You may have used the phrases “being in love with someone” and “loving someone” interchangeably, yet there are important differences between these two phrases. "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 psychologist Theresa E. DiDonato, Ph.D. "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." It's important to understand the various signs of genuinely falling in love and if that chemistry is real. If you’re trying to interpret the strong feelings you have for someone, here’s how to decipher if you’re in love or if you love them.
Meet the Expert
Theresa E. DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and associate professor at Loyola University Maryland.
Read on to find out if you're in love or if you actually love them.
Determining if you're actually in love with someone can help you decide if you should be exclusive with them, stay in a relationship, or make a deeper commitment.
Being in Love vs. Loving Someone
Being in love with someone 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. In fact, being "in love" means yearning for someone: You think about them constantly and crave spending time with them.
Loving someone isn’t based on a whirlwind of emotions. 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 and infatuation. Melissa Hobley, the CMO of the dating site OkCupid, has said that "speedy engagements and whirlwind romances may not work out because couples simply don’t know each other well enough. Research has shown how people who have dated for at least two years before getting engaged have happier marriages, so there may not be any substitute for getting to know someone properly."
Being "in love" can fade over time. When you’re in love, deep feelings can be fleeting. You can go from intense adoration to indifference as time passes and the person's novelty has worn off. In fact, being in love with someone today isn’t a guarantee you’ll feel the same forever. Christine Meinecke, a clinical psychologist in Des Moines, Iowa, says, "Infatuation fades for everyone. That's when you discover your psychological incompatibility, and disenchantment sets in. Suddenly, a switch is flipped, and now all you can see are your differences. You're focusing on what's wrong with them. They need to get the message about what they need to change."
Loving someone is more permanent. Loving someone is long-lasting. Even if the person you love aggravates or disappoints you or grows more distant, you’ll still always care about that person on some level. Indeed, loving another person can be so deeply ingrained the affection you have for an ex can last long after a breakup. According to Certified Professional Life Coach and Relationship Expert Kemi Sogunie, "We often loosely use the word 'love' and we mix being in love with actually loving someone. Being in love with someone can stem from infatuation, possessiveness, and obsession. You both talk, hold hands, hug, and develop surface feelings. You feel alone when your partner is not around you. You crave and yearn for them to be with you all the time. Loving someone, on the other hand, goes beyond physical presence. You desire to see them grow, you see past their flaws, you see opportunities for building into each other and together; you motivate, encourage, and inspire one another." In other words, when you truly love someone, you are both growing and supporting each other while remaining true to one another 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, that highly passionate connection may vanish. Simply put, being in love doesn’t mean you truly know the other person well enough to overcome obstacles together. Kurt Smith, Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFC, explains, "Of course, when a relationship is new, it is fun and enjoyable courting or being courted. In the beginning, we are constantly thinking about the new person in our life, and wanting to spend all of our time together and share new experiences. We want to show how we feel by getting cards or flowers or just sending a cute text message. Feelings, however, can be fleeting. No one seems to want to talk about how those loving feelings can fade, that it takes work to keep the love alive and that choosing to stay in love is a choice we all must make."
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. Psychologist Randi Gunther, Ph.D., says, "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. They just don’t want to hold anything back. They feel immediately courageous, wanting to know and be known, no matter what the outcome." After all, love is based on the sort of trust, respect, and honesty that develops over time.
Meet the Expert
Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.
Being in Love Opens the Door to the Possibility of Long-Term Love
To understand the difference between being in love and loving someone, it’s also important to recognize how these two concepts are related. Being in love with someone actually sets the stage for building long-lasting love. You are willing to make appropriate sacrifices to meet your partner's needs halfway in the middle while enjoying aspects of each other that bring out the best in you. You genuinely enjoy your partner's company, so you are motivated to grow together, take risks, and make each other's lives easier. A study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that passion is important, but so too is concern for your partner and their concern for you. People's relationships benefit when compassion that promotes each other's well-being is given and received by each partner; this is termed "compassionate love." Consequently, being in love can transform into a life-long commitment.
Zsok F, Haucke M, De Wit CY, Barelds DPH. What Kind of Love is Love at First Sight? An Empirical Investigation. Pers Relationship. 2017;24(4):869-885. doi:10.1111/pere.12218