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Five Key Differences Between Love and Infatuation

Is “love at first sight” a contradiction in terms? Can you really love someone you’ve only known for a few months? According to psychologist Dorothy Tennov, feelings of infatuation are far too often confused with genuine love. We are a culture obsessed with the thrill of infatuation; it’s the lifeblood of our films, television, and music. After all, who wants to dance to a pop song about a couple cuddling on the sofa, watching Netflix?

Tennov coined the term “limerence” to describe the intense and involuntary emotional reactions that occur early on in many romantic encounters—that spellbound sensation we experience when we think we’ve met “the one.” In her book Love and Limerence, she argues that this temporary state of passion is an obsession that feeds on our basic needs for connection and attention. While the science of romance remains a hotly-debated topic for psychologists, Tennov’s theory allows us to better understand our own emotional and physiological responses to potential partners during the mysteries of sexual attraction.

Here are five key differences between love and infatuation:

1. When infatuated, your brain operates as if you are on drugs.

That fluttery feeling when you’re falling for someone can actually be traced to neurochemical reactions. Neuroscientists examined MRI images of partners in the very early stages of romantic relationships and discovered notable differences in the area of brain responsible for the release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter controls our pleasure seeking and reward-motivated behavior; most addictive drugs like cocaine and amphetamines also increase the dopamine activity in your brain.

Infatuation can also cause variations in heart rate, frequent daydreams, and even dilated pupils. If a romantic relationship matures beyond the phase of limerence, these physiological reactions become far less pronounced. Psychologists have estimated that limerence can last up to 3 years.

2. Infatuation is a wild obsession; love is more stable.

Infatuation can be all-consuming and uncontrollable, dominating your thoughts. When the object of your affection notices you, you’re walking on air; when you don’t get a text reply, you panic. Infatuation is a cognitive obsession that seldom abides by the rules of logic, and often leads to tension and restlessness. Companionate love, on the other hand, is more reassuring; distance from your partner causes less anxiety because the relationship is built on a more solid foundation of trust, security, and comfort.

3. Infatuation is delusional; love is more realistic.

Infatuation is more about your fantasy—finding your very own fairy tale prince or princess. Love allows you to see a more fully-formed version of someone, warts and all. When you are under the spell of infatuation, you tend to focus on a few highly favorable traits; love allows you to see more of the whole picture.

4. Infatuation is a one-sided experience; love is about connection.

Infatuation is entirely about you and your own obsessions rather than forming a meaningful bond with someone else. The entire relationship becomes a chase for attention rather than building towards a real sense of connection. You rarely consider the wants and needs of a potential partner.

5. Infatuation focuses on short-term needs; love evolves and deepens.

Love involves vulnerability; the connection formed from sharing feelings of fear and shame brings you closer to another person. Limerence does not necessarily disappear once an actual relationship begins, although the uncontrollable feelings of infatuation in the “honeymoon stage” of any relationship will inevitably subside. That said, couples can maintain a strong sense of desire with work.

I often see partners who are mourning the loss of excitement in their relationship. Some never allow themselves to achieve companionate love because they break up as soon as limerence fades away. With representations of everlasting passion dominating our culture, many come to see their own relationships as failures by comparison. Limerence needs to be recognized as a fleeting phase so that couples do not expect it to last forever. Couples Counseling can be an excellent way to increase intimacy and sexual satisfaction as you navigate this transition into a deeper and more fulfilling form of love.

How do you transition from the initial stages of infatuation to a more satisfying long-term relationship? What can you do to strengthen the bonds of love?

Zach Udko

Zach Udko

Psychotherapist at myTherapyNYC
Zach offers individual and couples counseling in NYC. He specializes in Relationship Issues, Intimacy, LGBTQ, Anxiety, Depression, Career Development, and Creativity.
Zach Udko

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3 replies
  1. Ryan Jacobs
    Ryan Jacobs says:

    Such an important topic! I know so many clients who want to instantly change their life for someone they just met which can lead to very negative consequences. Infatuation can truly be an addiction and be just as destructive. Such crucial differences to be aware of.


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