Everyone has felt the butterflies and experienced the lust-filled daydreams associated with finding a new person attractive and intriguing, but how do you know when it’s real love? Anthropologist Helen Fisher (of Rutgers University) is one of the world’s foremost experts on the biological processes involved in truly falling in love. While some of these experiences characterize the early stages of falling in love and others are associated with a longer-term bond, all are supported by the studies conducted by Fisher and other researchers like her. So, here are the top nine signs of love that you really are in love with.
1. Seeing the person as unique
Being in love involves a special perspective on another individual—one that encourages you to think they’re uniquely attractive, and (at least for a time) uniquely capable of inspiring romantic passion in you. Fisher and other experts have theorized that this element of love is a response to rising levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is linked to focus as well as pleasure.
2. Caring about more than sex
While the majority of people in love do feel like they want to be physically intimate, it’s common for them to report that emotional connection is much more important to them. For example, one study discovered that 64% of respondents (who were in love) denied that sex was the most important aspect of their relationship—and some say that percentage would be even higher if it was more widely accepted for men to value emotion over sex.
3. Transient instability
In those heady initial days of falling in love, you need to brace yourself for mood swings, as well as physical ups and downs. Fisher and her colleagues have performed functional MRI scans on the brains of people in the throes of love, and they’ve to see activation in the same areas of the brain that light up when drug addicts get to use their substance of choice! That addiction you feel to your beloved is very real, and it causes symptoms like euphoria, insomnia, a racing heart, and reduced interest in food. If you feel utterly devastated by the smallest setback in your relationship, this is also a sign you’ve really fallen in love with (albeit an unpleasant sign).
4. Obsessive thoughts
Surveys show that people in love spend as many as 85% of their waking time thinking about the object of their desires—even when they know they should be concentrating on something else. One thing that promotes these frequent thoughts is a new tendency to link everything (e.g. objects, songs, and smells) to small moments spent with your loved one. This linking is partly a result of increased levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine, which may make you feel restless but also boosts your ability to memorize details. A drop in serotonin levels is also relevant, as this neurological change is involved in most cases of obsessive thinking (including that associated with the obsessive-compulsive disorder).
5. Thinking of the person as perfect
This part of falling in love is definitely confined to the early days, before the arguments about who should do the dishes or tidy up the laundry! However, most people in relationships can remember believing their partner was perfect at some point. This involves daydreaming about the person’s positive qualities and hastily glossing over the less appealing ones. Like the perspective that your loved one is unique, this idealization is thought to relate to spikes in dopamine.
6. Growing closer through adversity
One of the more enduring signs of love is a sense that facing challenges together has led to a deepening of your connection. So, for example, if have to maintain a relationship across the miles or if you fall in love while one of you is already in a relationship, delayed gratification pushes your dopamine levels even higher. When you’re finally together, it feels like everything is falling into place.
7. Willingness to sacrifice
No matter how sexy and interesting you think someone happens to be, you’re unlikely to really be in love if you wouldn’t make any sacrifices for this person. Of course, it’s unhealthy and unnecessary to put all of their needs before yours, but love does typically lead to an increase in empathy that makes your beloved’s pain feel almost like your own. The result is a willingness to go out of your way to improve their life.
8. Interest in exclusivity
It should be noted that some people prefer open relationships or feel that polyamory is a natural fit for them. However, falling in love more commonly involves a degree of possessiveness and an eagerness to secure an agreement that the relationship is exclusive. If you accept evolutionary theories of how love developed to serve procreation, this yearning for exclusivity comes from an underlying biological motivation to keep other suitors away until a child is conceived (and this part of our evolutionary programming may even influence those of us who don’t particularly want children).
9. Movement into the “attachment” phase
Finally, there’s one experience that’s widely thought to be a necessary component of lasting love. Specifically, you’ll eventually notice a solid sense of safety in the relationship, and all those chemical highs and lows will turn into a more comfortable type of affection that is constant but less exciting. It’s thought that the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin plays a significant role in turning the early, manic stages of love into this more mature form of attachment.