Below, psychologists walk through the distinct stages and offer some advice for pinpointing where you might, well, fall in any romantic situation.
The differences between falling in love, being in love, and loving someone, according to psychologists:
Falling in love
The very word “falling” is a useful image to keep in mind when you’re thinking about this stage, which social psychologist and relationship scientist Theresa E. DiDonato, PhD, says is “a transitional phase between not being in love and being in love, and is often described as exhilarating.”
“Falling in love is a roller coaster oriented around the person of interest.” —social psychologist and relationship scientist Theresa DiDonato, PhD
Sure, it comes along with the whole rush of happy-go-lucky feelings of infatuation and hope and excitement—but on the flip side, it can also bring a wave of less-than-positive effects, like trouble thinking clearly, anxious thoughts, trouble sleeping, and lapses in appetite, says Dr. DiDonato: “In other words, falling in love is a roller coaster oriented around the person of interest.”
And as is true with all roller coasters, the ups and downs, while sometimes thrilling, can be tough to handle—especially because you didn’t necessarily opt to hop on this particular coaster in the first place. “To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had,” author Adam Phillips writes in an excerpt of Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. “You wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there.” And now, there's seemingly nothing you can do to get this potential love interest out of your head.
Being in love
Once you’ve fallen, you’ll find yourself fully submerged in love. “When you’re in love, you generally are infatuated with someone whom you might not even know very well,” says psychologist Paulette Sherman, PsyD, author of Dating From the Inside Out and host of The Love Psychologist podcast. “You idealize them and may project your fantasies upon them,” she says.
At this point, the feel-good hormones (that is, dopamine and oxytocin) that might’ve been set off by an initial spark of chemistry rise to peak levels, and you could experience near-ecstasy as a result, says Dr. Sherman. In fact, sometimes that good feeling is so poignant, you might miss the not-so-great sides of a person, or even some relationship red flags. That’s the effect of the hormone release working like a drug whenever you’re around this person (yes, that’s a real thing!)—and as a result, you feel almost an addiction to being in their presence.
“Being in love is largely an unconscious experience that may last around a year to a year and a half,” says Dr. Sherman, referring to the period of time that immediately follows falling for someone new. Even so, this kind of intense passion can recur later in a long-term relationship, says Dr. DiDonato, in situations where you uncover something new about your partner, experience something new together, or rekindle a moment of everyday intimacy.
To return to the roller-coaster metaphor, if falling in love and being in love are the loops and dips of the ride, loving someone is the smooth portion at the end, when you’re no longer awaiting every moment with intense anticipation, but instead, you feel happy, secure, and at ease coasting alongside your partner.
“[To love someone is to] know them deeply, experience their challenging sides, and fully embrace them.” —psychologist Paulette Sherman, PsyD
“When you love someone, it is more reality-based,” says Dr. Sherman. “You know them deeply, experience their challenging sides, and fully embrace them.” While moments of feeling “in love” can certainly be a part of loving someone, the latter includes a strong sense of intimacy and closeness that’s underlined by commitment, says Dr. DiDonato. In other words, you feel like you can be fully vulnerable with the other person, and that they can be fully vulnerable with you—and the feeling of love and emotional attachment between you will only grow stronger with time because of that continued vulnerability.
By reaching this stage in the love process, you’re more likely to be involved in a relationship that will last. But that very distinction involves another key difference between being in love and loving someone: While the former is a place you might arrive, the latter is an action you’ll continue to take.
“It is a conscious choice to make a permanent commitment to being there for each other through good and bad times, and not just when it’s fun,” says Dr. Sherman. “It’s in those tougher moments, when you get tested and triggered, that you’ll find the opportunity to work on yourselves and the relationship so that you can both become more loving—as a verb.”
When you’re acting with this kind of love, it often shows up as a version of interdependence. “Each partner influences the other, and each partner's outcomes depend on the other,” says Dr. DiDonato. In that way, to love someone is to take their happiness as your happiness and their sadness as (yep) your sadness—an act that surely involves effort, and yet, also feels like a decision you simply can’t help but make.
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