Think of it as a milder subset of unrequited love. It's not that the person you're dating straight-up doesn't like you back. They're definitely into you. Just. Like. You have this suspicion that they don't feel quite as strongly about you as you feel about them. You've pulled out your best flirty text ideas. You've played hard to get. You've played easy to get. And still, they just seem more... meh than you'd like.
This dynamic is a thing, and it sucks. It even has a name. The phenomenon is called "unequal love." It's been the subject of a million love songs. (My fave: “Truthfully,” by DNCE.) It's also backed by research, explains relationship expert Ty Tashiro, Ph.D., author of The Science of Happily Ever After: What Really Matters in the Quest for Enduring Love.
You may be thinking: Hold up. Love is such a personal thing, how can anyone possibly measure it? Tashiro explains that psychologists have been attempting to do just that for the past 50 years or so. “It’s not perfect,” he says, “It started out using self-reported measures, asking people how much they loved somebody, say on a scale of one to 10. Now, it’s still self-reported, but we also have brain imaging studies, hormonal evidence, and there’s all kinds of data that we can bring to bear about whether someone is in love with someone else.”
The SAGE study, which dove into the trysts of young adults, proposes that, once you’ve begun a romantic relationship, there can be differences in the intensity of love between partners. They say love can be determined by various distinct qualities such as intimacy, commitment, attachment, caregiving, and sexuality, to name a few. The study notes that when there’s an imbalance in any of these arenas — say, you want to hookup every night, but your SO doesn't — one “lover can be dissatisfied.”
“My former advisor used to say: ‘The problem with love is that it takes two people to make it work, and one person to make it not work,’” Tashiro says.
So, what can you do if you’re in this kind of imbalanced relationship? For starters, Tashiro says, “you can say to yourself: Hey! This just doesn’t feel right. Something is making me feel bad in this relationship.” And then it’s time to assess what that something is. It might not be a lack of love on your partner’s part.
It’s possible, for example, that your SO is expressing their love in a different way than you're used to. “Everyone feels love differently,” explains Jenna Birch, author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life & Love and strategic advisor for Plum Dating. “The way you give love, and the way you receive it from others varies. One person’s measuring stick could be different than another person’s. You might need to hear ‘I love you’ all the time, but another person might only say the words a few times in their lifetime. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.”
They may even think they're showing you how much they love you dozens of times a day. You’ve probably heard of “love languages,” ways of expressing and receiving love. There are five primary languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts, quality time, and physical touch. If you like to receive love through affirmations, you're probably hoping to hear a verbal, “I love you.” But if your partner's love language is acts of service or gifts, they may be showing you their feelings by surprising you with your favorite candy, or mowing the lawn for you. It might be helpful to identify your partner's love language so that you can spot these affectionate behaviors.
But if you exhaust all other options, and you’re left with the feeling that someone doesn’t love you as much as you love them, listen to your gut. “It’s fair to entertain the possibility that this person doesn’t love you as much, and it’s worthwhile to ask the question,” Tashiro says.
If the answer to that question is yes, there's an imbalance, you can try couples counseling, talking it out, and working together on the relationship. You could read a book together like Love Sense by Sue Johnson (it’s meant to help couples understand their "attachment bond"), if that’s your thing.
But this problem might be one that needs to be addressed on an individual level. “In a number of studies, researchers found that unequal love is associated with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and feeling inferior in relationships, which can lead to a general sense of emotional turmoil,” Tashiro says. If you’re experiencing any of these struggles, you might consider talking to a doctor or therapist on your own.
You may also want to call it quits altogether. However, Tashiro says that a breakup or divorce doesn't have to be your first step. I’ve talked to many happily married couples who’ve been together for decades, and it’s interesting to hear them talk about the bad years — years, plural,” Tashrio says. “In any long term relationship, there will be fluctuations in attraction levels, but it’s better to look at the whole body of work, rather than one bad period.”
The good news is that equal love is more common than unequal love — the SAGE study found this to be true. And even if you’re in the latter situation, communication and truthfulness can only help you.
“Love is a wonderful thing that happen to you,” Tashiro adds. “It feels great, but, no matter who you are or who you love, it can also hurt.”