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Coping with Unrequited Love with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy

» Mental Health Library » Treatment Approaches » Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy » Featured Article

By: Walter J. Matweychuk, Ph.D.

Walter J. Matweychuk, Ph.D.

It is relatively easy for people to experience unhealthy versions of different negative emotions, which are part of the human experience. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy encourages people to distinguish between a healthy version of a negative feeling and a harmful version. Once stuck in an unhealthy emotional state, humans often act in self-defeating ways. Furthermore, an unhealthy negative emotion may distort our thinking of future and past events.

Although not a negative emotion, romantic love is a highly charged emotional state. When you face the adversity of unrequited love, if you respond with unhealthy emotional disturbance, it is because you hold rigid and extreme attitudes towards the beloved and the state of unrequited love. Emotional disturbance in the face of unreciprocated romantic love may be easier to experience because the nature of romantic love is an emotion rooted in a strong preference towards another person. 

Emotion as Biased, Strongly Evaluative Thinking

The theory of emotional disturbance put forth by Albert Ellis, the originator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), is that humans are at significant risk of transmuting their strong preferences into absolute emotional demands when these strongest desires are unmet. Ellis (1958) wrote, "A large part of what we call emotion, in other words, is nothing more or less than a certain kind---a biased, prejudiced, or strongly evaluative kind-of thinking. What we usually label as thinking is a relatively calm and dispassionate appraisal (or organized perception) of a given situation, an objective comparison of many of the elements in this situation, and a coming to some conclusion as a result of this comparing or discriminating process." page 36

What Will Probably Be Insufficient to Help 

Your friends and family will observe your suffering and try to help. They may attempt to try to get you to view your beloved in a different light. Your friends may remind you, "There are other fish in the sea" or "Time heals all wounds." Although this is true, you know the specific fish you want to hook and demand to catch it now! This uncompromising attitude is your Achilles heel. What a non-REBT-informed person will tell you about other fish in the sea or the simple passage of time will not help relieve your suffering, but profound philosophical change about your misfortune will. Remember, from the REBT perspective, healthy pain and unhealthy suffering are qualitatively different. Your pain is healthy. It means you are alive and have a strong, unfulfilled desire. Suffering is optional and rooted in an uncompromising stance toward getting what you want. You may go to your grave with some degree of pain for this unfulfilled desire, but you do not have to suffer till you go to your grave. The painful memory of unrequited love will persist but will likely become less salient if you sincerely try to cultivate philosophical acceptance for your unfulfilled desire.

You may attempt to distract yourself through engagement with illicit drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, sex with others, and numerous other activities to forget or overcome your emotional disturbance. Except for exercise, these solutions are self-defeating. Even physical exercise could evolve into a self-defeating response when taken to an extreme. Avoid these ways of coping with unrequited love, as you are not addressing the root of your disturbance and may harm yourself. 

Unhooking from Unrequited Love

When you encounter unrequited love and then experience emotional disturbance, you must unhook yourself from your rigid and extreme thinking about another person and the relationship you desire to have with them to liberate yourself from the suffering you are experiencing. If you experience sadness, disappointment, or sorrow, REBT cannot assist you. Healthy feelings of sadness and disappointment are the goals you want to achieve using REBT. You are experiencing these healthy negative feelings because you have an unfulfilled strong desire for the other person's love; therefore, it is healthy to feel these emotions. How could you possibly not feel disappointed and sad if you do not deny reality? It is impossible not to experience a negative emotion in the predicament you find yourself in as you have an unfulfilled, strong human desire that is being unmet. Also, you cannot rid yourself of desire. You will need to accept that in life, some wishes go unfulfilled. Achieving this acceptance is difficult to do but not impossible. REBT theory argues that it is when you escalate your intense desire for romantic love into an absolutistic must and that imperative is unfulfilled you then construct the experience of depression, despair, or hurt and the painful obsessing that often accompanies these emotions. Under these conditions, REBT philosophy and therapeutic techniques can help you deconstruct your emotional disturbance and heal. REBT can help you overcome your depression, despair, and hurt, but it will take work. Life can be very challenging at times.

Starting the Process of Moving on and Adapting to Your Unfortunate Reality

First, explicitly give voice to your rigid and extreme attitudes towards the other person and not winning their love. Here are some typical examples of rigid and extreme attitudes that will lead to emotional disturbance:

  1. I need this person's love. They are wonderful.
  2. If I were a better person, they would love me as they must. Therefore, I am lesser of a person.
  3. Life is totally bad without their love. I will never experience happiness without their love.
  4. I cannot bear that they do not love me. I cannot bear the deprivation of their love. 

Accept that Unhooking Yourself with REBT is Not Easy

Like many other significant losses of life, applying REBT to your predicament is not easy. This difficulty in applying REBT is not a weakness of REBT; it is due to the human condition. Humans go from wanting to insist that they get what they wish under some conditions quite easily and naturally. Reversing this psychological process takes effort. Part of you may be unwilling to let go of your goal to win the other person's love despite your suffering. REBT is encouraging you to go against the grain of your human instincts. You need to change your attitude towards your unrequited love. Doing so involves:

  • Evaluate your attitudes regularly and commit to changing them.
  • Carefully attempt to falsify your imperative by closely examining the evidence.
  • Consider the self-defeating results your rigid and extreme attitudes are having on your emotional and behavioral functioning across your life while not devaluing yourself for acting as you are.
  • Substituting your absolutistic and extreme attitudes with realistic, adaptive, and more functional ones.
  • Choose to take action and live in a way consistent with the flexible, non-extreme, and adaptive attitudes that REBT theory suggests as possible alternatives to your current attitudes toward your beloved.
  • Commit to the assumption that you can have some happiness in life despite not winning the love you wished for from the other person.
  • Repeat this process regularly until the suffering ends, and what remains is a healthy disappointment that you did not win the love you wished for from the other individual.

Engaging in this cognitive process is not what someone who is depressed, despairing, or hurt is inclined to do. You may be more inclined to work at this self-helping process as time passes. Eventually, you will have to force yourself to do what you are disinclined to do if you are going to come to terms with reality. REBT's philosophical solution will likely not be a quick fix. However, it will work if you trust and keep doing the recommended REBT process.

Healthy Alternative Attitudes towards Your Misfortune

Carefully reflect upon the four examples of rigid and extreme attitudes leading to your depression, despair, and hurt. Compare them to the healthy alternatives found below.

Unhealthy attitude: I need this person's love. (Rigid attitude) They are wonderful. (Extreme attitude)

Healthy alternative: I strongly want this person's love. Although I may never relinquish wanting their love, it is essential to my recovery that I come to see that I do not have to have my desire fulfilled. No evidence supports my demand that I must have my wish fulfilled. It is difficult to remind myself of this fact of life, but it is not impossible. Although it may seem like I need this person's love, I had better keep reminding myself that this attitude is what will lead me to suffer. I want their love but do not need it. I will go over this healthy way of thinking until I believe it.

Furthermore, they may have many desirable traits, but I am wonderfulizing. I have a global rating of them. I am biased and overlook their flaws, as all humans have undesirable characteristics. It is best to take them off the pedestal I have placed them upon and open my eyes to their human imperfections. They have flaws, and opening my eyes to them is in my best interest.

Unhealthy attitude: If I were a better person, they would love me as they must. Therefore, I am lesser of a person. (Extreme attitude)

Healthy attitude: The fact that another person does not love me does not mean I am lesser of a person. The conditions are not suitable, whatever they may be, for them to love me. The fact that the conditions that allow their love to flow to me do not exist only means I am unfortunate, not that I am lesser of a person unless I arbitrarily define myself that way. I cannot prove I am lesser of a person for not having their love; I can only resort to arbitrary definitions. As Ellis said, "the holes in their head do not fit the pegs in yours." Too bad. I will philosophically accept this fate and stubbornly refuse to be miserable and go and find someone who will love me. It may not be easy, but I can bear the search.

Unhealthy attitude:  Life is totally bad without their love. I will never experience happiness without their love. (Extreme attitude)

Healthy attitude: Although it is true that in this respect, the fact that they do not love me is bad, it is over the top, and it is extreme to conclude that life is wholly bad. Life remains a mix of good, neutral, and bad. I will cultivate unconditional life acceptance despite my beloved not feeling romantic love for me. I will accept what I cannot change and go and find someone who will love me. It may take some time, but that is life. Love never must come on my schedule, and if I demand this to be the case, I will make myself miserable, which will likely not help me find love that fulfills me. Who wants to be with a miserable individual other than someone who has emotional disturbance and is looking to fix or save someone? At the very least, making and keeping myself miserable will cause the waiting to be more difficult to bear, drive away relatively healthy potential lovers, and may very well attract people to me who have serious emotional problems of their own.

Unhealthy attitude: I cannot bear that they do not love me. I cannot bear the deprivation of their love. (Extreme attitudes)

Healthy attitude: It is painful and difficult to bear the deprivation of their love and face the reality that my beloved does not love me, but it is not unbearable. If it were unbearable, I would perish without this love. There is clear evidence that I am alive and able to go on without their love, even though, at times, it may seem otherwise. I will contradict the attitude that I need their love and cannot bear to go on without it by forcing myself to engage with life and do all I can to enjoy life despite having an unfulfilled desire. I might be happier if I had their love, but I can still be somewhat happy without this person's love. 


Human emotion is a biased form of evaluative thinking. Humans can quickly escalate their desire into a rigid and extreme attitude when they do not get what they strongly desire. The result is an unhealthy, self-defeating emotion. Unrequited love is often a perfect storm for unhealthy negative emotions. REBT can help you address and deconstruct the unhealthy emotions you are feeling and transform these into healthy feelings of disappointment and sadness, which will enable you to move on and enjoy life despite having a strong desire for another person who does not feel this way about you. Keep at it. Choose to stubbornly refuse to make yourself miserable when facing unrequited love.


Ellis, A. (1958). Rational Psychotherapy. The Journal of General Psychology, 59, 35–49.

About the Author...

Dr. Matweychuk is a clinical psychologist and expert on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Therapy. He has a practice in Manhattan and also works with people worldwide over the internet. He is an author, a professor of Applied Psychology at New York University, and a staff psychologist in the outpatient psychiatry department of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. He demonstrates his approach every Saturday at 9 AM Eastern on Zoom. During these demonstrations, he shows a volunteer how to use his method to cope with various problems of daily living. These demonstrations are educational and accessible to the public. You can email him here to request the Zoom link.

Note: On Sunday, March 3, at 9 AM Eastern, he will lecture on Zoom on the Principles and Core Strategies of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. This lecture is open to both professionals and non-professionals. You can email him here to request the link to attend this hour-long lecture, followed by a question-and-answer period.

Click here to contact or learn more about Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk

Last Update: 2/14/2024

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