How To Know It’s Love

imagesBy Harris O’Malley @ Paging Doctor NerdLove and The Good Men Project

I was a classic otaku; I was going through the stage where the only things I wanted to talk about were anime, manga and the fact that I wanted to find The One in the worst way. Love was everywhere. I didn’t just have a crush on a girl in high-school or college, I had a mad, all-consuming fire in my heart for her that meant I couldn’t eat or sleep.

Every time I was into a girl, I was in love with her with my entire heart and soul. When we broke up (and we always broke up) it was a hideous tragedy that would break my heart into pieces, set them on fire and then piss in the ashes, just for good measure.

It took my first serious relationship to make me realize that I had absolutely no idea what love really was… and I needed a better handle on this whole “love” business if I didn’t want all of my relationships to end in tragedy.

Why Do We Keep Getting Confused?

The concept of romantic love comes from courtly love and chivalry, where knights had elaborate and – critically – platonic relationships with the ladies of the court to which they served. Marriage at the time, especially amongst royalty wasn’t about love but about property exchange, which meant that many noblewomen were in loveless marriages, often to husbands much older than they were. Bring someone in closer to their age as part of the court, often keeping in close proximity, and you’re going to end up with a lot of crushes and infatuations that couldn’t be consummated because of a very strict sense of etiquette (and rather harsh punishments for adultery).

Troubadours took the idea – lovers restrained by circumstance and law, unrequited love and the purity of love vs. the coarseness of sex – and ran with it.

The idea of “true love” being eternal, that love conquers all obstacles, that love is inherently monogamous, that lovers always think about the ones they love, that someone in love can’t eat or sleep for being “love-sick” over their crushes… all arise of the concept of courtly love, passed down through pop-culture for centuries.

It usually takes getting your heart stomped on a few times before you start to wise up and realize that you’ve been going about it all wrong.


Imagine how it felt the first time you saw someone you were really into. Your heart starts to race. Your palms sweat but your mouth goes dry. Your throat seems like it’s slammed shut, forcing you to swallow if you want to say anything beyond a low croak. You’re actually so nervous that you’re shaking. You find them almost undeniably desirable and you can’t stop yourself from wondering what they’re going to feel like when you’re holding them against you as you kiss madly in a dark corner somewhere.

Sounds an awful lot like love at first sight, no?

What you’re actually feeling are physical symptoms of arousal (or fear…). And if you’re relatively inexperienced sexually – and for a lot of people, even if you are fairly experienced – it’s easy to mistake sexual attraction for love… especially if you can’t necessarily do anything about that attraction. After all, it’s a quirk of the human psyche that we almost instinctively want what we can’t have.

Another common issue is that lust makes for a poor basis for a long-term relationship. Lust and sexual attraction is all about immediacy, the need to reproduce as soon as possible as often as possible. It doesn’t concern itself over emotional compatibility or desirable traits in a life-long partner. When lust has been sated… well, sometimes you realize that you can’t actually stand the person you were just smashing genitals with, never mind looking forward to a years-long commitment.


Infatuation tends to carry the sufferer away in a tidal wave of passion and excitement. It feels like an all-encompassing euphoria, leaving the sufferer feeling as though his head is stuffed with cotton candy and pure MDMA. He or she frequently seems to have lost several critical IQ points as they seemingly obsess about the object of their affection, from the way he runs his fingers through his hair to the adorable way she chews her food. Infatuation makes people reckless, seemingly willing to make unusual, even stupid decisions in the name of their newfound “love”. Their feelings are almost like a chemical high, causing them to feel like they’re on top of the world and they can do anything because hey, they’re in love man, and like, nobody’s ever felt like this before.

Unfortunately, the stratospheric highs tend to come with corresponding meteoric plunges into crushing lows.

Much like lust, infatuation often coincides and overlaps with love; in fact, a lot of infatuation is what is frequently called “new relationship energy” or “the honeymoon period” when everything is beautiful and amazing and your lover can do absolutely no wrong. Infatuation is passion mixed with sexual desire, brought on by hormones and oxytocin generation, helping to build a sense of trust and emotional bonding with one’s partner. The problem, however, is that passion inevitably fades, no matter how strong it is at the start. In fact, the half-life of infatuation and passion is somewhere between six months to a year on average, after which that sense of intense, immediate connection starts to fade.

Many couples assume that this is a sign that something’s wrong, that the ebbing passion and lack of rush from sheer physical contact with their partner means that their love is fading or worse, over. This is the cause of a great deal of unnecessary panic and turmoil for couples who don’t realize that infatuation is only the starting point of a relationship.

In fact, passion’s wane is a natural and necessary part of deepening a relationship’s emotional bonds… turning from infatuation into a deeper, more intimate emotion that we know as love.

What Is Love?

The problem with mistaking lust or infatuation for love is that it’s like mistaking the ignition for the car; it makes a lot of noise and catches your attention, but it’s only a part of the whole. Love is a much more gradual motion than we’re taught to believe. That initial “love at first sight” or “falling head over heels” is a mix of lust and infatuation that helps bring people together. Love itself is a deepening of the emotional bond that may be started by sexual desire or an initial attraction; romantic love is more akin to an incredibly deep friendship than a constant state of cardiac arrhythmia and limbic overdrive. It’s a feeling of emotional intimacy, rather than necessarily a physical attraction, a desire for partnership and unity rather than just the need for sexual release.

How do you know when it’s love?

It’s when you realize that no matter how annoyed or outright pissed you get at someone, that they’re the one you want to spend all your time with. When you realize that they’re someone you want guarding your back, helping you pick your ass up off the floor and sitting in the rocker next to you when the two of you are old and decrepit and wearing adult diapers… and you still think they’re the coolest motherfucker you know.

It’s when, even when the passion is spent and the “new car smell” of the relationship has long faded that you can look over at them and realize.


They’re the one.

This piece has been edited for brevity. See the full piece where it originally appeared @ Paging Doctor NerdLove and The Good Men Project 

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 13, 2013, in psychology, relationships and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. “It usually takes getting your heart stomped on a few times before you start to wise up and realize that you’ve been going about it all wrong,” I disagree, it seems as though even if you know better, it is still so hard or maybe seemingly impossible to stop yourself from getting ‘love sick’. You can practice mindfulness, but can’t always control your feelings even when you know right from wrong. I do agree that true love is emotional intimacy and a desire for a supportive partnership. It seems that lust comes from a sexual desire and infatuation comes from the idea of being in love with being in love. A lot of the times people are infatuated with the idea of loving someone and being loved back, and not actually infatuated with their new partner themselves, although it may seem like it. Also, I just wanted to point out that even if it is love, doesn’t mean that you’re a good match. You can love your partner but ultimately decide to end the relationship because you don’t see them being a good match long term.

  2. Personally, true love is when you and your partner go through all the obstacles and still come out stronger than ever before.

  3. Love is such a complicated thing. For younger people in relationships for the first time, the feelings they often get are the strongest ones they have experienced so far in their lives and while it may not fit this particular definition of love, it seems absolutely real to them at the time it is happening. However, at younger ages people are often not as willing to put the required effort into maintaining those strong feelings of so-called love, so it doesn’t usually last.

    I think knowing the difference between infatuation, lust, and love is extremely important to be able to recognize and admit to yourself, especially as you grow older and your relationships start to be more serious in nature.

  4. I agree with this article. Love is a tricky thing that can be easily mistaken. I like the way he described the feeling of lust. I sounded too familiar to be honest. and I am not a fan after I’ve separated myself from the situation. It is as though there is this underlining feeling of like but I can’t trust it is mutual when I’m all frazzled and goofy for this guy. I also like the idea of love being an action that transcends oneself for the purpose of another as said by alex. I believe if anything that is how you know. That division of feeling and action. passed the passion and all that, if you are still fighting to be good to that person, that is love.

  5. I learned in high school that: Love is the will to transcend oneself for the purpose of one or another’s own personal growth, where ‘will’ equal action and growth could be physical, spiritual, or emotional.

    Basically, love is not a feeling–it’s an action.

    Do I agree with this? Yes! In fact, I believe that this definition of love can apply to all genuine loving relationships, such as the ones between mates, parents/children, friends etc. Romantic love is simply the definition of love written above plus sexual attraction.

    As Yoda said in Star Wars, “Your feelings can betray you.” Or was it Obi-Wan? It was some Star Wars character, but I believe the quote is quite true. So, if we can’t rely on our feelings to accurately determine if love exists in a relationship, then focusing on actions is probably more reliable.

    In the movie Addicted to Love, the main character talks about a neighbor I believe who owned a dog. The dog had gotten ill and the man took him to the vet. The vet said there was nothing he could do, that the dog was going to die soon because of a large amount of worms in the digestive track. The neighbor took his dog home and inserted his fingers into the dog’s rectum and pulled out each worm one by one; “Now that’s love.”

    To me, love means you care enough about someone that you actively try to help him/her better themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It requires people to actually DO things that show care, whether it’s taking care of someone when they are ill or sacrificing some sort of personal happiness for the betterment of someone else.

    I like to ask students who claim they love a boyfriend or girlfriend: If you boyfriend really wanted a certain gift for Christmas, would you get it for him? “Yes” is the usual response. Then I follow up with, “Would you give it to him with a card that said ‘From Santa Claus'”? Meaning, would you be willing to keep it an anonymous gift?

    I love when people pause here.

    In short, I believe ‘love’ involves action, and many times that action requires a sacrifice on someone’s part and without the expectation of thanks or reward.

  6. I completely agree with this post. I have been in all of these situations and find it ridiculous looking back on the infatuation and lust. i suppose we are all very predictable when it comes to attraction. While reading the infatuation section a certain woman that i dated came too mind. I was so infatuated with her that i ended up hardly getting to know her because i was busy trying to impress her. The relationship ended rather fast because of this but rightly so because i was being an idiot! My current relationship is very amazing because im really good friends with the person as well. I hope others find a person for them that can be their friend as well as their mate.

  7. I completely agree with this! I always was a believer of “love at first sight.” However, after reading this article, I realize that there is no such thing. Although there is “attraction” at first sight, there is no way a person can automatically love another individual without truly getting to know them. They are blinded by the intense attraction that they initially can feel and can mistaken it for love. Therefore, it is understandable for a person to get confused, especially if you’ve never experienced being in a relationship before. Your previous conception about love can be clouded with knights and princesses being saved by their prince charming.

  8. Love is tolerance, and it is constantly being generated by each little precious moment from your interaction. When those sparks in your life occurs, it causes the generation of a certain amount of love. That amount varies depending on the act— a kiss, a shared joke, anything. These amounts are stored for cushioning for when they do something that displeases or irritates you. Then you delve into the deposit and use the amount of love from before so you don’t go negative and start hating that person.

    Above is my theory. With this explanation, it justifies failed marriages and failed love. That person simply went to overdraft with what they’ve given you. No one really gets unconditional love. It’s just that some people deposit more with each chance, so they have more cushioning. Eventually, it will wear out.

  9. I really like your style of writing. It’s funny with truth and that’s the best. 🙂

  10. Everyone loves the idea of Love at first sight. I think many of us are in love with the idea of being in love. That is why we love watching romantic movies and love to read a good love story. I think it’s great if you can experience all three (lust, infatuation and love) so we can look back at the crazy things we did for that person we thought we loved. Love is an emotion and feeling we experience or all thrive for. Media and society often fuel the illusion or fantasy of love by portraying these happy love stories. At a young age we are taught to search for love with fairy tales and movies we watch such as Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. American culture cultivates you to seek out for “love”. This can lead to another discussion if as a society or biologically we do not want to be alone.

  11. Aristotle said it best, “A true friend is two souls in one.” The same can also be said for true love in that love is found when two souls become one. I agree though that at times when someone has never experienced the feeling of love and maybe confused by the emotions of lust, it is possible that they will look for false feelings without knowing it. They search for the feelings of lust in mind when the feeling of love is a different emotion entirely.

  12. i like this one, i read one thing that says “you know that tingly feeling you get when you like someone, thats common sence leaving your body ” ha ha which its true. too many people think they are in love but you can tell when you really love someone even though they make you mad and annoyed you would never think to spend that time with someone else. it takes time to really love someone because you have to get to know them, their likes and dislikes their past and future, and everything in between. The only hard part is when one person falls in love and the other is in lust or infatuation.

  13. well now that i think back my love at first sight seems a lot like lust. for the first week with my boyfriend i would be so nervous i would actually shake and day dream about him kissign me passionately. i do love him but i can’t help but feel guilty for admiring other guys even though i’d never cheat on him or anything. meanwhile he seems to not be interested in any other girl but me so the guilt rises. i do believe love is an equality and a loveless marriage is mostly for rank in society and money to me whether it’s tradional to a culture or not. beign lustful and infatuated aren’t so bad but it takes more than that to truly be involved with someone which i feel society and teenagers just don’t get. i need to be able to accept someone for the way they are without needing to change them like a project which i know some girls do. i know my bf accepts me completely even in my grosses moments and to me those embarressing moments are the true test of whether he does love me and when i am at my worst and he’ s still by my side then he is officially a keeper.

  14. I will have my 17 year old son read this.

  15. I agree with this! Love is what’s left over when the novelty has worn off 🙂 I’d add the willingness to look after/be looked after when sickness occurs!

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