What’s this thing called love?

Falling in love is one of life's most exciting events in life. Everyone wants to find true love, and when it happens, life takes on new meaning. Sudden energy surges through the lover's system. New enthusiasm provides zest for the most boring tasks. A special chemistry works overtime.

In the early stages of love, time together is filled with exciting adventures and affectionate interludes. Each look and touch, every conversation and kiss takes on special significance. Everything is so right, so good, so perfect. Suddenly, the question appears: “How do I know if this is the real thing?”

None of us deliberately sets out to make wrong choices in our love life. We want our relationships to work. At the time we make our decision about who is right for us, we believe we are making the right choice. But more often than we like to admit, that choice turns out to be wrong.

Love is so exhilarating that some people deliberately close their eyes to anything that might spoil the fantasy. Telling the difference between true love and infatuation is tricky, but not impossible. Applying the “test of time”–two full years of dating before marriage–will help.

True love conquers all?

Many relationships fail even before they really begin because couples come with the theory that true love conquers all: “Regardless of what the problem is, we can beat it. We love each other so much we can make our relationship work. No problem is too big for our love.”

Anyone who buys into this theory is not facing reality. If couples having one or more of the following issues insist that they don't matter, such couples live in the risky “love-conquers-all” zone:

Tina and Andre dated for a year. Tina was brought up in a strict religious home while Andre was raised with no religion at all. Before meeting Tina, he had never even been to church. While dating, they discussed their religious differences from time to time, but not in depth. Andre went to church with Tina to make her happy, but never made a commitment to God and Christianity. Because he attended church with her most of the time, Tina thought Andre was accepting her faith, even though he never said anything to confirm this. They got along so well in every other way that both skirted the issue of religion, hoping it would all work out. Neither wanted to rock the boat. Inwardly Tina knew she could never give up her faith, and Andre knew he could never be religious like Tina. Both thought their love for each other could beat all obstacles.

Tina and Andre married but parted ways over issues of faith, church, and spirituality. By avoiding the issue of religious differences prior to marriage, they were really saying, “If we love each other enough, we can overcome the problem. True love can conquer our different religious values.” After they were married they found it wasn't that easy. Andre no longer tried to accommodate Tina's wishes by going to church. Tina tried to love him anyway, but didn't have the spiritual leader in her home she really wanted. She wanted a man who would pray with her about problems, provide spiritual guidance, and be a godly model for their children.

As much in love as you are now, as much as you vow never to allow some of the problems mentioned to separate you, dealing with any of the issues over time will eventually wear out your love and devotion for one another.

Love is strange

During the early stages of falling in love, you will likely experience a wide range of feelings and responses, including intense passion and idealization of your partner–thinking he or she is absolutely “perfect.” This romantic phase, what is also called infatuation, includes curious emotional and physiological changes–changes that have been laboratory tested, and are 100 percent real! For instance, the sense of being in love makes a female appear more beautiful. Research explains that “men and women who are in love walk more erectly and appear to have grown taller because the spinal column is stretched.” All motor responses are intensely activated, making those in love extremely aware of and emotionally receptive to their partners.1

Eyes appear shinier when you are in love because the production of tears increases. This explains why eyes actually appear to sparkle and why you feel that the world is a brighter, shinier, happier place. Hearts beat faster, which makes people even more susceptible to falling in love.

Energy level also increases. Being in love spurs the production of epinephrine (adrenaline) and gives energy and strength to surmount problems; thus the feeling that you can conquer anything.2 Another study on those who thought they were in love showed that this increased adrenaline actually makes the heart grow fonder. Participants in this project were injected with adrenaline to approximate the aroused state of being in love. It was found that those who had been injected demonstrated more affection than those who did not have the extra spurt of adrenaline by injection. In other words, the state of being in love increases the ability to love.3

Those in love are more open to and accepting of what life has to offer them. They are ready to enjoy life to its fullest. In contrast, those who are not in love present a more negative or closed attitude to others when hurt or angry. Such responses include holding their arms close to their bodies, taking small steps, pursing their lips, and keeping their heads down. They are more apt to withdraw physically and emotionally from others. In response to their withdrawal, others actually withdraw from them. The result is unhappy persons who think others don't like them and never receive the love and attention they want and need to make them happy.

Some young adults puzzle over why they rarely or never have dates and appear to be rejected by those they meet. In reality, they send out negative reactions that turn others off to them.4

Memory improves when one is in love, even if selectively. The person in love possesses an extraordinary ability to remember everything and anything about their object of affection. He may forget his math assignment and she may forget to set her alarm, but neither will forget details about the other.

Those in love want to be physically close to the one they love. If your partner is constantly edging closer, always wanting to be at your side, chances are she is in love with you or thinks she is.

Love affects brain chemistry. One study concluded that once the emotional state has been defined as “love,” there is an increase in the brain chemical phenylethylamine that maintains the emotional level high. Interestingly enough, phenylethylamine is the same chemical compound found in chocolate, a popular gift for those in love.5

Love also affects eating habits. Many people experience a loss of appetite in the early stages of love. One young woman told me laughingly that if she could just stay in love forever, she would never have to diet again! Others feel as if they are walking on air or being transported to another world where they are barely conscious of their surroundings.

Lovers may have sweaty hands, butterflies in their stomachs, dilated pupils, and so on. Such physiological effects tend to fade in time. Personally, I am glad to hear this, or I'd be exhausted after years of going through all that every time my Harry walked through the door!

Early in the relationship, it is common to think about the loved one constantly. Lana says dreamily, “I go to sleep thinking about him, and he is the first thought that pops into my mind in the morning. Then I begin another day where he is never out of my thoughts.” This intense focus on the loved one tends to add even more interest and excitement to the relationship. When away from each other, it is common for a couple in this early romantic phase to anxiously wait for the moment they will see each other again or intensely desire a phone call.

People in this stage talk endlessly about the object of their affection with anyone who will listen. It is possible that the one in love may become so totally immersed in the love relationship that responsibilities are ignored or forgotten. Kurt says, “I'm having trouble concentrating in school, and I can't get my homework done. It piles up and I can't even force myself to tackle assignments that are due. The other day I was at a student body officers' meeting. Someone asked a question. I didn't even know that he was talking to me until everyone laughed.”

Up close and personal: About males

Generally speaking, males fall in love more rapidly than do females. In one study of 250 men and 429 women, researchers measured the “romance quota” of all who were currently in love. More than one quarter of the males said they had fallen seriously in love before the fourth date, while only 15 percent of the females had. In fact, half of the females reported they had not decided if it was genuine love even after 20 dates! The conclusion was that females take more time determining whether they are in love or not.6

Males fall in love more rapidly, it is concluded, because they are initially attracted by the physical qualities of a girl. One study determined that males took only seven seconds to decide if they wanted to pursue a relationship with a woman. Men rarely feel an urgency to evaluate a woman over time when her looks are appealing. If he likes what he sees and she sets his hormones on fire, he knows it's love. Thoughts of her homemaking abilities, how she'll get along with his family, or what kind of mother she'll make, all take a back seat to her looks.

A man is also more likely to conclude it's love when the woman makes him feel good about himself. This satisfies his need for admiration and appreciation. To find real love, then, males must slow down and love a woman patiently and tenderly over a long period of time. One who rushes ahead of a woman's instincts may lose in the end.

Up close and personal: About women

Females look at love differently than males do. Generally women take longer to decide and aren't as willing to declare undying love until they have looked over a man's inner qualities. They are more apt to look for characteristics they desire in a man who will become the father of their children. Women, more so than men, have an ability to look into the future and visualize what a lifelong relationship with a man would be like.

Women take longer to fall in love because they are more in touch with their feelings. It is easier for them to distinguish between infatuation, with its rush of emotions, and genuine love, which tends to move more slowly. Women definitely feel and enjoy the tingling and palpitations of infatuation, but are more prone to allow their heads to rule their hearts–at least initially.

Women are slower than men to label their feelings “love” but are more relentless in their pursuit of the real thing. Once a girl decides she has found her man, she is likely to become more intensely emotional and romantic. Love now becomes euphoric. Life takes on a special flow. Colors are brighter; she is happier, more beautiful and bubbly than ever before. She may find it difficult to concentrate on anything except her man and dreams of their future together.

Love without limits

Society programs us through the mass media and other forums to believe that love will solve all personal problems. Such a concept leads people down a dangerous path because they expect romance to offer what only Jesus can supply.

Rather than securing all your hopes and dreams on a human being, why not secure yourself first and foremost to someone who will never change? Jesus is always the same, yesterday, today, and forever. Promises He makes, He will keep. You can count on it. His love is completely unconditional. He will always love you, regardless of your appearance, failures, or mistakes. When others fail you, He will be there to love and care about you. He is the only one who loves perfectly.

Jesus is the only one who can supply all your needs, fulfill all your desires, and meet all your expectations. Anchor yourself to Him first, and then you will be less likely to be disappointed in love and more likely to find a satisfying love on this earth.

Nancy Van Pelt is a certified family life educator. She has authored 28 books, which have been translated into more than 30 languages. This article has been adapted from her book Smart Love: Straight Talk to Young Adults About Dating, Love and Sex. See www.heartnhome.com.


  1. Joyce Brothers, The Brothers System for Liberated Love and Marriage (New York: Peter H. Wyden, 1972), p. 19.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 22.
  5. John James and Ibis Schlesinger, Are You the One for Me? (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1987), p. 198.
  6. Nancy L. Van Pelt, Smart Love: A Field Guide for Single Adults (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Fleming H. Revell, 1997), p. 128.