What Motivates Unreciprocated Love?

by Prachi Bhatia 
September 5, 2022
What Motivates Unreciprocated Love?

Ideally, one shouldn’t chase a person when love is not returned, but we still find ourselves doing just that. Ever wondered why? This is because of a motivational paradox and is counterintuitive to human motivation. The paradox explains that human beings are motivated to act towards situations only when we gain returns.

However, why are we then capable and so interested in loving or chasing someone who doesn’t love us back? What motivates us as human beings to keep loving? What is it that motivates us to chase “the one?”.

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 at least once in their lifetime (Baumeister et al.,1993).

Research suggests that there are three main motivators that help explain why people are motivated to desire someone who doesn’t reciprocate the same feelings of love. The first is Perceived Desirability, which is the perceived potential value (desirability) of having a close relationship with the beloved. The lover perceives them as having a high potential value as a romantic partner even when the possibility of forming this relationship is relatively low.

The perceived benefits of being in a relationship are so desirable, that they end up rationalizing their love for the beloved. It doesn’t bother the lover if the chances of their relationship happening are near zero because the desirability for a blissful, loving relationship (like one portrayed in literature and cinema) is considerable.

The second main motivator is Perceived Probability, which is the probability of ever having a close romantic relationship with the beloved. The lover perceives the probability of reciprocation as higher than actuality. This misperception can happen due to various reasons such as misreading certain cues or gestures by the beloved which the lover can interpret 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 often call friendship (perhaps?). Once love inhibits the lover’s mind, these misreadings help maintain the motivation to pursue unreciprocated love.

The final motivator is deemed to be the Perceived Desirability of the State. 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. Thus, each person has various ways of expanding ‘the self.’ Subjective experiences in past relationships shape the way in which one seeks to expand oneself through relationships.

There are different attachment patterns developed by humans depending on past experiences such as secure attachment, anxiety or ambivalence, and avoidance.

In the context of interpersonal closeness in early 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 have an avoidant attachment pattern. They are often unlikely to chase love because they believe that it is rare to find and truly love someone. Nevertheless, at times 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, breeding motivation for 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 that 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. 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 are 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: the perceived potential value of having a close relationship with the person loved, the perceived probability of forming such a relationship with this person, and the desirability of the state of being in love,along with attachment styles in early interpersonal relationships. Is it time we map the bounds of unreciprocated love?


Prachi Bhatia

Sanjana Kulkarni and Aseess Chadha (co-authors)

Clinical and Research Intern, PsychLine.in


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), 377-394.