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Why Feeling Butterflies Doesn't Mean You're in Love

... and why not feeling it may be a positive sign.

Key points

  • Feeling "butterflies" around someone is not correlated with long-term relational health or satisfaction.
  • Not experiencing butterflies with a romantic prospect might actually be helpful, especially if one has a history of relational trauma or anxiety.
  • Relying solely on butterflies as a sign of who to pursue romantically could make one miss out on other potentially wonderful partnerships.

We all know the feeling: that fluttery gut sensation we’ve been told we’re supposed to have when the love of our life catches our glance across a crowded room. The same feeling that ought to arise when said love of our life calls or texts, lighting up our phones as they light up that magical sensation in our gut.

This feeling of "butterflies" has long been exalted as a reliable indicator that you had indeed found the right partner; that you had finally met your person. In popular culture and the media, it has become an indisputable barometer of chemistry, a surefire indicator that you have truly found The One.

But what if I were to tell you that butterflies were no more accurate a predictor of relational happiness than the fact that both you and your partner played soccer growing up or that you studied abroad in the same city during a semester in college—points of connection that are certainly exciting, but not necessarily indicative?

What if I were to tell you that this hallmark sensation, butterflies, was actually quite unremarkable, not at all mysterious, and certainly not a reliable metric for assessing the long-term compatibility and potential success of a partnership?

Before you write me off as heartless, let me be clear. I love love. I cheer at weddings, tear up watching romantic comedies, and have a deep and enduring passion for Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m also a practicing psychotherapist and author of the book, Relationship OCD: A CBT-Based Guide to Move Beyond Obsessive Doubt, Anxiety, and Fear of Commitment in Romantic Relationships, and my work revolves around helping people work through the blocks that get in the way of good love and healthy partnership. I’m not here to trash love, but to save it from the grips of perfectionism and misinformation.

This is exactly why I have a problem with butterflies as a barometer of potential in your relationship.

What it really means to feel "butterflies"

The truth is, there’s far more to good relationships than infatuation and butterflies, feelings that might or might not have been there in your relationship and are all but guaranteed to be ephemeral (Tennov 1979).

No doubt, your butterflies are indicators of excitement and nervousness, and, yes, those are rousing emotions to feel at the start of a relationship. It’s just that neither excitement nor nervousness is a true indicator of what that person will ultimately mean to you and how well the two of you might navigate life as a team.

The butterfly feeling, the exhilarating emptiness in your gut that has become the cornerstone of our fantasies, has absolutely no correlation with long-term happiness, sexual satisfaction, or compatibility in a relationship.

Interestingly, the magical feeling of butterflies comes from the very same part of our brain responsible for registering threat and fear—the very same portion responsible for our anxiety—the amygdala. Feelings of anticipation and threat in the amygdala translate to the knotting sensation in the stomach that we’ve come to call butterflies.

We experience butterflies when jumping out of a plane, giving an important presentation, or preparing for an interview. They are not a rare occurrence, but when we feel them in the context of romance, we’ve been taught to view the feeling as a marker of importance, as a sign that we have potentially found The One.

Not feeling butterflies can be a good thing

Here’s the thing: Not feeling that particular butterfly brand of anxiety when meeting a potential life partner isn’t always a bad sign. In fact, for many, it could be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Imagine if you grew up walking on eggshells, always watching what you said or did, and finally met someone who was not a perpetuation of that cycle of instability, someone who instead felt like a safe and secure place. If this person didn’t inspire nervousness and excitement, it’s likely others around you would say, “You just don’t seem that into it.” And you, too, might worry about the lack of fireworks, not because those feelings are accurate harbingers of happiness but because you’ve come to see them as such.

So, what happens when you meet exactly this sort of person with all the right ingredients to become a life partner, who you’d really like to be with but doesn’t trigger those gushy feelings — the ones we’ve been taught are the ultimate indicators of true love?

Sadly, many would walk away. Most would give up on the hard work of building connection and chemistry in favor of the quick-fix butterfly feeling, the one that fits neatly into our societal and cultural view of what a finding The One ought to feel like.

In allowing the butterfly barometer to persist as the gold standard of chemistry and compatibility, we risk missing out on good people and healthy partnerships. We risk missing out on a love that might not flutter at first, but with time and investment, could very well soar.

Facebook image: clownbusiness/Shutterstock


Tennov, D. 1979. Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love. New York: Stein and Day.

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