At some point in time, most of us will know the feeling: Your heart flutters when you see your partner walk in the room, and it feels like the time you spend together puts you on top of the world. Being in love is a part of life that many people strive to experience (and it can seem like every character in movies, books, and other stories we enjoy are focused around it in one way or another).
There are many different types of love. Some people feel butterflies when they're infatuated with someone special; happy couples married for years have a deep, profound attachment to each other; and a parent's love for their children is often regarded as the strongest love one can experience. But when it comes to romance, the feelings of love and being in love are separate and depend on the stage of your relationship.
If you're wondering what it means to be in love vs. loving another person, we asked romance and relationship expert Theresa E. DiDonato, Ph.D., marriage therapist Kathy McCoy, Ph.D., and clinical psychologist Randi Gunther, Ph.D. to walk us through the difference between these two emotions.
Meet the Expert
- Theresa E. DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist with a focus on romantic relationships and attraction. She is a professor of psychology at Loyola University Maryland.
- Kathy McCoy, Ph.D. is a marriage and family therapist and author of more than a dozen books in the space.
- Randi Gunther, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor. She is the author of When Love Stumbles: How to Rediscover Love, Trust, and Fulfillment in your Relationship and Relationship Saboteurs: Overcoming the Ten Behaviors that Undermine Love.
The Psychology Behind Love
You may have used the phrases "being in love" and "loving someone" interchangeably, but there are a few differences between them and how we process feelings in relationships.
Determining if you're actually in love with someone can help you decide if you should be exclusive with them, stay in the relationship, or make a commitment that leads to deeper love.
"The spark that defines a love-at-first-sight experience is better described as a strong attraction accompanied by an openness to a future relationship," says DiDonato. "Romantic love is more involved, encompassing emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components. It's also not something that generally happens instantly, but rather, it usually tends to emerge over time."
DiDonato suggests considering how researchers define romantic love to see the differences more clearly. She notes that while many scholars see love as an emotional attachment based on the quality of a relationship, others measure love by passion, intimacy, and commitment.
Being in Love vs. Loving Someone
Before knowing which type of love exists in your current relationship, it's helpful to understand the signs of genuinely falling in love (and how to tell when that chemistry is real). If you're trying to interpret the strong emotions you have for your special someone, here's how to determine if you're in love or simply feeling love for them:
Being in Love Is Emotionally Charged
If you’re wondering what it means to be in love, one key distinction has to do with your emotions. Specifically, when you’re in love with someone, you feel a strong, almost inexplicable desire for that person. "The excitement and wonder of early love, of mutual discovery, of delighting in fantasies, and anticipating sharing so much in the years ahead is a memorable phase in a couple’s life together," says McCoy. In fact, being "in love" often means yearning for someone: You think about them constantly, and you crave spending time with them when you're apart.
The excitement and wonder of early love, of mutual discovery, of delighting in fantasies, and anticipating sharing so much in the years ahead is a memorable phase in a couple’s life together.
Loving Someone Isn’t Based on a Whirlwind of Emotions
Mature love grows out of a developing attachment. Whether the person you love is a partner, friend, parent, or child, your strong feelings stem from a deep-rooted attachment rather than heightened passion or infatuation. "After the fantasies and illusions begin to fall away, it’s possible that what comes into focus is something much better: a realistic, sustainable love," McCoy says.
Being in Love Can Fade Over Time
When you’re in love, deep feelings can be fleeting. Intense adoration can become indifferent as time passes, and your partner's novelty can wear off. Being in love with someone today isn't a guarantee that you'll feel the same way forever: "As phases tend to do, [early love] passes as jobs, bills, children, conflicts, aging parents, and other realities of long-term love begin to push those fantasies aside," McCoy says. "It’s hard to harbor glamorous illusions close-up over time."
Loving Someone Is More Permanent
Loving someone is long-lasting. Even if the person you love aggravates or disappoints you (or your relationship becomes distant), you'll continue to care about them on some level. It's part of the reason that you can still love your ex long after a breakup—loving another person is deeply ingrained. "Growing to love the real person and accepting who they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, can make a wonderful difference in your relationship," McCoy says. "[It helps] it to become a lasting source of comfort, emotional safety, and a wonderfully sustainable joy. When you see each other realistically and come to know each other well, you’re less likely to disappoint each other."
Growing to love the real person and accepting who they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, can make a wonderful difference in your relationship.
Being in Love Can Be Easily Shaken
When you’re in love with someone, your connection may not be strong enough to make it through challenges unfazed. For example, you may be head over heels for your partner, but as soon as real problems arise, you start to feel distant from them or question their ability to outlast hard times. When you feel a deeper love for your long-term partner, the passion can continue to burn through life's challenges without flickering or fading away. In the beginning, you can be in love but not know each other well enough to overcome obstacles together. "As you relax into the relationship and accept each other realistically, there is a greater chance that those times when you aren’t so witty, when you’re a little cranky, or when you disagree will not be deal-breakers," McCoy says. "When you’re in love, you tend to be on your best behavior and expect your loved one to do the same."
Loving Someone Can Survive Life’s Ups and Downs
When you love someone, your relationship is strong enough to overcome life’s challenges. This is because your bond with one another is so inherent that problems can actually bring you closer together. "In relationships that harbor the potential of true love, people almost immediately feel the desire to confess and share everything about themselves, whether negative or positive," says Gunther. "They feel immediately courageous, wanting to know and be known, no matter what the outcome." After all, love is based on the trust, respect, and honesty that develop over time.
Being in Love Opens the Door to Long-Term Love
When you're in love with your partner, you can develop a deeper sense of love over time as you both commit to the relationship—and many couples still feel the flutters of being in love after years together. So if you're still in the early phases, the future can hold a long-lasting bond if you weather the challenges of life in a healthy way.
Being in love with someone actually sets the stage for building long-lasting love. Each partner makes appropriate sacrifices to meet the other's needs, and they'll enjoy aspects of each other that bring out the best versions of themselves. When partners enjoy spending time together, they're more motivated to grow together, take risks, and make each other's lives better. "Letting go of old fantasies makes room for wonderful surprises," McCoy says. "When you stop trying to change a spouse—or yourself—to fit each other’s fantasies and simply love each other, encouraging the other to grow in ways very much their own, wonderful surprises may be in store."
While passion is important, mutual respect and compassion between partners create an emotional foundation between them. So, if you think you've found "the one," your relationship might just transform into an exciting, life-long commitment.