Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

How Do You Know If You're in Love?

7 research-based indicators that you've found the real thing.

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How do you know if you’re love?

The answer can change so much about your life, from how you interact with a current (or potential) partner to how you view yourself to what goals you have for the future. Think you might be in love? Gain some insight by considering these research-based signs of love and attachment.

  1. You’re addicted to this person.
    Love changes the brain. In early-stage relationships, that euphoria that people feel appears as heightened neural activity in dopamine-rich areas of the brain—areas linked to the reward system—and in areas associated with the pursuit of rewards. There’s even some hint of activity in the anterior cingulate, the area of the brain linked to obsessive thinking, which is a classic experience when people are falling in love (Aron, Fisher, Mashek, Strong, & Brown, 2005). As a relationship progresses into a long-term partnership, thinking about the partner activates the reward centers as well as brain areas implicated in attachment, but less so obsessive thinking (Acevedo, Aron, Fisher, & Brown, 2011).
  2. You really want your friends or family to like this person.
    New evidence shows that people are often motivated to “marshal support” for someone they are dating (Patrick & Faw, 2014), which is consistent with the idea that the people in a person’s social circle often play an important role in the success of a relationship (Sprecher, 2011). Being attuned to how your family and friends might think about your partner or potential partner is a good sign that you are becoming increasingly attached to the person.
  3. You celebrate this person’s triumphs (even when you yourself fail).
    If you’ve fallen in love with someone, you probably have an atypical reaction when witnessing them excelling at something you don’t. Because romantic partners feel connected and can share the outcomes of each other’s successes, romantic partners will often feel pride and positive emotions when they see their partner succeed, even at something they themselves can’t do, rather than feeling negative and inferior (Lockwood & Pinkus, 2014).
  4. You definitely like this person, and this person likes you.  
    Liking is different from love, but is often a prerequisite for falling in love. In a cross-cultural study, researchers showed that a critical factor recognized as directly preceding falling in love is reciprocal liking, when you both clearly like each other (Riela, Rodriguez, Aron, Xu, & Acevedo, 2010). In addition, an evaluation of the other person’s personality as highly desirable tends to be a precursor to falling in love.
  5. You really miss this person when you’re apart.
    In many ways, how much you miss a person reflects how interdependent your lives have become. If you are questioning whether you love someone, perhaps consider how much you miss him or her when you’re apart. Le and colleagues (2008) showed that how much people miss each other tends to correspond with how committed they feel to the relationship.
  6. Your sense of self has grown through knowing this person.
    When people fall in love, their whole sense of self changes. They take on new traits and characteristics, growing in the diversity of their self-concept through the influence of their new relationship partner (Aron, Paris, & Aron, 1995). In other words, the you before falling in love is different from the you after falling in love. Maybe you feel the difference, maybe others notice it, but the things you care about, your habits, how you spend you time—and or all of this is subject to the (hopefully positive) influence of a new romantic partner.
  7. You get jealous—but not suspicious.
    A certain amount of jealousy is actually healthy, not toxic. From an evolutionary perspective, jealousy is an adaptation that helps relationships stay intact by making its members sensitive to potential threats. People who are jealous tend to be more committed to relationships (Rydell, McConnell, & Bringle, 2004). Keep the jealousy in check, though: Reactive or emotional jealousy is the type that is predicted by positive relationship factors like dependency and trust—but people who engage in suspicious jealousy, which includes taking actions like secretly checking a partner's cellphone, tends to be associated with relational anxiety, low self-esteem, and chronic insecurity (Rydell & Bringle, 2007).

Falling in love and building an attachment are a wonderful basis for a healthy relationship, but keep in mind that staying in a relationship (or, for that matter, choosing to start one) is often based on more than satisfaction and feeling good in another person’s presence. Models of relationship success (such as Rusbult’s investment model) show that the staying power of relationships takes mutual investment and commitment. If love is passion, security, and emotional comfort, commitment is the necessary decision made within one’s cultural and social contexts to be with that person.

Relationship observers—and people who watch romantic comedies—know that love needs the buttressing of commitment to flourish into a stable and healthy partnership.

 

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References

  • Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7(2), 145-159.
  • Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94, 327-337.
  • Aron, A., Paris, M., & Aron, E. N. (1995). Falling in love: Prospective studies of self-concept change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 1102-1112.
  • Crowley, J. P. and Faw, M. H. (2014). Support marshaling for romantic relationships: Empirical validation of a support marshaling typology. Personal Relationships, 21, 242–257. doi: 10.1111/pere.12029
  • Le, B., Loving, T. J., Lewandowski, G. W., Feinberg, E. G., Johnson, K. C., Fiorentino, R., & Ing, J. (2008). Missing a romantic partner: A prototype analysis. Personal Relationships, 15(4), 511-532.
  • Lockwood, P., & Pinkus, R. T. (2014). Social comparisons within romantic relationships. In Z. Krizan & F. X. Gibbons (Eds.), Communal Functions of Social Comparison, (p. 120-142). Cambridge University Press.
  • Riela, S., Rodriguez, G., Aron, A., Xu, X., & Acevedo, B. P. (2010). Experiences of falling in love: Investigating culture, ethnicity, gender, and speed. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(4), 473-493.
  • Rydell, R. J., & Bringle, R. G. (2007). Differentiating reactive and suspicious jealousy. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 35(8), 1099-1114.
  • Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Bringle, R. G. (2004). Jealousy and commitment: Perceived threat and the effect of relationship alternatives. Personal Relationships, 11(4), 451-468.
  • Sprecher, S. (2011). The influence of social networks on romantic relationships: Through the lens of the social network. Personal Relationships, 18(4), 630-644.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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