Are You Really in Love or Is It Just Infatuation? Here’s How to Tell
Love is one of the great animating forces of our lives.
It makes us sweat. It makes us cry. It makes our heart beat faster. It makes us play certain songs, watch certain movies and read certain books. It compels us to follow people we barely know to the ends of the earth, to start families, to buy homes and settle down. It brings us to incredible heights of joy, and its absence can lower us to heartbreaking chasms of sadness.
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In short, we are at love’s mercy.
But what is this mystical, magical concept? What does it mean to fall in love with someone, and how is it different from other kinds of falling — falling on one’s face, for instance, or falling in with the wrong crowd? How do you know when you’ve fallen in love? And is love at first sight even a real concept or closer to a fairy-tale fiction?
To help make sense of all this, we turned to a group of relationship experts and psychological professionals — so read on to understand a little bit more about the mystery that is love.
1. What Does It Feel Like to Fall in Love?
“What does love feel like?” is a question that poets, musicians and artists of all stripes have strived to answer for millennia. But is it even possible to pin down one single definition that applies to every person’s version of love?
“Love is a combination of attachment, excitement, caring about a person’s well-being, and attraction,” says Julie Melillo, a life and dating coach in Manhattan. “It’s infatuation taken to the next level, because it’s not just the surface-level attraction and excitement, it’s a deep force that grabs your whole heart, mind and soul and won’t let go.”
She even believes falling in love is “similar to an addiction.”
“This person becomes part of you,” she adds. “You think of them constantly, you want to be with them as much as possible, you imagine the future together, everything seems rose-coloured and even dull, ordinary life suddenly seems bright and magical. This person has begun to occupy a place in your heart, which makes you feel absolutely giddy, but you’re also afraid because you know if you lost them, part of your heart would be missing and it’d be extreme pain. So it’s actually a mix of elation, anxiety, and deep attachment.”
Artists aren’t the only ones who’ve tried their hand at explaining love; scientists have looked into the matter, too. For one, the chemical component of sex is well established — chemicals in your brain like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin are responsible for a lot of the pleasurable feelings associated with sex — and that extends to love. In the early stages of meeting someone new, we can come to associate them with that chemical rush tied to physical attraction.
“Falling in love causes chemical changes in the brain and body that can lead to various personality changes,” says David Bennett, an author, counselor, relationship expert and co-owner of The Popular Man website. “For example, being in love can lead to feelings of bliss related to the other person, and also a narrow focus on that person (people in love often abandon friends, family, and hobbies). It also can result in ‘withdrawal’ if you don’t get enough of the other person, so this can show itself as nervousness and anxiety when your love interest doesn’t text back, or shows attention to someone else.”
That isn’t even taking into account another area of complexity: Who people really are as opposed to who they seem to be. You might fall in love with your partner only to discover months or years later that they’re actually a bit (or a lot) different than you had thought.
“Each person brings three ‘people’ to the encounter,” says Neil Schierholz, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist with the Angeles Psychology Group. “Who they really, truly are (which, sadly, is mostly unknown to most people), who they purport to be (their conscious and unconscious facade) that they want the other person to like and potentially fall in love with, and the projection, or image, that the other person ‘splashes’ onto them that may or may not be them at all.”
2. How Can You Tell When You’re in Love?
You’ve fallen in love … at least, you think you have. Congrats! That’s an incredible feeling, and you’re lucky to be in the midst of it. But how do you know for sure — like, 100 percent for sure?
For starters, it’s worth considering how you feel about spending time with them. We primarily distinguish infatuation, which can feel incredibly intense, from real love through how long it lasts, but another temporal aspect of love is being able to realistically see it lasting even as the relationship changes.
“For me, the easiest test [of whether you’re really in love] is, ‘Can I envision spending a lifetime with this person?’” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today.”
Apart from the longevity of your feelings, there’s also the question of chemistry.
“In all my years of counseling, I never found an adult client who didn’t recognise chemistry — the feeling of being ‘in love,’” says Tessina. “Chemistry is the rush, the high, that we experience when we get together with someone who mysteriously ‘turns us on.’ Everyone I’ve talked to seems to know the difference between loving someone, in a familial, friendly, platonic or parental way, and being ‘in love,’ which implies romantic, sexual, ‘turned-on’ love, sometimes even lust.”
That kind of certainty is at the root of the oft-repeated trope: “How do you know when you’re in love?” “You just know.” If you’re still asking yourself if the love you’re feeling is legit, there’s a good chance you aren’t totally head over heels. However, as Tessina points out, the presence of intense chemistry alone won’t make for a lasting, healthy relationship all by itself.
“Good chemistry can help your relationship sustain itself through the initial dating phase while you and your date get to know more about each other,” she says. “The excitement of it all can help you overcome your ambivalence about introducing your new date to your friends, and help both of you to open up, to share your inner thoughts and even be more generous with your time and your possessions than you might otherwise be with this new person, who is, in actuality, still somewhat of a stranger.”
“On the other hand,” she adds, “if we focus too heavily on whether or not we are feeling chemistry toward whomever we’re with, we may discount the very real possibilities of the kind of love that grows slowly, such as a friendship that eventually becomes a life partner.”
Meaning, if you’re not feeling that lightning-strike connection, it doesn’t necessarily mean you could never love someone. It’s also worth noting that some people, called “aromantics,” claim not to experience romantic feelings or the desire to be in relationships, and while it’s not incredibly common, it’s not exactly abnormal, either.
3. Is Love at First Sight Real?
One of the most common tropes when it comes to romance is the idea of love at first sight. It’s one that pops up a lot in fairy tales and song lyrics, detailing that sudden emotion that fills your heart after seeing someone for the first time.
Anecdotally, lots of people might claim to have experienced it, but is that what’s actually happening?
“I think the dopamine receptors are the biggest culprits here when it comes to dealing with this notional idea of love at first sight,” says psychologist and addiction counsellor Edward White. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s chemical and it’s a natural human instinct to be flooded with endorphins when you think you’ve found your perfect soul-mate. The reality, however, is quite different. What appears to be love at first sight more often than not is just lust […], but it’s very hard to distinguish between the two because they both produce the same type of chemical reaction.”
Schierholz agrees that love at first sight is a bit of a long shot. “I would say that [it] isn’t very common, although a brief interaction can start the change in brain chemistry that can quickly escalate into being in love,” he says.
And Tessina is wary of putting too much stock in cultural myths when it comes to love. “It is a myth that love happens instantly, that you must be absolutely sure from the beginning, that you’ll know when you find it, and that ‘chemistry’ is all you need,” she says. “These ideas are heavily promoted in movies, TV, novels and plays. Such romantic falling in love can be great entertainment, but it usually doesn’t work well in real life.”
For instance, she notes lust and love are two very different beasts. “While love can include physical excitement, at other times purely physical and/or circumstantial attraction can [fade] rather quickly, and leads nowhere. The more you get to know each other, the less exciting a purely physical attraction is; with love, the converse is true.”
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If anything, that love-at-first-sight feeling you have can cloud your thinking, influencing your actions in an unhelpful way.
“It is possible to get turned on to someone who is not good for you,” adds Tessina. “Every client I’ve seen who’s ever been in a violent, addictive, or destructive relationship tells me they were very excited, there was a lot of chemistry at the beginning. While chemistry is fun, and a powerful motivator, it is not enough to guarantee that the other person will be good for you. Chemistry alone does not evaluate whether the attraction is sensible; it simply responds to certain signals.”
There’s much, much more to love than just the feeling you get when you first meet someone, and any chemistry that develops thereafter. True love may be built on a foundation of mutual attraction, but it will grow and adapt over time to match your shifting needs and desires.
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