- Individuals who engage in costly commitment signals are more oriented toward a long-term relationship with their partner.
- Experimental evidence shows that those who are in love no longer hold negative views of dependence when it comes to their love interest.
- Sexual desire and sexual behaviors enhance closeness and intimacy, promoting attachment.
Is it love?
You might think that people who are truly in love automatically know the answer to this question, with no doubt in their minds—and a lucky few do. But for many, this generally isn’t the case. People vary in the extent to which they know and can distinguish between their own emotions (Barrett, Gross, Christensen, and Benvenuto, 2001). This puts us in a tricky situation because knowing how we feel affects how we act.
So how do you know if you’re feeling love—or something else?
Research on love and relationships provides a scientific basis for differentiating between love and interpersonal emotions that do not predict lasting relationships. Consider the seven following signs as you try to clarify your current relationship situation. They may help you determine your next move.
1. You find yourself saying “we” more than “I” or “me.”
Language is a secret window into how you perceive yourself in relation to others. What words do you use? What words does your partner use? People who are close use plural words like “we” more frequently in conversation than singular pronouns like “I” or “me” (Pennebaker, Mehl, and Niederhoffer, 2003). The kinds of feelings that suggest love are likely accompanied by a tendency to use plural pronouns.
2. You’re ready to make sacrifices for the other person.
If love is in the air, sacrifice is too. Individuals who engage in costly commitment signals are more oriented toward a long-term relationship with their partner. Costly commitment signals are pro-relationship behaviors that require substantial sacrifice, perhaps in time, emotions, or financial resources—e.g., driving a partner to an appointment or giving a gift. Engaging in costly commitment signals is healthy for relationships, while the absence of these behaviors can damage the long-term stability of a relationship (Yamaguchi, Smith, and Ohtsubo, 2015).
3. You love looking at his or her face.
Eye gaze is a surprising indicator of romantic intentions, differentiating between lust and love. A recent experimental study revealed that in the context of love, visual attention is primarily directed towards the face; in the context of lust, eye fixations are more frequently oriented toward the body (Bolmont, Cacioppo, and Cacioppo, 2014).
4. You don’t mind the idea of some dependency.
People like to be in charge of their lives and depending on someone else can be an uncomfortable proposition. Plus, people aren't always thrilled to have others depend on them. However, experimental evidence shows that people who are highly motivated to increase closeness—like those who are in love—no longer hold negative views of dependence when it comes to their love interest (Koranyi and Meissner, 2015).
5. You sometimes feel like you can’t get enough of this person.
Prominent relationship researcher Helen Fisher suggests that love is a biochemical experience—much like drug addiction because intense love activates the brain’s reward system in ways quite similar to addictive substances (Fisher, Xu, Aron, and Brown, 2016). Successful long-term relationships strike a balance between alone time and together time, but attraction is important. At times, in happy long-term relationships, the pull towards long-term partners can be as strong as the passion felt when couples first get together.
6. You have your differences but are similar to this person on important dimensions.
The idea that opposites attract is compelling, but it is fundamentally unsupported by the research on long-term relationships. That said, opposites do tend to attract short-term flings (Amodio and Showers, 2005), suggesting that there’s a great deal of appeal in the exotic or different—although that appeal may not sustain a relationship. If your relationship is headed toward long-term love, you and your partner are more likely to be similar than different.
7. You’re physically attracted to this person.
Some people might argue that love isn’t about sexual attraction, but research confirms that sexual desire and sexual behaviors enhance closeness and intimacy, promoting pairbonding, or attachment to a significant other (Birnbaum and Finkel, 2008). It’s believed that sex is a mechanism that keeps a couple together, and is part of the experience of consummate love.
Love doesn’t look the same for every person, but these trends depict what scientific evidence suggests many people experience. Distinguishing between emotions that reflect passion versus the kind of love that creates a foundation for a long-term relationship is never easy, but research suggests that passionate love might become sustained love when it is accompanied by substantive compatibility, a supportive social network, and mutual commitment.
Amodio, D. M., & Showers, C. J. (2005). Similarity breeds 'liking’ revisited: The moderating role of commitment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 22, 817-836.
Barrett, L. F., Gross, J., Christensen, T. C., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what you're feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation between emotion differentiation and emotion regulation. Cognition & Emotion, 15, 713-724.
Bolmont, M., Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Love is in the gaze: An eye-tracking study of love and sexual desire. Psychological Science, 25, 1748-1756.
Fisher, H. E., Xu, X., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2016). Intense, passionate, romantic love: A natural addiction? How the fields that investigate romance and substance abuse can inform each other. Frontiers in Psychology.
Fitzsimons, G. M., & Kay, A. C. (2004). Language and interpersonal cognition: Causal effects of variations in pronoun usage on perceptions of closeness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 547-557.
Koranyi, N., & Meissner, F. (2015). Handing over the reins: Neutralizing negative attitudes toward dependence in response to reciprocal romantic liking. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 685-691.
Pennebaker, J. W., Mehl, M. R., & Niederhoffer, K. G. (2003). Psychological aspects of natural language use: Our words, our selves. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 547-577.