The Science of Why Crushes at Any Age Are Like a Roller-Coaster: Fun, Young-Feeling, and Terrifying

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
I tend to develop crushes quickly. They come into my sphere with a vengeance, basically turning my life into the Taylor Swift Me! music video: bright and colorful and dramatic as hell. Just the other week, a crush hit me out of nowhere. I was replaying every interaction, looking for hidden meanings, throwing myself dramatically across my couch like a Victorian romance protagonist, having trouble sleeping…the works. It was ridiculous. While I'm first to admit that I'm naturally dramatic, this seemed like overkill even for me. But the weirdest, and most energy-sucking aspect of crushes is the sensation of polar-opposite emotions happening at once: extreme giddiness and hope, but also extreme despair and self-doubt. Why is it that having a crush make us feel so conflicted—at any age?

Jess Carbino, PhD, relationship and online dating expert, says the hallmark of having a crush is that it might be unrequited, because the person crushing doesn't know whether the object of their desire has similar feelings. And, it can be intense. "A crush is something that can feel as powerful to somebody as romantic love. It can be as fleeting as a few days, or it can be long-lasting," she says.

Part of what makes a crush so exciting and terrible at once is the bit of escapism it can offer. "Crushes are a way for us to remain in the state where we don't have to take action," Dr. Carbino says. "They allow us to live in that fantasy world and to experiment with the idea of love being more perfect and less messy than it actually is in reality. And they allow us to fantasize about not only what this person could be like in a relationship or what the ideal relationship to be like, but also what we could be like in an ideal relationship without our own flaws."

"Crushes allow us to live in that fantasy world and to experiment with the idea of love being more perfect and less messy than it actually is in reality." —relationship expert Jess Carbino, PhD

So there's clearly a lot of fantasy at play here, but whether that could ever be a good thing is a bit tricky. Dr. Carbino warns that staying in a crush phase for too long exposes you to the risk of developing attractions that are not necessarily right for you thanks to all of the romanticizing. So, she recommends taking action about any crush you realize you have real feelings toward—and sooner rather than later.

That said, there is some research noting possible benefits of letting your crush flame burn. One 2008 study found that having a crush (or "faux relationship") could actually help improve your self-esteem in a way that a real romantic relationship can't. And in a small 2015 study of 160 women in committed relationships, the majority reported that their crushes didn't impact their relationship with their significant other and actually led them desire their partner more.

Modern technology also plays a role in making crushes feel so confusing. For one, swipe culture doesn't really allow for the development of crushes, because when you match with someone, the context is that you're both attracted and interested. (In theory.) "The crush feeling doesn't get the opportunity to linger to the same degree because it's not unrequited," Dr. Carbino says. And if you're like me, and most of your online dates end up being disappointing dead ends, having a crush and being able to live in that fantasy land for a moment can feel refreshing. In fact, having someone you see at the coffee shop or the gym in the back of your mind can transport you back to a pre-app time when you were a little less jaded and burnt out.

That said, apps like Instagram have only made it easier to develop crushes on people with whom we may never interact IRL. It's like when you were in middle school and obsessed with Orlando Bloom to the extent that you had framed photos of him in your bedroom (that can't have just been me). But now you can follow celebrities—and famous-on-Instagram personalities—and have access into their daily lives, and even slide into their DMs, making the potential for something feel plausible.

And that's ultimately a huge part of what makes crushes so thrilling: When you're in that fantasy stage, there are seemingly infinite possibilities for how things will play out, and that's beautiful. But also, we can't live in our fantasy world forever—so, crushes, I'm coming for you.

Dating burnout is real—and taking a break is totally normal. Here's what happened when one writer went on a year-long dating sabbatical. Also, watch out for softboys, the latest archetype terrorizing the dating scene.

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