During my 40 years as a couple’s therapist, many of my relationship-seeking patients have asked me this question when they meet someone special.
In watching literally hundreds of relationships unfold, I believe that I can answer that question with relative accuracy. I understand what early feelings and behaviors most often predict when a new relationship will transform into long-lasting, true love. Of course, feelings of love can be more urgent in youth, and people tend to be more wary as life progresses, but new couples are new couples at every stage of life. No matter when or how they meet, some people do experience clearly magical connections very early on in a relationship that predict long-term commitment and devotion.
I’ve asked my long-lasting true-love couples what they remember when they met the person who became their long-lasting love. I believe that those early experiences are often the litmus test of whether a relationship has the potential to develop into true love. I’ve had the opportunity to observe new couples who definitely have had those experiences and many are still deeply in love after spending years together. They all shared similar experiences very early in their relationship that helped them know that they’d found their soul mates.
As people navigate their way through dating experiences, they are likely to have pre-set expectations of the early moments. Though most hope that each new relationship might be “the one,” they internally don’t expect that to happen. As a result, they develop patterns of interaction that have worked relatively well in the past, and approach each new relationship ready to re-enact them.
When a relationship has the potential for long-term devotion, my couples tell me that they felt that their early connection didn’t follow the usual pattern. Each responded differently than they expected and in ways that were immediately intriguing. They had a sense of surprise that felt off-kilter in a special kind of way. Things weren’t going in a predictable and comfortable direction, but the new path felt different in a positive way.
“I saw her walk in the door and she looked interesting, but that had happened to me many times before and I didn’t trust my first responses to any new person anymore. I decided to get closer anyway, just to make the evening worthwhile. At first, she didn’t seem interested, but I persisted because something felt different in an odd sort of way. We started talking and, within a short time, this weird feeling started to come over me, like I was kind of out-of-body. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, because it was nothing I’d felt before. I kept wondering what this girl was doing that was making me feel different. It’s hard to put it into words, even after all this time, but I can tell you, I wasn’t the same. I couldn’t have told you that night, but, in looking back, I was already in love.”
Everyone starts a new relationship with some kind of physical attraction. That’s natural. But intrigue is different. There’s a unique kind of interest in the way that potential partner moves, or the sound of his or her voice. People tell me that they just wanted the other person to keep talking, connecting, and staying, like they couldn’t get enough of the experience and didn’t know why. They felt their interest and desire to connect growing from the moment they started connecting.
“I saw him first from the back. He was listening intently to another girl but not like someone who was just looking for sex. More like genuinely interested in who she was. His stance was, I don’t know, just kind. I loved the tilt of his head so I moved a little closer, hoping to get a better feel for what I was experiencing. When I could see and hear him better, something inside of me started to purr. Maybe someone else wouldn’t feel that way, but I just knew that I had to know who was inside that person.
"I did something I’ve never done before. I noticed what he was drinking, and got him another like it at the bar. When he broke from the conversation with the other girl, I handed it to him. He started laughing and told me he’d absolutely never been approached that way before. I told him I’d never approached anyone that way before. Then I started laughing. The warmth between us was palpable, and I’d only known him for three minutes.”
Most people are acutely aware and too reliant upon how they are controlled by time. What happened in the past, what is happening now, and what might happen in the future are often omni-present concerns in most people’s minds. Past mistakes and future concerns dominate most people’s search for an intimate partner and they know that correct timing is essential. They plan how to approach a potential partner, when to make a move, and how and when to navigate the next step. They know that too fast an approach can push a person away, but so can too much passivity.
My couples who found true love tell me that one of the first things they noticed when they met each other was that time and timing just didn’t come into play. They truly remember that time did stand still.
“I’d usually moved pretty fast in the past. I didn’t want to waste time with a woman who wasn’t exciting to look at, or quickly held my attention. I guess you would have described me as urgent about not making any more mistakes and being able to get out of a relationship soon if it didn’t work out right away. I’ll never forget the afternoon I met Jeannie. She was having coffee with some friends at Starbucks. I just kept looking at her until she started laughing and asked me if I was on drugs. We started talking and my old patterns just didn’t kick in. My need to rapidly access the potential just disappeared. As dumb as that sounds, it felt as if time stood still, like I didn’t want what I was feeling to end. I think I would have waited forever for her to be in my life.”
The intense drive of sexual attraction is part of every new relationship but there are additional feelings when true, long-lasting love is a possibility. The sense of being alive is felt simultaneously and in every cell in the body. The heart feels as if it is opening, the mind is engaged, the senses are awakened, and a feeling of transcendence often emerges.
Couples who have stayed in love for a long time tell me that both of them felt as if something were transforming inside of them, a kind of awakening they had not often felt before, like they made an energy together neither had known in the same way before.
“It was a fix-up date so I really didn’t expect anything, except two of my good friends arranged it so I knew I wouldn’t be totally disappointed, whoever he turned out to be. I had no idea that what happened could have ever happened. He gave me a great hug when I first walked into the restaurant and then kind of pushed me back a little and laughed like someone who had just been given a present. At first I didn’t even know what or how to feel, but something came over me I’d never felt before, like being given a shot of adrenaline and a tranquilizer at the same time, totally calm but unbelievably alive. I knew that something special was happening but I had no idea how special it would turn out to be.”
In the beginning of a new relationship, most people try hard to limit their investment. Though they don’t want to be hurt or disappointed, they don’t expect to win the lottery. “Nothing ventured; nothing lost, seems to be a good beginning.
Though those feelings of unsureness and anxiousness can make anyone a little apprehensive, most relationship-seekers continue searching despite them. They expect that fear of loss is supposed to accompany every new venture, but persist nevertheless.
If a new relationship has the capability of long-lasting love, that apprehensive feeling has a distinctly different flavor. Many of my couples have described those early responses as something like being on the edge of a cliff and wondering if they could fly. They just could not give up the chance to hold on to what they were experiencing, no matter what happened.
“My friends had watched me for years, handling each relationship with the same confident air of a person who doesn’t get too close to anyone. I’d been burned in the past and I routinely handled my dates from a non-risk perspective. I had great times with a lot of women, but never seriously considered sticking around with anyone. Fearless and over-protective, I was totally comfortable in my style. Then Natalie showed up in my life. We worked together for a few weeks and she didn’t seem interested. As I got to know her, I had this strange feeling. I was getting very, very interested in this person, and I was, like, scared. Not scared of winning, more scared of losing, like I wouldn’t be able to bear it if she went away. Every day made the fear stronger and the desire even more so. When she told me she wanted to know me better, I felt like crying.”
Many new lovers feel overwhelmed and obsessed with each other. Those feelings are typical of a beginning romance when two people are newly physically attracted. They can’t get enough of each other and spend long hours building and satisfying those feelings. If the sexual relationship is compatible in terms of frequency and depth, most would feel very certain that things were off to a good start.
The feelings of certainty in a potentially long-term relationship are different from the very beginning of more typical relationships. Though they include mutual attraction, there is much more. My long-term couples tell me that they felt almost immediately grounded, quiet, and serious, totally convicted that they would end up together. It was as if fate had intervened, telling them that their unbelievable connection was real and they could trust its promise.
“I’d dated a lot of men, some great, some not so. I really wasn’t looking to get long-term serious but not rejecting the idea if it happened someday. My first reaction to Ned was very physical. He was beautiful to look at and moved in a way that excited me. We dated a few times before we went to bed and the physical connection was good. But something happened after he fell asleep. I was looking at him and my heart wouldn’t settle down. I started wondering what it would be like to never leave him. I told myself, ‘seriously, after a month? What’s wrong with you?’ It didn’t matter. He woke up and looked at me: ‘You’re special, you know.’ That was it.”
Most people present themselves in new relationships as the best package they think the other partner might want. They regularly withhold anything about themselves that might challenge the potential of the relationship’s getting better. They understandably reason that they’ll know more as they feel more secure.
In relationships that harbor the potential of true love, people almost immediately feel the desire to confess and share everything about themselves, whether negative or positive. They just don’t want to hold anything back. They feel immediately courageous, wanting to know and be known, no matter what the outcome.
“I’d been around the block a few times, and I knew how to posture pretty well in new relationships so that the woman would want to keep dating if I liked her. I had it down and it worked pretty well every time. I usually was the one to get tired of the relationship, and didn’t mind the occasional times I got dropped before I was ready. I’d improve the act and get out there again. Then this crazy, emotional girl showed up in my life. She was incredibly present and marvelously quirky. We talked twelve straight hours the first night we were together. I found myself telling her every important thing that had ever happened to me, including stupid stuff. She laughed everywhere she was supposed to and cried when I did. I felt the weight of my old patterns lift off of me, and I never wanted to go back to being that hidden guy again.”
Compatibility is a must in every good relationship, but synergy is something more. It’s great to dance easily with another, but creating new dances as you go is a whole other world. Many people are a good team and complete each other’s dreams and desires. But couples who are synergistic do more than add to each other’s lives. Together, they are more than the sum of their individual parts. They become, in each other’s presence, more than either of them could have ever become alone or with anyone else.
“I’d accomplished a lot in my life. I felt good about the package I had to offer, and had pretty high expectations of any guy I was going to partner with. Most of them just didn’t measure up, even though I knew we could probably compensate where the other wasn’t as strong. But I never felt it was a good enough match to commit and I was totally fine being single. Enter Jason. Old camera; brand new picture. All of a sudden I found myself excited about my own potential in ways I’d never experienced before. We not only clicked, we expanded. I felt unabated discovery. We just got more and more interesting to ourselves, and to each other. It’s never changed.”
Many people have told me, as they navigated the dating world, how much they feel like a transient, a traveler in a foreign world, without knowing where they’re going or when they’ll find out. The smorgasbord of possible partners and the myriad of disappointments can be overwhelming to anyone. Most relationship-seeking people are far from the comforts of their origins and feel the understandable ache to know if they will ever find a person who loves them in the same way. So many of my couples who have found their true loves have talked to me about how they felt when they first met when they felt their search was over.
“I knew that our first few dates felt different, but I didn’t quite know how to deal with what was going on in my mind, and my heart. The more time I spent with her, the more I started to feel this incredible feeling of peace. My troubles seemed suddenly lighter and my dreams seemed more and more possible. It was like finding parts of me that I’d lost. Somehow, with her in my life, I could build something that I couldn’t have seen or known before. I still couldn’t put it into words until my best friend did it for me. ‘Hey, Brad. You sound like you’re home.’ He was right.”