Whether it’s your first real relationship or just your first in a while, it’s normal to find yourself in the midst of a new romance wondering, Is this love?
While it’s possible, and even incredibly easy, to experience a “love at first sight” connection, true love looks and feels a little different from the warm feelings we usually associate with falling in love. Here’s what true love is all about, plus 10 signs you’re in it.
What is true love?
It’s important to clarify that everyone experiences and expresses love in their own unique way. However, with that in mind, clinical psychologist Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., says, “What we do know is that there is a difference between lust, attraction, and attachment, which combine to what I define as love.”
The attachment stage is key for long-term love, Wegner adds. Attachment is about feeling deeply connected to someone more than your physical lust and attraction. “It can be sexual and romantic or not (such as infant-bonding, close friendships, and loving family relationships),” she says.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Linda Carroll M.S., LMFT, explains the idea of wholehearted love as the last of five stages of a relationship. A couple must go through deep interpersonal connection but also doubts, disillusionment, and ultimately a decision about whether to stick it out, all before experiencing true, wholehearted love.
Notably, both experts note the idea of one soul mate seems to be a wash: “I think you can make a choice to spend your life with another person,” Carroll tells mbg, but “I think there’s more than one right person—I think there are many kinds of soul mates.”
What love feels like:
It’s more than lust.
It’s important to recognize the difference between lust and love. While lust is one stage on the way to love, you’re going to need more than physical attraction to make it last. In time, the deeper you get to know them and the more you bond, the more you’ll grow to care for who they really are—and the more they’ll care for who you really are, too.
You’re not concerned with the risk.
If anything, risk is what makes it exciting. Love pushes you to open yourself up completely to another person, to really be seen and understood. And in spite of the possibility of heartbreak, we do it anyway. Love is a huge risk, but it seems to be the one we’re all willing to take.
You feel calm and content around this person.
Eventually, as the honeymoon phase dissipates and you and your partner really begin to see who the other is, there’s a sense of calm familiarity. You feel grounded and content in their presence. This is partly due to the hormones released during the attachment phase that facilitate bonding, oxytocin and vasopressin.
It just feels right.
Love doesn’t always have “good reasons,” which is where the idea of unconditional love comes from. As holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, Ph.D., describes to mbg, it almost feels as though “there’s a divine force telling me I’m on the right path. It doesn’t always feel easy or even necessarily positive, but it always feels like I’m right where I need to be.”
You feel like a complete individual.
Your partner shouldn’t “complete” you; in fact, feeling that way is a good sign that you’re more in the infatuation phase than true love. Love happens between two whole people, which is why Carroll refers to it as “wholehearted love.” Both people are free to be their whole selves.
Couples experience “true individuation and self-discovery” when they’re truly in love, explains Carroll. In this way, you don’t feel incomplete without them but rather that you’re two whole people who work well as a team.
You accept the good with the bad.
Before getting to the wholehearted stage, couples have to go through disillusionment (the end of the honeymoon phase when faults start showing up) and ultimately, a decision about whether to stay together. There’s really no way around it. “Loving is realizing all the ways you’re not perfect together and making it work anyway,” Carroll says.
You actively choose them.
Once you’ve accepted those things about your partner that aren’t exactly your favorite—congratulations!—you’ve actively decided your love for them is more important. Long-term love is very much a choice. Carroll notes, “I think there’s more than one right person—I think you can make a choice to spend your life with someone.”
You trust your love will last.
Despite the risk and any other difficulties, there’s a deep knowing that you want this person in your life, and trust they’ll be around for the long haul. And building this trust is no easy feat, according to Carroll, who notes it’s a process that takes time.
You’ve overcome obstacles and challenges.
Carroll explains that developing true love takes going through rough seasons and finding out all the ways you’re not compatible. But the more your relationship is put to the test, the stronger you become as a pair. Of course, every relationship still takes effort, but once you reach wholehearted love, you’ve really sharpened your communication and conflict-resolution skills.
You could live without them‚ but you don’t want to.
Going back to the idea of being a complete individual with and without a partner, there’s the part of you that knows you would be OK without your great love. But with that said, you know this isn’t what you want because you simply, genuinely love having this person in your life.
How long does it take to fall in love?
How long it takes to fall in love will depend on the individual and the couple. There’s no set timeframe that applies to everyone. Physiologically speaking, the dopamine rush begins to drop off after about four years together. Dopamine plays a big role in the attraction stage, before oxytocin and vasopressin come into play to allow for true attachment.
“I think it takes one second to fall in love,” Carroll asserts. “I think to stay in love—trust that love is gonna last—takes years.” In that case, it’s important to remember falling in and out of love is not uncommon when we really get into time-spanning years.
There’s really no script dictating when the right time is, Wegner adds. “All is fair in love and war,” she notes—but she does offer one word of warning: “If you find yourself frequently lusting after, attaching, or being attracted to everyone, and it is not reciprocated or feels different from what most others experience, it’s worth becoming curious why. Is it true love, or are you repeating an old relational habit?”
How do I tell someone I love them?
If you’ve made it this far and believe without a doubt you’re in love, you might just be thinking about how to tell your partner. As with any big relationship step, keep things honest and open.
“As we have all learned from Brené Brown, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is key to a wholehearted life,” Vora says. “Get in the ring and tell someone how you feel. If they don’t feel the same way, you want to know that sooner than later.”
Take some time to really think things through. Once you’re sure it’s love (and usually, your gut will give you a pretty good idea), let your S.O. know—and enjoy it! After all, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
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