we are as individuals. One way to expand the self is by including others in it, through interpersonal relationships. Each person has various ways of expanding ‘the self’, for example, subjective experiences in past relationships shape the way in which one seeks to expand oneself through relationships. This need for self expansion may also work as a motivator to remain in a state of love and dreamy relationship, thereby chasing The One.

Other than the abovementioned motivators, there are also different attachment patterns developed by humans depending on past experiences such as secure attachment, anxious or ambivalent attachments, or avoidance that may lead to counterintuitive chasing behaviors. In the context of interpersonal closeness in the earliest relationships like the ones with primary caretakers (mother for example), people who were regularly successful in expanding ’the self’ through those relationships, become securely attached and are less likely to experience unreciprocated love. People who were regularly unsuccessful in expanding ’the self’ are prone to develop an avoidant attachment pattern. Avoidants are less likely to chase love because they believe that it is rare to find love, or truly love someone. Nevertheless, unreciprocated love provides them an opportunity to feel as though one is “in love” while not being socially bound to the expectations of relationships as there is no reciprocation and commitment. Therefore, individuals with avoidant attachment patterns are also motivated to chase unreciprocated love. People who have had regular inconsistent relationships or past experiences tend to develop anxious/ambivalent attachment patterns. Due to the nature of previous experiences of inconsistent returns, these individuals believe that they may achieve those desired returns which they “sometimes” received in the past. Thus, these inconsistencies develop a pattern of having expectations, but with insecurity. There is a higher motivation to chase unreciprocated love because of this “just in case” type of hope. To summarize, attachment patterns of individuals moderate associations between motivation and unreciprocated love. People’s attitudes and behaviours in love are formed based on the 3 motivating factors and further influenced by attachment patterns, that encourage human beings to chase unreciprocated love.

In conclusion we can say that the intensity of the experience of unreciprocated love depends on the 3 motivators: perceived potential value of having a close relationship with the person loved, perceived probability of forming such a relationship with this person, and desirability of the state of being in love, even if the love is unreciprocated along with attachment styles in early interpersonal relationships.

Prachi Bhatia and Sanjana Kulkarni (co-author),
Clinical and Research Intern, PsychLine.in.

Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Allen, J. (1998). Motivations for unreciprocated love. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 787-796.
Baumeister, R. F., Wotman, S. R., & Stillwell, A. M. (1993). Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(3), 377.