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10 Myths About Love, Exploded

Three leading researchers on why old beliefs could leave you lonely.


These are some of my favorite things: the color blue, strawberries, and love. But what exactly is romantic love?

Depends on who you ask.

Most of us are pretty sure we know love when we feel it. Yet the emotion, the state of mind, is more complex and varied than any one of us, even a specialist, can describe fully. What you experience depends on which part of the elephant you touch.

Books of fresh insights about love have been written by philosophers, psychologists, and even a mathematician. From three new releases, I’ve collected these 10 common myths—and the authors' reasons why they're just not so.

True Love, or False Assumptions?

1. Love is an irrational emotion that you either are “in” or not “in.”

Not so, according to philosopher Berit Brogaard, author of On Romantic Love: Simple Truths about a Complex Emotion. In fact, love admits of degrees: You can love a little, a lot, or not at all. Sometimes your feelings are quite rational; at others, they’re utterly irrational.

2. You can’t make yourself fall out of love.

But you can. Emotions are subject to a kind of rational control. You can use strategies to help you fall out of a love that’s wrong for you, claims Brogaard, whose book is a pleasant mix of strong opinion, detailed anecdote, and academic credibility.

3. Falling in love is a unique physiological state.

Not really, Brogaard writes. It’s a lot like what happens when you react to perceived danger with a rush of cortisol and other hormones that prepare you to flee or fight. Due to a new potential partner’s mystery and sexual attraction, your amygdala hyperactivates. Neurotransmitters signal the adrenal glands that something exciting, scary, and mysterious is happening. As such, love can feel and act in your brain a lot like cocaine.

4. The emotional pain of a failed romantic love is unlike any other.

Not true. Brogaard cites studies finding the same neurons firing when a person experiences either physical or psychological pain.

How Do We Really Mate?

5. Meeting the right person is a random toss of the dice.

Not so, posits mathematician and complexity scientist Hannah Fry, author of The Mathematics of Love: Patterns, Proofs, and the Search for the Ultimate Equation (a TED Original). She offers a tactic to increase your odds: Be less picky.

Rather than insist that you’re only attracted to and willing to date a small percentage of those you meet—those who fulfill your particular age and educational preferences—raise that percentage and see your odds improve. Also, don’t insist on someone having every one of your ideal attributes. Many happy couples have shared that they never thought they’d find joy with someone like their beloved, even if it's someone who kills spiders or hates jazz.

6. There’s always someone out there who would be better suited for you than your current partner.

Not necessarily. Purely following the mathematical “optimal stopping theory,” Fry writes, you would first calculate out the length of your dating life; fully reject the first 37% of those you date; and then stick with the next person you meet who is better suited for you than any of those you rejected.

Of course, Fry wryly explains, there are flaws in this formula, and she explores them in some depth and with ample wit, leaving readers to choose for themselves between the hazards of choosing too soon or the risks of being too choosy altogether.

What's Science Got to Do With It?

7. Taking turns sharing what you resent about one another is a valid therapy technique.

No way, writes John Mordechai Gottman, a psychology and relationship researcher for the past 40 years in his Principia Amoris: The New Science of Love. In fact, anger will not bring you catharsis. By freely expressing your most negative thoughts, you just end up feeling angrier.

8. To get, you have to give an equal amount.

Actually, quid pro quo thinking has been found to be a hallmark of relationships that are failing, Gottman insists. In the best relationships, each partner gives without expecting anything in return. (Also see “A Marriage Manifesto: Beyond Tit-for-Tat.”)

9. Love is unpredictable.

Don't believe it, writes Gottman. Many replicable studies have demonstrated that love is quite predictable. In his own lab, he has been able to predict divorce over a 6-year period with better than 90% accuracy. Much of that predictability is based on how couples handle conflict, and how many positive vs. negative comments they make to each other.

10. Couples will inevitably stop having much sex.

Gottman refutes this common misconception beautifully: “Using the math of game theory I proved that a couple will stop having very much sex if there is any negative cost at all to saying "no" to sex. As long as the cost of saying ‘no’ to an invitation to sex by one’s partner is just slightly positive (and not zero), I showed that the couple will have a lot of sex.” (A fuller explanation of this surprising and important statement is on page 51 of Principia Amoris, a book I highly recommend.)

Copyright (c) 2015 by Susan K. Perry, whose novel Kylie’s Heel features some of the pitfalls of love. Also see her Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way.

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