There's a reason my colleagues and I can make our careers out of writing about love: It's really freakin' confusing.
Take the rules of attraction in and of themselves, which basically predetermine entire relationships to begin on a superficial quality. Let's face it: Somebody's attractiveness is almost as superficial as whether or not you laugh at their jokes. Both are tiny characteristics, ideas you fall in love with.
So how do you know that you are in love with somebody's whole person as much as you are with the ideas you have about them?
Obviously, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to matters of love, but I've compiled this list from personal experience to help you gauge whether you are in love with somebody or just your idea of them.
1. My Dreams Went Way Too Far Into The Future
When I was in love with somebody only as an idea, the fantasies I had about them actually had nothing to do with the present. They were pure potential, with very little grounding in reality.
Of course, it's natural to look forward to things when you are first in love with somebody: that weekend trip you're taking with them, or anticipating their call when you get home. If things get serious, it's also pretty normal to imagine what it'll look like further into the future: what your family would look like, if you choose to have one, or where you will live.
When in love with the idea of somebody, though, my fantasies have a kind of tunnel vision. I am in love with the idea of a future that hasn't happened yet, and it is more fascinating to me than the present. It might also be completely unrelated to what he wants.
I'll imagine the glorious and distinguished careers we'll have together, and what our life will be like when we're set up in L.A. He won't have mentioned having any interest in living in L.A. to me, directly, but I just know it's where we'd look our best.
Meanwhile, I won't be devoting a single ounce of thought to what is happening in the present tense, or even to what might happen in a month. This kind of fantasy is more of an escape than anything, and it means that I am more in love with a distraction from the ins and outs of daily living than I am in the person.
2. I Was Interested In What They Did, Not Who They Were
Have you ever fallen for someone because you think that you should be in love with them, and they ought to be perfect for you? The emotional tethers might be weak and the sex mediocre, but you still think that they should be the one just because they look good on paper.
It's easy to be blown away by the trappings of an impressive job or a recognizable last name, or even somebody's talent, when those are things that you want for yourself. It's a little bit like dating the lead singer of a band when you're the one who actually wants to be on stage. Voyeurism at its best.
When I'm actually in love with someone, though, I don't really care what they do for a living or how much money they make. Sure, I maybe ought to care about this a little bit before I pursue a relationship, but the feelings are there regardless.
3. I Was More Into How We Looked To Other People
Obviously physical attraction is a very real part of love, but like everything, there's a balance. I've fallen in love with people I didn't find particularly beautiful until I got to know them on an emotional level. Alternatively, I've thought that I loved somebody just because I wanted to have sex with them.
A good way to know whether you're in love with their looks or in love with their soul is to think about whether you are imagining other people from outside of your relationship watching you.
It might sound vain, but this is the age of reality TV. If you haven't imagined yourself on your own show at least once, I am surprised you could still find your way to the internet.
When I'm in love with somebody, I don't actually care how they look to other people or how I look in reflection to them. It really seems like the most beautiful people in the world are the two of us only. If they're attractive to me, and I'm attractive to them, then we're good.
When I'm with somebody whom I love for their appearance, then I am definitely thinking of how I look under their shine. Is everybody impressed that I am on a date with such an attractive person? Have I gained a few beauty points by proximity?
If these questions are floating up on my radar, then I know my love is only skin deep.
4. I Changed Who I Was To Fit My Fantasy
While I think it's pretty normal for a relationship to change who you are in little ways, when I've been in love with the idea of a person, I change the way I look to suit what I imagine to be their vision of me.
It's pretty much like how it was in high school, when I dressed the way I thought boys wanted me to look (skin-tight clothes, tank top, straightened hair), or even when I was in college, when I thought I needed to wear all black to attract my crush, a punk.
When I'm actually in love with somebody, however, I'm not concerned with appearances or their ideas of me. If the love is authentic, then I already know them well enough to know that they appreciate me and my appearance, just the way I am.
If they don't, then I would argue that isn't even real love -- at the very least, the love is only going halfway.
5. I Forgot About Them
When I'm more in love with the idea of somebody than who they actually are, then I will forget them as soon as they are not in my immediate circle of reference.
This was harder to do when I was younger, I'll admit. Institutions like school took up my whole imagination. Even on breaks away from my crush, I'd fantasize about them to break up the boredom of vacation.
Now that I'm older, I might still fantasize about somebody when I'm out of town, but if I'm not picking up the phone to call them, then that means they are simply a distraction. There's nothing wrong with a distraction, of course, except that I can't count on them to entertain me forever.
Unless I'm authentically head-over-heels into the feels, then I won't be looking over my shoulder. And honestly, it's kind of a blessing.