Love or infatuation? How to tell the difference

“How can I know if I am really in love?” a reader wrote a newspaper columnist. Back came the reply: “If you have to ask, you aren’t.” The inadequacy of this response is appalling, yet many continue to think that when love hits, you’ll just know! The truth isn’t that easy. Studies show that most people tend to consider past relationships as infatuation and present ones as real love. Another survey found that the average person experiences infatuation six or seven times and real love once or twice. You may already have experienced a portion of your allotted romances. But the big question is, How can you tell if it’s real love or only infatuation? Infatuation is a strange mixture of sex and emotions. One dictionary defines the word as “completely carried away by unreasoning passion or attraction.” The word infatuation derives from a Latin root that means “silly or foolish”–a graphic description of some people’s behavior.

Love and infatuation share similar symptoms

Love and infatuation do have one thing in common–strong feelings of affection for someone–which complicates the matter of sorting out the differences because many of the symptoms overlap each other. The most passionate and blind infatuation may contain a portion of true love, and true love may include several symptoms found in infatuation. The differences between love and infatuation, then, are often found in degree rather than in definition. Therefore, one must examine all evidence with extreme caution.

Love and infatuation share three symptoms: passion, a desire to be close, and strange emotions.

Passion. Passion may be present without true love. It is entirely possible, particularly for the male, to feel passion or strong sexual feelings for a woman he has never met. Necking and petting increase the urgency of erotic feelings until sex dominates the relationship. Passion alone is no indicator of true love. Sexual attraction can be as urgent in infatuation as in true love, and at times may even be dominating. Love must be based on more than sexual attraction or passion.

Furthermore, no one can maintain such fierce passion for long, although they vow they will. If all a couple has going for them is passion, the relationship will likely end within a few months. Should a couple marry based on this initial rush of sexual attraction, they will learn that when passion dies, there is nothing left to hold them together.

Desire to be close. The desire to be near one another constantly can be just as overwhelming in infatuation as in true love. You may wish to be together all the time, dreading the time when you must part. You may feel empty and lonely when your loved one is not with you, but this does not necessarily indicate real love. The desire to be near can be just as strong in infatuation as in true love.

Strange emotions. Research confirms that we experience distinct physical symptoms at the onset of infatuation. Symptoms like walking on air when everything goes well and feeling sick when things go wrong; icy fingers racing up and down the spine, the inability to concentrate, feeling sick to your stomach or unable to eat are all common. But strange emotions occurs just as frequently with infatuation as with real love, although “funny feelings” and strange emotions are more indicative of infatuation. True love encompasses more than a mixture of funny feelings and continues long after strange feelings subside.

If you are lonely, bored, or getting over a broken romance, you are more likely to interpret a new romance as true love even though it is little more than infatuation. If you are insecure, or have low self-worth, you must also beware. Mature persons as well as those with high self-worth can be deceived by infatuation, but are more likely to recognize the condition for what it is.

Don’t get the impression that infatuation is all bad. It can be a pleasant and enjoyable experience as long as you recognize it for what it is–a brief interlude of romantic fantasy that will not last. Given enough time, it will pass or will develop into a real relationship that involves more than a rush of emotions. Remember also that some relationships that begin as infatuation develop into true love over time as they are tested.

True love differs from infatuation in that it provides time and space to recognize the good qualities as well as the shortcomings of your special friend. To commit to, to have sex with, to move in with, or marry someone on the basis of these early feelings, is sheer foolishness and will result in predictable, negative consequences.

Identifying the real thing

In the 1820s gold rush prospectors occasionally mistook pyrite for gold. Pyrite, or fool’s gold, as it is called, can be detected by popping it into a pan on a hot stove. While it sizzles and smokes, it sends out a strong stench. But heat will not damage real gold, nor will it produce a foul smell. Unfortunately, you cannot put your love relationship in a pan on a hot stove to see if it produces a stench, but you can test it against the following nine factors:

1. Love develops slowly; infatuation rapidly. Most people think that falling in love happens suddenly and intensely. Tyrone said, “I fell hard the minute I saw her yesterday. She looked just like I always pictured she would. I feel like I’ve known her all my life.”

Tyrone’s evaluation won’t be valid until after a year of dating. Why? Because love grows, and growth takes time. It is impossible to know the real person after only a few dates. Early in a relationship, people put on their best behavior. Unpleasant traits are hidden and controlled. It takes months of seeing a person under varied circumstances before you know him or her really well. Many people successfully hide negative personality traits until after they are married.

Don’t jump to conclusions. Allow your relationship to grow slowly. Begin as friends, and don’t try to rush through the getting-to-know-you stage. Leisurely beginnings make for pleasurable dating relationships. Such friendships can lead to true love that resemble infatuation in intensity but are rooted in reality.

2. Love relies on compatibility; infatuation on chemistry and appearance. Steve got a “good feeling” when he met a good-looking girl. According to him, he felt instant chemistry. “You either feel it or you don’t. I felt it the minute I saw her.” Where did Steve get the idea that chemistry and love are the same thing? Movies, perhaps!

Relying on “chemistry” to guide you toward love is foolish and dangerous. Chemistry is based mostly on physical or sexual attraction. There needs to be that spark between you that makes you feel more alive than ever before, but to base a marriage on this alone is ludicrous.

You may feel strongly attracted to someone you just met and like everything about that person. But there’s still a long way to go before you love that person. True love includes chemistry, but springs from other factors as well, including character, personality, emotions, ideas, and attitudes. When you’re in love you are interested in the way the other thinks and responds to situations, the values you hold in common. You look at your attitudes on religion, family, sex, money, and friends, as well as common interests, similar backgrounds, and courteousness. The more you have in common, the better your chances for true love.

3. Love centers on one person; infatuation may involve several. An infatuated person may think himself or herself “in love” with two or more persons at once. These persons often differ markedly in personality. Jan says she’s in love with two guys and can’t choose between them. Steve is mature, stable, and responsible, whereas Reggie is an irresponsible, fun-loving spender. Jan isn’t “in love” with either. Something draws her to the fun-loving spender while her maturing instincts tell her the qualities of Steve hold more importance. She combines their qualities and thinks she is “in love” with both. True love focuses on one person whose character and personality possesses the essential qualities. You no longer combine people to form an ideal.

4. Love produces security; infatuation insecurity. While love works on the principle of trust, infatuation struggles with insecurity and may attempt to control the other through jealousy. This does not mean that when you are really in love you will never feel jealous. But jealousy is less frequent and severe. True love trusts. Some feel flattered by jealousy, thinking it indicative of true love. Jealousy, however, signifies unhealthy emotions-insecurity and low self-worth as well as possessiveness. Real love doesn’t act this way.

5. Love recognizes realities; infatuation ignores them. True love looks at problems squarely without minimizing their seriousness. Infatuation ignores differences in social, racial, educational, or religious backgrounds. Sometimes it grips someone who is already married. Infatuation argues that such things don’t matter. A couple in love, however, face problems frankly. When a problem threatens their relationship, they discuss it openly and solve it intelligently. They negotiate solutions in advance.

6. Love motivates positive behavior; infatuation has a destructive effect. Love is constructive and brings out the best in you. It provides new energy, ambition, and interest in life. Love produces creativity and interest in personal growth, improvement, and worthy causes. It engenders self-worth, trust, and security and spurs you toward success. You study harder, plan more effectively, and save more diligently. Life takes on additional purpose and meaning. You may daydream, but you stay within the bounds of reality and function at your highest level.

Infatuation has a destructive, disorganizing effect. You’ll be less effective, less efficient, and unable to reach your true potential. It thrives on unrealistic daydreams that cause you to forget the realities of life, work, study, responsibilities, and money.

7. Love recognizes faults; infatuation ignores them. Love recognizes the fine qualities in the other and idealizes to a degree, but does not consider the person faultless. Faults are admitted, but respect and admiration of their good qualities outweighs the bad. Infatuation blinds you from seeing anything wrong. You idealize to such a degree that you refuse to admit faults and defend your beloved against all critics. You admire one or two qualities so much that you fool yourself into believing they can outweigh the faults.

Love enables you to love in spite of these faults. It does not blind you to realities.

8. Love controls physical contact; infatuation exploits it. True love helps a couple hold back in expressing romantic intimacies. Both persons respect the other so much that they voluntarily limit their desire for intimacy. Infatuation demands intimacy much earlier. Furthermore, such intimacy makes up a smaller part of the relationship for a couple in love, in contrast to an infatuated couple. The reason for this is that infatuation depends largely on physical attraction, and the excitement leads to necking and petting. Persons experiencing this for the first time think this must be something special, and assume they are in love. They ignore the fact that their values, goals, and belief systems may be at odds. If they marry based on physical attraction alone, they’ll wake up to find their sexual interest declining and disagreements escalating. Although true love includes physical attraction, it springs from other factors as well. Physical contact for a couple in love usually has a deeper meaning than sheer pleasure. Physical contact for the infatuated often becomes an end in itself. Pleasure dominates the experience.

9. Love brings the approval of family and friends; infatuation brings disapproval. If parents or friends do not approve, beware! If they are convinced a bad choice is in the making, they are probably right. Marriages that lack the blessing of parents have a high failure rate. One researcher compared complaints by happily married persons with those of divorced persons. The divorced were almost four times as likely to complain their spouse had nothing in common with mutual friends. It was also found that happily married couples were far less likely to have problems with in-laws. If parents and friends object, take care. If theyapprove, take heart.

Give it time

If you have analyzed your relationship but still can’t decide whether or not you have true love, allow yourself time. Infatuation wants to rush a relationship. Pulsating emotions overrule good sense and try to hurry you into commitments later regretted. True love can survive the test of time–two years of dating–to make sure you are well suited for marriage. Time gives experience and perspective.

Every year, thousands of couples stand at the altar, eyes radiant with joy, promising love and faithfulness forever, never anticipating they are making the greatest mistake of their lives. What will happen to their starry-eyed talks, tender promises, lingering looks, passionate kisses, and whispers of love?

Many fail to understand that you don’t “fall” in love. You decide to love –to think about, spend time with, and have strong feelings for someone. “Falling” is the easy and fun part of love. The hard part, the commitment to love unconditionally an imperfect person, follows. Genuine love says, “I will love you unconditionally even when you fail to meet my needs, reject or ignore me, behave stupidly, make choices I wouldn’t make, disagree with me, and treat me unfairly. And I will love you like this forever.”

This kind of love is God’s creative gift to us and can be enjoyed to its fullest only within the safety and security of marriage. We are only able to love because He first loved us. 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 for your sojourn on earth.

Nancy L. Van Pelt, CFLE, is the author of many books, including Smart Love: A Field Guide for Single Adults, from which this article has been excerpted and adapted. You may contact Nancy at http://www.heartnhome.com.