“Mama, how will I know when I’m in love?” “You’ll just know, honey. Now go get me that bowl.” This question, or something like it, has been asked by many, many a child and answered similarly by many a parent. In fact, for many a grown-up child, the answer to this question doesn't become clear until they have married and unmarried Mr. or Mrs. Wrong a few times. Indeed, it is a difficult topic, for how does one name the unnamable?
But when it comes to making those commitment decisions, don’t we need to know? People frequently come to therapy dealing, at least in part, with this uncertainty about when they are in love, and when they are just, for example, in lust, or in some fantasy or in love with love, etc. So, how do we know? Well, below we are going to give but the briefest outline of some of the things that we can get mixed up with love in order to try to distinguish it from love—the real thing.
Love vs. in-love: Falling in love is an unconscious act. It, more or less, happens to us—meaning that it is not something that can be contrived. When we fall in love we generally want to be with the person with whom we are in love as often as possible. We experience heightened feelings of happiness in their presence—unless, of course they don’t feel the same way, and then it might be heightened feelings of misery and longing. When the love is returned we experience feelings of bliss and renewed energy and creativity. We experience intense feelings of longing for the presence, touch, approval and reciprocal feelings from the other person. Being in love is different from just loving someone, in that loving someone and wanting the best for them and enjoying their company are feelings that are much less intense than those of being in-love. Being in love will add that extra heightened sense of well-being that brings us to our knees before its power.
In love vs. the need for power or control: Many times persons who are insecure become attracted to someone whom they feel that they need. The need is so overpowering that it brings on intense feelings of longing—though not generally the bliss that comes with falling in love. These feelings will then be expressed in terms of control and attempts to get the other to behave in ways that meet the needs of the one who wishes to control. There will be intense feelings of jealousy or even rage that accompany this need for power or control. But the person may also have spent such energy on wooing the other, that they look like they are in love. Yet their internal experience will tell the truth for all of their intense feelings are about owning someone else, not about being with and enjoying the company of someone else.
In love vs. jealousy: Many have somehow come to believe that when you are in love you will be jealous. In fact this belief is so powerful that some believe it in reverse: that if you are not jealous it must not be love. But jealousy comes from personal insecurity. It has nothing, whatsoever, to do with whether or not you are in love. As above, many who are attracted due to their need to control others are often quite jealous—but they are not in love.
In love vs. taking care of: Many are attracted to people whom they can take care of, because taking care of others makes them feel important, needed, even like they have a mission in life. They may have intense feelings of need attached to a desire to rescue, but this is not being in love. Rather it has to do with deep issues of self-worth that have evolved into an identity as rescuer, or perpetual mother.
In love vs. the need for security: It actually takes a fairly secure person to fall in love, because the feelings are so intense that they can be overwhelming to an insecure person. But when one is in love, his intense feelings have to do with a really heightened sense of just enjoying someone else’s company, accompanied by increased sexual tension. When one is confusing the need for security with being in love, the intense feelings are of need, desperation, fear of being alone and fear that one doesn’t matter if one is not in a relationship. The sexual tension in this sense then would be about being able to be sure that the other person really cares, rather than a genuine desire to touch and be touched by the loved one.
In love vs. arm-candy: Many people are attracted to those people who are popular, attractive or powerful because they think that being with that person enhances how they are viewed by others. They confuse this attraction with love because they are not aware of how confused they generally are about how one attains to self-esteem. They think that something outside of them can give them self-esteem. But being in love is not about getting someone else to fix our empty places. Rather it is about an intense desire to deeply know and be deeply present with another person.
In love vs. fantasy: This is a tough one because we have a capacity to project our fantasy lovers onto the faces and bodies of a potential partner. It is often years later, when Mr. or Mrs. Right turns out to be absolutely be Mr. or Mrs. Wrong, that we come to see that we are in love with the fantasy lover, not the real person we married. One way to avoid this when we fall in love is to make realistic comparisons between that fantasy person and the person we are actually with.
Of course, being in love does not guarantee that a relationship will work. Relationships require also compatibility and relationship skills on the part of both parties. But the “in love” requirement is a must. Relationships are not easy for they bring us to the deepest parts of ourselves—good, bad and ugly. Therefore, being in love must be an aspect of any healthy long term commitment and being sure that it is love, therefore, is an intensely important first step.