Being ‘in love’ with someone isn’t the same as really loving them.
You’re dating someone new, and it’s going great. When you’re not together, you’re counting the minutes until you see him again. Every time your phone buzzes, you hope it’s him texting you. Thinking about his smile makes you feel warm all over, everything he does is adorable, and the sex is AMAZING. You’re tempted to say those three little words…but are you really sure? What does ‘I love you’ mean, anyway?
Some people start throwing out ‘I love you’ very early on in a relationship, while others hold off saying it until the other person says it first, or until they’re ready to commit on a more serious level, or it just feels right, in some ineffable way. We’ve probably all said ‘I love you’ to someone and thought later that, in fact, we didn’t probably didn’t really mean it. And maybe we were stingy with an ‘I love you’ we should have said sooner, because we never got the chance later.
But here’s the thing: being in love with someone is very different from actually loving them. Saying ‘I love you’ early in a relationship might really mean, ‘I’m infatuated with you and I love having sex with you,’ not ‘I’ve seen you at your worst, ugliest and most annoying and even though being with you isn’t always a bag of LOLs, I still care about you deeply.’
So how do you know when it’s the real thing? Here are the four stages every relationship has to go through before you can say you truly, madly deeply love someone…
This is the fun part. Whether you want to call it infatuation, lust, or the more scientific term: limerence, this first stage of falling for someone is the part people often confuse with real love. When the infatuation fades, as it always does, many people panic, worrying they’ve fallen out of love, and won’t be able to get it back. But psychologist Dorothy Tennov, who first named this intense, often all-consuming feeling ‘limerence’, says it’s normal for it to go away sometime between a year and a half and three years into your relationship, and it’s not a sign your relationship has gone bad. In fact, it’s just the opposite: your relationship can’t really move forward until you’ve cleared this phase.
And while some people prize infatuation too highly, seeking it out over and over again and throwing away promising relationships as soon as it fades, others go too far the other way, pooh-poohing the importance of infatuation, as if it doesn’t mean anything, because it’s going to go away anyway. But that’s wrong, too. The limerence stage is important. All those biochemical responses that make you feel so crazy about your new partner will help bond you together for the rough times ahead. If you can both look back on the days when stayed in bed all day because you couldn’t get enough of each other, it gives you a strong foundation for the future. Do you really want to be with someone who never made you smile so much your face hurt at the end of the day? (Never mind sitting down after those marathon sex sessions – ouch.)
As infatuation wears off, real life rears its ugly head. You start to notice that your wonderful new partner always wants to tell you about his hard day, but never asks about yours. You wonder if he ever learned how to properly wash a dish, and why he has to spend every Saturday drinking beer with the guys. Turns out you don’t agree on everything after all, and he’s not actually that cute when he wakes up in the morning. You wonder if all the things you loved about him were merely projections; you saw what you wanted to see, and now the scales are falling from your eyes as your partner’s true character is revealed.
This is when lots of couples throw in the towel. They want to feel the way they felt in the beginning, but those warm feelings seem to have disappeared, and they don’t know how to get them back. As good as it felt to fall in love, that’s how bad it feels to fall out of it – or at least, to believe that’s what’s happening. And it’s not just your imagination: the chemicals that flood your brain when you’re falling in love (or more accurately, limerence) actually stimulate some of the same parts of your brain that opiate drugs like heroin do. So really, the disillusionment phase isn’t completely unlike being a junkie in withdrawal.
After infatuation has worn off and disillusionment sets in, that’s when couples engage in what well-known therapist and author Harville Hendrix calls ‘the power struggle.’ In his classic relationship advice book, Getting the Love You Want, Hendrix puts forth the theory that we don’t really enter into relationships in order to take care of each other; we do it to heal our own hearts. So while we say we love our partner and want to make them happy, what we’re really doing is trying desperately to make ourselves happy. According to Hendrix, at some point the wounded child inside us decides they’ve been ‘good’ long enough to endear themselves to the romantic partner, and will now start making demands.
This is make or break time for relationships, if they’ve even managed to survive past disillusionment. Can you find a way to see each other for who you really are, be honest about what you need from each other, and learn to meet those needs? It’s not easy; most couples don’t manage it. That’s why so many people get divorced. They imagine that if they just had the right partner, a different partner, they wouldn’t have to go through this phase. And it’s true that not every couple should stay together. Sometimes, getting divorced is the answer. But if you have a strong connection that goes back to your falling-in-love days of limerence and infatuation, it may be worth staying the course. This is when couples therapy is a must for most people. If you want to stay together – and not just together, but happily together – you’ll have to wade through the muck for a while in order to get there.
If you’ve managed to make it through infatuation, disillusionment, and negotiation, and you’re still together, then you’ve cracked the code: you really love each other. This kind of love is a verb, not a noun: something you actively choose to do each day, and show each other in actions as well as words.
Social worker and men’s health expert Jed Diamond, PhD, says nothing can compare to the power of real love.
“There’s nothing more satisfying than being with a partner who sees you and loves you for who you are. They understand that your hurtful actions are not because you are mean and unloving, but because you have been wounded in the past and the past still lives with you. As we better understand and accept our partner, we can learn to love ourselves ever more deeply.”
So next time you’re about to utter those three little words to a new romantic prospect, don’t hold back. Go ahead and say them; just know that you may have a long road ahead of you before they are really and truly true.
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Comment: Have you ever confused infatuation with real love?