What Happens When You Fall in Love – How Romantic Love Works

I was in my second year at my Japanese high school. I was walking along a hot, summer street to school. There was something different that day. I was thinking about the previous night I had spent with the girl I was in love with. The sun, the sky, the asphalt road, the green trees, the station, and old restaurant buildings  ̶  everything was shining so brightly. My heart was so full of happiness that I wanted to hug everyone. I was in love.

When I was a teenager I fell in love a lot – so many times that I don’t even remember many of them. A typical a teenage boy, you might say. In a way, my stories were far from being original. But if I was slightly different from others, it would be because I was immensely curious about the feelings of being in love.

I recorded the intensity of my feelings on a schedule note so that I could analyse the lifecycle. I was generally interested in what was going on inside of me, so those strong feelings got my attention. I was also troubled. As much as they gave me euphoric pleasure, they preoccupied my mind so much that I couldn’t be as productive as I usually was in daily life. I needed to figure them out so that I could regain the control.

One day, I came across a short article in a newspaper. It talked about a book focusing on the experience of being in love. ‘This is the book I’ve been looking for’, I thought, and I bought the book, Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love by Dorothy Tennov. As expected, the book was very closely related to what I was trying to figure out.

The state of being in love

Tennov calls the feeling of being in love limerence. The term love is too broad and ambiguous and she needed a new word. It didn’t seem to gain much popularly, but later researchers refer to the same feelings using terms like romantic love or infatuation. I will use these terms interchangeably in this article. Essentially the focus is on a very particular aspect of being in love (feelings).

Here’s what it’s like to have those feelings. Remember the time when you were in love and see if you can relate to them.

Intrusive thinking

You can’t stop thinking about the person you are in love with even if you try to. When you want to focus on something else, you soon find yourself thinking of him/her again.

I remember being in an office trying to work on my computer programming, only to find myself thinking of a girl I’d met a few weeks earlier in school (ironically, I don’t remember who it was). My productivity was marking an all-time low. It took the whole day to finish a task that would have normally taken an hour.

Tennov gives plenty of examples:

All during the following day, Larry found himself reviewing the events of the night before. Margaret’s face was almost as clear to him in his daydreams as it had been in the reality of her presence. He could smell her perfume. But above all, he recalled that final moment, that wonderful touch of her arm in his ribs, and the way she looked at him when she found the key… To others, his behaviour that next day appeared quite normal, but in fact Larry’s mind was so totally occupied with thoughts of Margaret, with reviewing and analysing the events of the previous evening, and with anticipating events that might occur in the future, that only his external actions could in any sense be considered ordinary.

Intrusive thinking is a very important indicator of limerence. Other researchers too use it to measure the intensity of the feelings.

Ecstatic Feelings

This state of euphoria is also an important characteristic.

My delight in simply existing eclipsed everything else, and I literally could scarcely feel the ground as I walked. In some ways, my perceptions grew stronger. Colours seemed more brilliant. The warmth of the sunlight on my arm as I drove to work was so acutely pleasurable that I marvelled at never before appreciating it. I relived our moments of intimacy as I drove—the loving pressure of Rick’s arms around me, the softness of his lips, and, most of all, his eyes. His look was an embrace. (Tennov 1998)

While the feelings can be highly pleasurable, they are not without side effect. When the feelings are not returned, your mood plunges from heaven to hell. The effect can be devastating.

I don’t remember how I made it upstairs except that I was in a state of true shock. I don’t mean surprise. I had more or less expected it. I mean real, physical shock. It was as if I had been struck on the head with a hammer. I lay down on the bed and for a long time I didn’t move. I hardly breathed. It was as if, if I remained absolutely motionless, it would in some magical way not be true. (Tennov 1998)

Many psychologists point out that passionate love is similar to drugs. Helen Fisher, a popular researcher on romantic love, writes in her book entitled Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, ‘if the beloved breaks off the relationship, the lover shows all the common signs of drug withdrawal, including depression, crying spells, anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite (or binge eating), irritability, and chronic loneliness.’

Yearning for reciprocation

When you are in love, what you long for is not a sexual relationship even though that’s part of it. A man in love may emphasise that sex is not his primary interest, but something nobler. The thing you want is reciprocation: you want her/him to feel the same way you feel about her/him. The ultimate goal is a state of fusion. You want to feel that you become one with her/him.

One interesting aspect of reciprocation is that when you are uncertain of reciprocation, it intensifies the feelings. On the other hand, if your feelings are reciprocated too easily, you will lose interest. Popular dating advice has it that you should not reveal your feelings too easily.

Mixed messages will drive her/him crazy. Tennov found out that uncertainty prolongs the state of limerence.

Tragic Fantasy

I found out that other people had similar fantasies to mine. It felt strange because it was a very specific kind of fantasy. ‘A classic limerent fantasy involves an unusual, often tragic, event,’ Tennov writes. Indeed, when I was in high school, I day-dreamed that a girl died of an accident and I would be at her funeral. I pictured the scene where I saw myself crying. My devastating reaction was the way to show how much I cared about her.

Before I reach Vera, I step into a snake’s nest and am fatally injured. With Nancy still in my arms, I limp toward Vera. I put Nancy on the ground with care and then collapse at Vera’s feet… Although I am in great pain, and know it is hopeless to try to save me because doctors have told me that any snake bite would kill me because of an allergy, I manage just one sentence: ‘Vera, I love you.’ As I breathe my last breath, I hear her answer, ‘I love you, too, Jim. I always have.'(Tennov 1998)

A snake’s nest. It’s amazing how detailed and specific those fantasies can be.

Lack of appetite, sleep, and other characteristics

The effect of romantic love is physical. I noticed that when I was in love, I ate and slept less. Old stories often talk about people being ‘love sick’ which involves a lack of appetite and sleep. Apparently it’s not just a myth: a study shows that adolescents in early-stage romantic love sleep less than those who are not in love. (Brand et al. 2007)

Here’s a list of some other characteristics:

Being blind to flaws – they say that love is blind. You overlook flaws the person has even though you are intellectually capable of seeing them. You even think that these negative qualities are desirable. It is not until you fall out of love that you start seeing the flaws as they are.

Increasing the chances of encounter – you deliberately take a longer route to get home just to see the person you are in love with. You might hang around her house hoping that you accidentally bump into her. You buy new clothes that she might like so that she will notice you.

Extreme nervousness – you get incredibly shy around her. You get shaky in front of her. Your palms are so sweaty that you fear she would notice if she held your hand.

Fear of rejection – the idea of getting rejected is horrifying. You pay attention to every single detail of her. You review her words over and over again to find out the real meaning of them.

Is this teenage love?

In popular culture, infatuation is often associated with teenage love. However, age is actually irrelevant. ‘People over age forty-five reported being just as passionate about their loved one as those under age twenty-five,’ Helen Fisher, aforementioned author writes.

Duration

It’s not clear how long the state will last as it depends on your disposition as well as the situation. Tennov concludes that the average length is two years, although it can be very short  ̶  a couple of days  ̶  to a lifetime (although that’s rare). As for me, my feelings last from a few days up to three months. Yes, it’s rather short-lived and that was one of the reasons I had to learn how not to rely on my feelings.

Changing mindsets

It is embarrassing to think about all the letters (I mean, e-mails) I wrote in my teenage years. I would write long messages every day, carefully editing over and over again to perfect my subtle expressions of romantic love. When I got the reply, I would reread it several times to figure out the hidden intension of her words.

Then gradually, my excitement would die down. When I noticed that the feelings were slowly fading, I would pray that they wouldn’t go away. There was something very poignant about losing these feelings even though they weren’t always pleasant. They had become part of me, and it felt as if I was losing someone important.

The end of the feelings was the end of the relationship, and I would walk away. Falling out of love was like waking up from a long dream. Suddenly I wasn’t sure why I had been so interested in her.

When I wasn’t in love, I wasn’t interested in girls in a romantic way. I even sort of hated talking about dating and listening to other people’s stories. I don’t really know why. Maybe it was because I wasn’t very comfortable with the dating culture in Japan, or I didn’t like seeing teenagers (which I was myself) making a big deal out of seemingly primitive feelings I thought I had demystified. But, all in all, I spent many years without dating anyone.

In my 20s, I realised that I wasn’t happy with my dating life. I felt like I was missing out on something. I would review my past experiences to figure out what I did right and wrong. I eventually came up with a realisation: I had been focusing too much on my own euphoric feelings and had got overly excited. I would be better off if I paid more attention to the girl’s personality, overall attractiveness, things we had in common, our compatibility, and the way she treated me. In other words, I should find someone I naturally feel attracted to and enjoy her company without the presence of infatuation.

The change didn’t come immediately, but over time my dating life improved greatly.

What if somebody’s madly in love with you?

Dealing with your own feelings is one thing, but dealing with other people’s feelings is another. If you are in a relationship where the other person is infatuated, your experience won’t always be pleasant, especially when the person is not good at controlling his emotional urges. You’ll even feel that he is being selfish: he demands your attention, presence and the same intense feelings.

You may feel that he overreacts to your seemingly innocuous remarks, movements and non-existent ‘intentions’. Tennov writes, ‘The word ‘suffocation’ was used repeatedly in the reports by interviewees fitting the nonlimerent [the one who isn’t in love] pattern.’

They are always being ‘hurt,’ and it’s impossible to predict what will hurt them. I’ll have a good time at a party only to be hit on the way home with something like, ‘Why did you ignore me all evening?’ Really, it’s exasperating! (Tennov 1998)

It is thus important to recognise the signs of infatuated love. He might try to hide them or deny them, but if you successfully identify the feelings, you’ll know where his puzzling behaviours come from. He can’t help himself. He’s not his usual self anymore. You can even compare it to psychological disorders. Some researchers found similar brain activity patterns to those of obsessive, compulsive disorder (OCD). It is literally biological.

Whether you are willing to endure being in the uncomfortable position of being the object of infatuation obviously depends on a lot of things, but I believe that learning about the nature of intense feelings helps.

Attachment

There are people who never experience the intense romantic feelings I have described. Are they incapable of forming romantic relationships? Absolutely not.

I have never felt the way you describe about anyone, and from what you say, as well as what I have seen with my own eyes, I would not want to. My feelings for Marion are, well, as strong, as the feelings I have ever had for anyone, and as far as I am concerned, I can see no reason to look elsewhere. She and I are friends, companions, and sexual partners. (Tennov 1998)

As opposed to infatuation which is short-lived, people in long-term relationships or marriage tend to have another kind of feelings. ‘Love changes over time. It becomes deeper, calmer. No longer do couples talk all day, or the longing, the obsessive thinking, the heightened energy all dissolve. But if you are fortunate, this magic transforms itself into new feelings of security, comfort, calm, and union with your partner,’ Fisher writes.

Fisher calls this attachment as opposed to romantic love. Tennov calls it affectional bonding as opposed to limerence. Whatever terms they use, they seem to agree that these are separate feelings from obsessive love and they need to be considered separately.

A study in 2012 calls them infatuation and attachment, and confirms some of our assumptions. They studied over 550 Dutch speaking and English speaking people based on a questionnaire to measure the levels of their infatuation and attachment.  As you might have guessed, the intensity of infatuation subsides as time goes by. On the other hand, the level of attachment increases over time although not as much as the decrease in infatuation.

One thing to note is that many people stay in their relationships even if infatuation almost disappears eventually. But the attachment is always present. The study didn’t take into account their happiness levels, but if they chose to stay, some of them must be happy. In a relationship, infatuation is not always vital.

(In an aside, English speaking people in relationships had higher infatuation levels in that study. I wonder if it’s something cultural. As a Japanese, I can guess that infatuation levels will be much lower for Japanese people.)

Your choice, my choice

My dating life has improved after I shifted the focus from the euphoria of being in love to the compatibility factors, and I believe many people have a similar transition as they get older. However, I don’t think this is the only ‘correct’ way of dealing with romantic relationships. My choice is based on my unique situation and needs  ̶  short-lived intense feelings and a desire to be in control—but other people may have other needs.

In fact, it is quite possible that some people can maintain the intensity of romantic love. A study in 2012 shows that 40% of the US couples in the experiment reported being intently in love. They were people who had been married over 10 years. When they narrow down the location to New York, the number goes down to 29% but it is still quite high.

It is exciting being in love and there’s no reason why you can’t cherish it however transient it is. In the end, it all comes down to what you want. People have different tastes in life. When I talked about this article with my girlfriend, she said she didn’t want to rationalise her feelings because it would make life less enjoyable. I agree that being very rational could diminish some excitement although for me, making good, rational choices is very pleasurable in itself.

But the thing is this: if everyone started acting rationally, the world would be a much less interesting place. Things like Vitaly’s epic prank wouldn’t be possible.

 

References

Tennov, Dorothy. Love and limerence: The experience of being in love. Scarborough House, 1998.

Fisher, Helen. Why we love: The nature and chemistry of romantic love. Macmillan, 2004.

Brand, Serge, et al. ‘Romantic love, hypomania, and sleep pattern in adolescents.’ Journal of Adolescent Health 41.1 (2007): 69-76.

Langeslag, Sandra JE, Peter Muris, and Ingmar HA Franken. ‘Measuring romantic love: Psychometric properties of the infatuation and attachment scales.’ Journal of sex research 50.8 (2013): 739-747.

O’Leary, K. Daniel, et al. ‘Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates?’ Social Psychological and Personality Science 3.2 (2012): 241-249.

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One thought on “What Happens When You Fall in Love – How Romantic Love Works

  1. Leon

    This was really interesting to read. Because it encapsulated the feelings really well, and because I have never seen a Japanese person explain their feelings in such detail. It seems that feelings or falling in love are truly universal although cultural differences dictate how we deal with that love.

    I am a cynic – I love falling in love but it seems like its nature's 'trick' – a way of forcing two people together despite all, in order to reproduce the species and create a bond that will result in the protection of any children that result.

    The problem is it has a sell by date as you point out – it doesn't last forever.
    I feel like the Hollywood and the media celebrate romantic love too much, setting the wrong expectations for young people. This is something you realised and that everyone has to come to terms with at some point.

    The more important issue for me is that: given romantic love will eventually fade away – what is real 'love' and how can we make the transition to having loving successful relationships with our chosen partner. How do we know that we really love someone? How can we ensure that those feelings last?

    There are many other questions too. Like is there a direct correlation between the intensity of falling in love with someone and your compatibility or chances of enjoying lasting stable love. I"m afraid the answer is no – which sets a lot of people up for disappointment…

    Reply

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