While the go-to rom-com script of dude falls in love with the wrong lady is tired—it’s also true. You would think plenty of singles would learn a thing or two about defining what they’re actually feeling over the years (and the endless stream of steady heartbreak), but all too often, we let emotions get the best of us. Though our friends are ready to murder us the 10th (or, um, 100th) time we report back with another story of how it went wrong, we aren’t entirely to blame. In fact, when you think of those initial feelings of lust and attraction, it’s easy to get confused on if you’re in love… or you’re merely infatuated with this new person. “It’s important to understand the difference between infatuation, limerence, and love so that you don’t make any rash decisions you will later regret,” licensed psychologist and couples therapist Dr. Sarah Schewitz shares. “Understanding the fact that there are different stages to love, and that infatuation and limerence are temporary is helpful so that you can pace yourself in moving forward with a relationship.”
In an effort to help you finally find a partner who lasts, and to ensure your friends don’t bail on you the next time you report you’ve ‘found The One’—it’s important to study up on these stages of falling. Psychologists are your best source of reliable info, and luckily, they’re willing to lay it out straight for you. Here, a definitive guide detailing the difference between love, infatuation and the trickiest of all—limerence:
Stage One: Limerence
Obsessing over how many minutes have passed since she last texted you? Seriously can’t stop thinking about every little thing she does—or more terrifying—doesn’t say or do? Schewitz shares when you’re going out of your mind about the object of your affection, you’re definitely in the limerence stage. “You want to text or call them constantly when you aren’t together, and you can’t wait for the next moment when you are together. Limerence is also a physical reaction in your body,” she continues. Believe it or not (though your racing heart will convince you), Dr. Schewitz explains when we’re in ‘limerence’ there’s a drop in our serotonin levels that leads to crazy-town thoughts. And when you have contact with your crush? Your dopamine levels skyrocket. “The experience of Limerence is very much like craving and then being on a drug,” she adds.
Unfortunately, for most could-be relationships, dating expert Chris Vitale says limerence is one-sided and unrequited. “Limerence can happen before and after finding a partner, and it borderlines cognitive imperative. Unfortunately, this feeling often leads to depression and anxiety when expectations are not met and love is not returned,” he explains.
When you’re in this tricky territory, make sure to use the advice of pals who know you to ensure this dreamboat is worth your sweats. And more importantly: they’re returning that lovin’ feeling.
Stage Two: Infatuation
You can feel it for a burger, a city, a clothing brand—and of course, a human. Licensed professional counselor specializing in relationships Crystal Bradshaw says this stage of love tends to last up to three years for most couples. When you both are on the same page, you could think of this of your honeymoon beginnings. You can’t get enough of one another, you’re interested in every little thing the other person has to say, you come up with excuses to see them and you probably spend lots of time under the sheets.
Within your body chemistry, Bradshaw explains infatuation is defined by being in a state of highly elevated neurotransmitter activity, allowing you to focus your energy and attention on one person—and that person only. (Read: why suddenly, you can imagine monogamy when you couldn’t before you met her.) “Someone who is infatuated will have daydreams about the person, intrusive thoughts, and anticipate the next time they will see them,” she continues. “They might replay events in their mind, sleep with an item of clothing that belongs to the person, or even listen to a voice mail repeatedly. They can even suffer from a decrease of sleep and appetite.”
Is it bad? It can be if you’re not both keen on where the relationship should head—but in many cases, it’s that head-over-heels feeling we all dream of, minus the angst of wondering if they feel the same way. It wears down over time (more on that soon)—so it’s best to hold onto it as long as you can. Military couples, those who have a partner who travels frequently for work or other duos separated in some way actually get to feel infatuation longer, thanks to the breaks they get from one another.
Stage Three: Love
Usually evolving from infatuation, Bradshaw says the important distinction with this ever-famous four-letter word is a five-letter one: choice. “Love is a choice we make over and over every day to create a bond and build a meaningful relationship. Love is attachment and an action, something you choose. It’s an action that requires intentional practice daily,” she continues. Composed of a healthy combination of respect, loyalty, admiration, gratitude, passion, commitment, empathy and intimacy, all of these feelings mature over time.
And within that period, our brain responds to the consistency. For some, it can be scary, since Bradshaw says some couples actually have less sex when they’re in love because their hormone levels return to normal. “Many people panic when this happens, thinking the relationship is doomed. That’s not necessarily the case,” she shares. “Instead, try to see it for what it is, from a biological perspective your brain chemicals have facilitated the attachment process by way of the limerence experience. Novelty, mystery, excitement, adventure, orgasms all cultivate bonding via the hormone oxytocin.”
In other words? It means you’re not only in love but you love this person. And hey, that’s something to celebrate.