You know "love at first sight"? Two strangers see each other, feel immediately connected, and this instant attraction begets a forever relationship. People who experience love at first sight seem to realize, right away, that they're in love. But what if that's not your story? What if your relationship has more a gradual unfolding? How then, do you know if you're in love?
Whether you believe in love at first sight or not, its emphasis is not actually on what scholars would define as love. Rather, the spark that defines a love-at-first-sight experience is better described as a strong attraction accompanied by an openness to a future relationship (Zsok, Haucke, De Wit, & Barelds, 2017). Romantic love is more involved, encompassing emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components. It's also not something that generally happens instantly, but rather, it usually tends to emerge over time.
Why is it important to know if you're in love?
Questions about love are often, although not always, anchored to behaviors or choices. For instance, determining if you do (or do not) love someone could help you decide:
- Do I want to start an exclusive relationship with this person?
- Am I really unhappy in this relationship, and should I leave?
- Should I say "I love you" to the person I am with?
- Should I hold out for something else, or is this it?
- Am I ready for a deeper commitment to this person?
How do you know if you love someone?
In order to figure out if you love someone, consider how researchers define romantic love. Many scholars see love as an emotional attachment (Hazan & Shaver, 1987), and as such, they consider the quality of a relationship rather than viewing love as a "yes/no" question. In other words, how would you characterize your relationship with this person? How secure and safe do you feel? Are you preoccupied with this person and anxiously concerned that he or she will leave you? Importantly, you can feel deeply attached to someone, even if it is an experience colored by anxiety or avoidance. The presence of romantic love does not depend on a secure experience.
Others view love as reflecting varying levels of passion, intimacy, and commitment (Sternberg, 1986). In this case, you might ask yourself these questions, which reflect the ideas central to Sternberg's model, but are merely samples to spark thought; they are not a validated measure of love:
1. How often do you think about this person?
2. Do you miss him/her when you're not near him/her?
3. Is it exciting, thrilling, or otherwise physiologically stimulating to see this person?
4. How connected do you feel to this person?
5. To what extent does this person know your emotions and feelings?
6. Do you have a strong level of mutual understanding?
7. Do you feel personally responsible for this person?
8. Are you "all-in" when it comes to being with this person?
The first three questions target the idea of passion, which is tied to sexual attraction. Mutual sexual desire might promote romantic love, but sexual interest can be found in other relationships (e.g., short-term flings, friends-with-benefits) in which someone would not say they love that person. In other words, sexual attraction is often viewed as necessary, but not sufficient, for defining romantic love.
The next three questions focus on intimacy. Intimacy is tied to liking. While most people agree that liking is a part of romantic love (Graham, 2011), it is also a critical component of close friendships and therefore, like passion, it is not exclusive to love. The final three questions target commitment, which is a decision (Sternberg, 1986). If passion is "hot," and intimacy is "warm," then commitment is the "cold" component of love, in which someone chooses to be with someone else. Sternberg (1986) argues that consummate love reflects all three aspects of his love triangle: passion, intimacy, and love.
When people try to understand whether they are, or are not, in love with someone, clarity can sometimes be elusive. Instead of asking "yes" or "no," think about "how much" love you feel and to what extent the relationship fulfills the many different needs we try to meet in our romantic relationships.
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Graham, J. M. (2011). Measuring love in romantic relationships: A meta-analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 28(6), 748-771.
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of personality and social psychology, 52(3), 511-524.
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological review, 93(2), 119-135.
Zsok, F., Haucke, M., De Wit, C. Y., & Barelds, D. P. (2017). What kind of love is love at first sight? An empirical investigation. Personal Relationships, 24, 869-885.