There is a phrase in French that exactly means this: "la douleur exquise"

It literally means "the exquisite pain" and expresses the pain of wanting the affection of someone unattainable. I think it is not used as a loan phrase in English and the translation does not make much sense.

Is there an equivalent word or phrase in English?

Note I:

Sometimes, platonic love is used in this sense (though not exactly for the pain) but it is actually an emotional relationship without sexual desires. I'm not sure if there is a semantic shift in the meaning though.

Note II:

“Unrequited love” describes a relationship state, but not a state of mind. Unrequited love encompasses the lover who isn’t reciprocating, as well as the lover who desires. La douleur exquise gets at the emotional heartache, specifically, of being the one whose love is unreciprocated.

Source: ~

  • 5
    There's always unrequited love.
    – JLG
    May 1, 2014 at 16:06
  • 4
    Actually, this is apparently untranslatable; but in the right context you could use something like exquisite pain, or add of unrequited love.
    – Andrew Leach
    May 1, 2014 at 16:10
  • 2
    @ermanen Is it a Canadian French expression? Never heard of "la douleur exquise" used in that sense. In France we generally speak of "amour a sens unique" or "amour sans retour," i.e. "one way love" and "unreturned love."
    – Elian
    May 1, 2014 at 16:19
  • 1
    I find 'Agony' is appropriate: youtube.com/watch?v=LFgMowOwek0
    – Mr.Mindor
    May 1, 2014 at 18:12
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    I would use yearning to convey that sort of exquisite pain, but I won't post it as an answer because it's not specific to unrequited love - you could yearn for other people, or even things. May 2, 2014 at 13:17

12 Answers 12


The term lovelorn addresses both the unrequited love and the emotional state of the person whose love is unrequited.

Unhappy because of unrequited love.


  • lovesick
  • pining
  • languishing
  • spurned
  • jilted
  • rejected
  • forsaken

If you are looking for a noun, there is also lovelornness:

The state or fact of being miserable because of unrequited love or unhappiness in love.

  • 1
    Might be the most accurate answer so far, but refers to an adjective, and "lovelorness" does not seem to be a word :-) May 2, 2014 at 9:24
  • Maybe not, but 'lovelornness' is a standard English word. See onelook.com/?w=lovelornness&ls=a
    – Erik Kowal
    May 2, 2014 at 10:59
  • I think I'm going to choose this answer if you include "lovelornness" as well.
    – ermanen
    May 4, 2014 at 17:14

You might consider the verb pining. It is often used to describe the anguish of separated lovers.

Collins lists two meanings that, when combined, seem to express exquisite pain:

pine (v.) (1) to feel great longing or desire; yearn   (2) to become ill, feeble, or thin through worry, longing, etc.

Wordnik indicates pining can also be used as noun:

pining (n.) a feeling of deep longing

  • 2
    but this doesn't imply that the object of desire does not reciprocate May 1, 2014 at 19:47
  • @MichaelMartinez - The O.P.'s original question didn't ask for love not reciprocated, merely love not attainable – which could be due to distance, family restrictions, etc. (My answer was given before Note II was posted.)
    – J.R.
    May 1, 2014 at 21:21
  • 2
    In modern usage, "pining" is generally only used for fjords.
    – tobyink
    May 3, 2014 at 8:35
  • 2
    @tobyink - Alas, even our avian friends sometimes undergo la douleur exquise!
    – J.R.
    May 3, 2014 at 9:06
  • I think pining tends to be used for something you once had but don't now (either temporarily or permanently) and want back. May 3, 2014 at 17:07

When I was younger this seemed like a really common phrase, maybe so now too but I feel I hear it less. With your French phrase I would translate it as carry(ing) a|the torch

to be romantically interested in someone who does not share the same feelings.

to suffer from unrequited love


  • John sends her love letters once a month and never hears back from her. He needs to quit carrying the torch for Jane.

In my opinion it would usually be used for a relationship but doesn't have to. It is more about the expression of pain from one side about something that is out of reach.

  • yes. "carry the torch". this seems a better translation than "unrequited love" May 1, 2014 at 19:46
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    I don't think this is the same. For example, I could say "John carried a torch for Maria since high school, and finally succeeded in asking her out at their 50th reunion." It could be more of a "John always kept Maria in the back of his mind" kind of thing, but didn't actually /suffer/ because of it.
    – andi
    May 1, 2014 at 20:07
  • 1
    @andi - so you suppose that you could think of someone for 50 years and so much so that you ask that person out the first time you see them... and there is no hurt, longing, regret, or pain involved? I am not saying that it couldn't be but I would hope not or John may be a robot. May 1, 2014 at 21:32
  • This answer is great also but it is not the pain itself. This is more like carrying that feeling. Can we use "torch" itself metaphorically though?
    – ermanen
    May 4, 2014 at 17:18
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    @ermanen - the torch is not only the want but the pain. When you use this term you are basically saying that the person has lived their life thinking about the other person every day. May 4, 2014 at 19:04

"Heartache" is a pain that is real and can be felt for unrequited love and loss of love, too. According to this article, scientists were able to "see" the area of the brain that shows pain when the test subjects, all whom had had a recent lost-love event, were shown a picture of their lost love.

  • 1
    Heartache would be the perfect answer, except it's decayed into a dead and bleached cliche.
    – Dan
    May 1, 2014 at 19:46

I would use yearning to convey that sort of exquisite pain. It means a passionate longing for something. It doesn't specifically apply to unrequited love, but usually refers to something you are not going to get.


yearn·ing [yur-ning]

  1. deep longing, especially when accompanied by tenderness or sadness: a widower's yearning for his wife.

  2. an instance of such longing.

That source also mentions a few synonyms for yearning (or rather for yearn) and discusses their differences:

1. Yᴇᴀʀɴ, ʟᴏɴɢ, ʜᴀɴᴋᴇʀ, ᴘɪɴᴇ all mean to feel a powerful desire for something. Yᴇᴀʀɴ stresses the depth and passionateness of a desire: to yearn to get away and begin a new life; to yearn desperately for recognition. Lᴏɴɢ implies a wholehearted desire for something that is or seems unattainable: to long to relive one's childhood; to long for the warmth of summer. Hᴀɴᴋᴇʀ suggests a restless or incessant craving to fulfill some urge or desire: to hanker for a promotion; to hanker after fame and fortune. Pɪɴᴇ adds the notion of physical or emotional suffering as a result of the real or apparent hopelessness of one's desire: to pine for one's native land; to pine for a lost love.

I wouldn't recommend using hankering to describe unrequited love, because it tends to be applied to things rather than people. I think pine usually refers to something you once had but no longer do (plus pining as a noun is not so common as the other three), so I think yearning or longing are your best bets.

  • This is a good answer also but it is similar to longing.
    – ermanen
    May 4, 2014 at 17:20
  • @ermanen I did mention that towards the end. But I think yearning is a better choice because I think it expresses the pain more than longing does. Longing could be a sort of restless desire, but there's a sort of desperation implied in yearning. You could long to get outside into the sunshine on a hot day, but you probably wouldn't yearn for it unless you'd been locked in a windowless room for a month or something. May 4, 2014 at 20:59

The term ache is often used to refer to a love that is painful in its intensity, especially if it is unrequited or otherwise frustrated

An emotion experienced with painful or bittersweet intensity: an ache in her heart

Similarly, the following are also used in this context:

  • hunger
  • craving
  • yearning
  • itch
  • thirst
  • hankering
  • Yearning is far more appropriate than ache imo, as it is far more allusive to 'wanting something badly', whilst ache has too much negativity and perhaps even sexual connotations in the wrong context. "I yearned for her" vs "I ached for her" (not a perfect example but demonstrative of my points).
    – Dom
    May 2, 2014 at 21:37

longing: a strong desire especially for something unattainable


How about 'heart-wrenching' for the pain? I know it is usually used to describe a form of sympathy at the misfortune of another, but I'm sure that placing it in the context of heartache would find the visceral sense recognised by the reader (especially if it's moderately unusual in its use that it would cause the reader to linger while they parse it).

  • Well it is and adjective that describes the pain.
    – ermanen
    May 4, 2014 at 17:22

Apparently, The Urban Dictionary says you can use it in English exactly as you say it is used in French:

la douleur exquise the exquisite pain of wanting someone that you know you can never have, and knowing that you will still try to be with them. has drug like effects.



Consider "suspire" and sigh."

sigh: to yearn, long, or pine.

"We are overfamiliar with the picture of the hopeless lover sighing for his unattainable lady."

suspire: to sigh, yearn.

  • 5
    "friend zone" is a terrible, sexist phrase. It doesn't imply any emotional heartache, just a feeling of resentment due to not getting what one feels he is entitled to (say, after having spent money on the pursuit).
    – andi
    May 1, 2014 at 20:03
  • The phrase "friend zone" needs to die - see this article for reasons. May 1, 2014 at 20:06
  • @Andi The friend zone is not sexist, and while being in the friend zone may be undesirable, the term itself is not terrible. I know friend-zoned men and women, and more often than not it's not about "sex" per sé - they just either don't have the courage to ask the person out, or did ask and have been rejected.
    – corsiKa
    May 2, 2014 at 23:29
  • 1
    @Nathan That article is incredibly weak. It exist with or without the term "friend zone". #1 contradicts itself halfway through, basically saying "It's not even useful, except that society generally finds it to be accurate". #2 implies that because guys talk about it and girls don't that the concept itself is sexist, which is not logically sound. #3, in spite of having factual errors, is actually supportive of using the term. #4 and #5 demand that sex be a factor, but in my experience it most often isn't. #6 is not logically sound either. Generally, "X reasons why ___" tend to not be reliable.
    – corsiKa
    May 2, 2014 at 23:37
  • I think these are synonyms to some answers above.
    – ermanen
    May 4, 2014 at 17:22

A word for the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can't have


The plot of this movie supports my view that obsession works very well in that context.

Magnificent Obsession is also about love that is very difficult if not impossible to consummate. A blockbuster movie, based on this book.

"Who hasn’t felt passion beyond reason?” Obsession taps into a fantasy that speaks to every woman.

Few things are more irrational than

...wanting the affection of someone unattainable.


The word for the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone you can't have... the pain of wanting the affection of someone unattainable.

I found a better answer, and I'd like to present it separately, because I'm so surprised no one thought of it before: crush. This TEDx video, Why do we get crushes?, by Isabelle O'Carroll, made me realize the obvious!

Ms. O'Carroll introduced the topic by defining the word, crush, according to the Oxford English Dictionary:

...a brief but intense infatuation with someone, especially someone unattainable.

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