Here’s The Difference Between Falling In Love And Being In Love
Experts dive into the science of love and attraction.
Love is a funny thing, and the world is infatuated by it. Just look at the sheer volume of dating shows released across streaming services every year. People are intrigued by the mechanics of how people fall in love — and whether they can stay in love (how many Bachelor relationships are still going strong to this day?). Speaking of the OG dating show franchise, if you’ve ever seen five minutes from any of its renditions, you’ve likely heard this phrase, “I’m falling in love with you.” Contestants will dish out these words in the weeks before actually saying, point blank, “I love you.” Does that mean there’s a discernible difference between falling in love vs. being in love?
Say you notice one spicy specimen of a human being across the bar from you, and it feels like there are 1,000 tiny butterflies flapping around in your stomach. You’re attracted to this person. Technically speaking, this attraction is the first of four distinct phases in love, according to Dawn Maslar, M.S., science of love expert and love biologist. After attraction, you have: dating to fall in love, falling in love, and finally, long-term love. “Attraction is just attraction,” Maslar tells Elite Daily. “It really has nothing to do with love. But what happens after you’re attracted to somebody [is that] you start building the neurotransmitters to fall in love.”
These stages are nuanced and do fall on a spectrum, so love will look a little different for everyone. There’s not an exact cut-and-dry process, per se. But as Liz Higgins, LMFT-S, an individual and couples therapist and founder of Millenial Life Counseling, puts it, “Falling in love ... is very different than being in love.” So, what is the difference and how can you tell? Experts break it down below.
What Falling In Love Means
Ever felt so completely obsessed with someone that you’re just certain the sun shines out of their butt every morning? In the falling in love stage, it seems like the other person can do no wrong. You miss them all day, and it can genuinely feel like you have a love addiction.
“Falling in love is that initial almost chemically-induced stage of bonding,” Higgins tells Elite Daily. You’re feeling chemistry or catching feelings, and “it’s supposed to be kind of intoxicating, like your peripherals are blinded and [you’re] not really seeing flaws as much as you are seeing all the things you may be compatible in.” Falling for someone can catch you off guard, like it came out of nowhere. This sort of blind bonding, Higgins notes, is stage one of the Couples Therapy Institute Tasks of Couple’s Developmental Stages — so it’s totally expected.
The idea that you’re not noticing someone’s incompatibilities or flaws when you’re falling in love is also backed by science. When you’re really digging someone, all of these happy brain chemicals like dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin rollercoaster up to a peak, Maslar tells Elite Daily. Then, inevitably, the track plunges back down. “When [the chemicals in the brain] plummet down, that’s the falling in love [feeling],” Maslar says. “And when we see that, we see all kinds of things happen: Certain parts of the brain get deactivated.”
One area that deactivates is the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, “the part of the brain that judges the other person,” Maslar notes. “That’s why we say ‘love is blind.’” The amygdala, which is the part of the brain that warns you when something is wrong, also takes a sabbatical. When you’re in this stage, your brain is literally not picking up on the other person’s character defects that may be incompatible with you. It’s all rose-tinted glasses and can’t-get-enough-of-you passion.
Not only are parts of your brain deactivated, but serotonin levels also drop. “It actually drops to the level of someone with obsessive compulsive disorder,” Maslar says. This explains the obsession with your partner and need to be together 24/7. When two people falling in love see each other, they get a “hit” of happy hormones in the brain. “It’s actually in the reptilian part of the brain,” Maslar says. “The activity is very similar to cocaine activity.” Falling in love can have you feeling addicted to your partner, beyond all rational thought.
Sometimes people will feel completely gutted when a young relationship falls apart, but they can work through a longer-term breakup with much more ease. It doesn’t make a lot of sense at a glance, but when you cut off your supply of happy hormones in the midst of this falling in love stage, “your serotonin is going to the bottom, [and] you’re in depression,” Maslar says. It’s harder to think your way through a breakup when the thinking part of your brain is deactivated. “The primitive part is like, ‘This hurts, I have to fix it,’” Maslar continues. “You don’t have that cognitive ability when you’re in the falling in love stage, so you’re obsessed, [thinking] ‘This is the only person for me, I’ll never find love again, I’ve got to get this person back.’” When your brain is firing on all cylinders (aka when it’s in a more logical place), you’re able to rationalize that everything will be OK and you’ll get through it.
Generally this snoozefest in the brain lasts about two years. That’s not to say you’re actively falling in love for two years before, boom — you’re in love (it’s a spectrum, remember?), but this haziness in judgment can stick around for that long. “The falling in love [feelings] can happen within a month ... The deactivation in the brain lasts for two years, give or take,” notes Maslar.
When you’re falling in love, it’s something that happens to you — almost like it’s subconscious. You’re not in control, but it feels like a high.
What Being In Love Means
“Love starts as a feeling and continues as a choice,” Higgins tells Elite Daily. While each relationship story is unique and love even feels different for everyone, being in love is an active practice. “Love becomes a verb,” Higgins offers. “It’s something that you do; it’s not something you have or fall into like in the beginning stages.” Rather than something happening to you, it’s something you’re doing. It’s a decision you’re making. “It’s actually something you have to be intentional about maintaining and nurturing,” Higgins tells Elite Daily.
Science supports this notion, too. “When your brain starts leveling back out and that whole process is over,” Maslar explains, “that’s when you start making a decision.” Your brain comes back online and that judgment part starts noticing all the irritating little things about your partner. Everything that used to be cute and NBD — their snoring, loud chewing, etc. — is now extra irksome.
After the tentative two years of being love blinded (again, you can be “in love” before then), there’s a big ol’ shift and the lights come on in the rear and the front of the brain. “The front of the brain is [reactivated] because you start making decisions,” Maslar says. “Now you decide if you really want to be with this person, and you have to really think your way through if you want to be in love.” It’s time to be conscious about it.
As the judgment returns, you no longer have the chemical ease of falling in love. When your brain is deactivated, it’s all wonderful and there are no alarm bells from the amygdala. “You don’t have to worry as much,” says Maslar. But then when your brain starts working normally again, you’re hit with reality, worries, and anxiety. “It’s not really [that there’s] something wrong with the relationship,” offers Maslar. “It’s just [a] normal biological process, but a lot of people will break up the relationship because they think something is wrong.”
When someone chooses to stick it out instead of focusing on the newly noted negative judgments and worries, there’s activity in the front of the brain that’s “next to brotherly love, morals, ethics, altruistic love — all those things that you focus [on] with wholesomeness,” Maslar notes, “which is very different than the kind of chaotic love that was in the primitive part of the brain.”
The back of the brain comes alive as well, specifically where the pain-relieving opioid receptors are, according to Maslar. “Falling in love is chaotic and keeps you awake and it’s exciting, and long-term love is actually relaxing and pain-relieving,” she tells Elite Daily. “And it provides you with a long-term health benefit.” In fact, just looking at your significant other has calming effects.
Being in love feels like home and safety, but there’s this myth that the experience of falling in love is how it should feel long-term. “The reality is that in a long-term relationship, it is supposed to evolve,” notes Higgins. “The experience of the relationship is supposed to, developmentally speaking, mature into something different.”
So what’s the difference between falling in love vs. being in love? When people are falling in love, they don’t choose to jump; they’re pushed and the tumble is exhilarating. Being in love is deciding not to walk away once you’ve landed.
Loyola University Health System. (2014, February 6). What falling in love does to your heart and brain. ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140206155244.htm
Dawn Maslar, M.S., science of love expert, TEDx speaker, love biologist, science writer, and adjunct professor at NOVA Southeastern University and Kaplan University
Liz Higgins, LMFT-S, founder of Millennial Life Counseling