Unrequited Love vs. Unrequited Loyalty

Reciprocity is the act of exchanging something with someone else. When you receive a compliment, it is generally polite to reciprocate and give a compliment back. When someone insults you, it is not polite to reciprocate with an insult of your own, but most people would understand if you did.

Reciprocate is a word that is used mostly when referring to actions. You give or do something, and receive the same in return. When we talk about returning feelings or emotions, we use the word requite instead. If you feel something about another person, and they feel the same way about you, then that feeling is requited. If you hate someone, and they hate you back, then the two of you are in a state of requited hatred. If you respect someone, and they don’t have any respect for you in return, then you alone are in a state of unrequited respect.

 yelling at student

“Why don’t you respect me! DO I NEED TO YELL LOUDER!”

There are a lot of feelings we can have about other people that they do not return. We can fear people who are unafraid of us. We can admire people who think we are stupid. There are two unrequited emotions that appear to be more common than others: Unrequited love, and unrequited loyalty. One of these is essentially harmless. The other can cause major problems.

Unrequited love can be a horrible thing, to be sure, but it doesn’t always have to be. Not completely. To love someone, or something, and not be loved back is not the worst thing in the world. As long as you are reasonable about your feelings, and don’t get love confused with other words that start with “L,” then you will survive not having your feelings returned. You may even be better off for it. Unrequited love can teach you appreciation, and has been the source of some of humanity’s greatest works of art.

Dante Alighieri was a Florentine poet of the 16th century. His Divine Comedy is one of the most celebrated works of literature. It has inspired countless other works, and has carved out a permanent niche in the collective imagination of the world. And it was all because of unrequited love.

Dante was in love with a woman named Beatrice his entire life. They were from the same town, frequented the same places, and always he would admire her from afar. He figured she hardly even noticed him. Beatrice was a source of constant inspiration for Dante, and yet she may not have even known his name.

Of course Dante, like many great poets, was a bit of a coward. He never really tried to win Beatrice’s heart. When she looked at him in the marketplace, he would scurry away to write about his feelings. But he never became obsessive, or bitter. For Dante, it was more than enough to know that Beatrice merely existed.

Would it have been better had Dante been more brave, and actually spoken to his love? Perhaps. Maybe she would have loved him back, and they would have lived happily ever after. Maybe she would have rejected him, and left him to despair on his own. Either way, had Dante behaved differently toward Beatrice, the world would have been deprived of the Divine Comedy. A true shame indeed.

Paradise Lost

Then we would all have to read Milton instead…

If you love someone and they don’t love you back it is possible to channel that unrequited emotion into something positive. Dante, and many others, prove it. Brave people have done great things out of love for their ideals, but ideals could never love them back. Humans have built entire civilizations based around their love for the sun, and the sun shines down, uncaring. Unmoved.

Unrequited love is unpleasant, but unpleasant things can lead to other things that are good. Unrequited love is fine. Some might even call it beautiful and innocent, as long as it is kept under control.

Unrequited loyalty is a completely different beast. It is easy to get love and loyalty confused, because we are often loyal to the things and people we love. But it is possible to love, and not be loyal, as I’m sure many marriage counselors would attest. And it is possible to be loyal to someone you hate.

Unrequited love can result in many different things. Some good. Some bad. Unrequited loyalty leads only to betrayal, and quite possibly death. Nobody ever died because their crush didn’t like them back. People have died when they trusted someone to have their back, and that someone didn’t feel like showing up.

Soldier Tea Party

“Well, we were going to help, but we didn’t want our tea to get cold.”

Many people have done great work for institutions. They may or may not have loved their job, but they were loyal to their employer. And then, at the first opportunity, they were fired. The employer was not as loyal as the employee. Many people remain in abusive relationships, for a variety of reasons. Is it because they truly love the abusive person, or do they stay out of loyalty?

They say if you love something you should let it go. If you are loyal, then you will hold on forever, no matter what happens. That is kind of the meaning of loyalty.


This man is very loyal to these balloons, but they would float away as soon as he let them. Sad.

Being in a state of unrequited loyalty is like being a dog with a cruel master. The cruel human beats, yells at, and starves the dog, but the dog still comes when called because that is what it’s supposed to do.

Unrequited love is a lot of things. Unrequited loyalty is just sad. It is a miserable condition that ought to be avoided. Alas, it is difficult to avoid something you can’t even recognize.

We all know what we love, and we are painfully aware of whether or not we are loved back. We rarely stop to ask the other question. What am I loyal to, and is that loyalty returned?

Queen Victoria

“Loyalty? I thought you said royalty!”