Raise your hand if you’ve ever developed feelings for a person you barely know. Maybe you actually never met them beyond that one time your fingers brushed when you both reached for the hazelnut creamer in the office fridge. Still, you’re totally smitten. Sometimes, those out-of-nowhere crushes can be the most confusing. They can have you asking yourself, “Do I love him or the idea of him?” and “Is she really my dream girl or do I just like the version of her I’ve crafted in my head?” And if you can’t answer the question, “Why do I love him?,” with more than “Because I do…?,” then you may want to reevaluate your feelings.
Romantic feelings are not always what they appear to be. According to licensed marriage and family therapist Anita Chlipala, it's possible to find that you’re falling in love with the idea of a person, but not the actual person — quirks, flaws, and all. "I’ve asked clients, 'Why are you with your partner?'" Chlipala tells Elite Daily. "Their answer is, 'Because I love them.' When I ask, 'What else?' they struggle with answering the question. If you truly love the person you are with, you should have no problem rattling off a litany of their characteristics and behaviors that you find endearing and make your partner special to you."
There are a few reasons people stay with partners they don't truly love. According to Chlipala, this dynamic often occurs among people who are lonely or who have low self-esteem. "A common fear is of never finding anyone and being alone forever, so people choose comfort and familiarity over taking the risk to find a good fit," she notes. It's also possible to experience strong chemistry with a person before fully getting to know them, or to assume that you love a person because they look good on paper. In these cases, you might focus on a person's highlights and dismiss or gloss over any potential problems.
These warning signs will help you determine if the love you're feeling is the real deal — or just a figment of your active imagination.
You Only Miss Your Partner When You’re Alone
While it's normal and healthy to have a full life — that is, school or a career, friends, hobbies, and more on top of your relationship — it's also pretty typical to miss a beloved SO when you're apart. If these feelings of loneliness only pop up when you're alone, your partner might be filling a void in your life.
This is one of the most common red flags that your love might not be 100% there, Chlipala notes. She says that, in this case, "you’d rather have anyone around instead of dealing with your feelings of loneliness."
You Overlook Bad Behavior
If they make a rude comment, you overlook it. If they talk down to you, you ignore it. "You might rationalize their behavior and convince yourself that no relationship is perfect," Chlipala says, but deep down, if you realize you're letting bothersome behavior slide, you might just be trying to keep up the illusion that the relationship is totally fine.
But even if you pretend not to notice their flaws and reevaluate your own standards, someone you only love in theory will still continually leave you feeling disappointed. As clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow previously told Elite Daily, “If you love your partner in theory only, then when you are with them they will rarely, if ever, live up to the idea of being in love. And you will notice that quickly.”
You Don’t Enjoy The Sex
Just as it’s totally normal for you and your partner to experience periods of emotional asynchronicity, it’s also perfectly healthy to experience periods of sexual asynchronicity. As sexologist and host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast, Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., previously told Elite Daily, “Levels of sexual desire fluctuate over the course of a lifetime and ebbs and flows are perfectly normal. A decline in desire is not necessarily an indication of a problem and there is no ideal baseline for levels of desire.”
But if — faced with an IRL opportunity to be intimate with this person — you lose the excitement and the attraction that you’d had for them in your head, your feelings might not be for the person they really are. Instead, your feelings might only be for the person you’d imagined them to be, and if the spark isn’t there, you probably don’t love them.
You’ve Changed Your Values & Beliefs
Maybe you've always wanted to be a mom someday, but you're putting those dreams on hold because your partner isn't into kids. Maybe you find yourself agreeing with political beliefs you never thought would appeal to you, just because your SO is so convincing. There's nothing wrong with your opinions evolving over time, but it's important to stay true to your core beliefs.
If you're starting to lose sight of your long-held views, Chlipala suggests exploring why you think this is happening. "For instance, [do] you fear conflict and worry that your partner will leave you, or [do] you believe you have to see eye-to-eye on everything? In the beginning you may have wanted this person to like you so badly that you mirrored them."
You Hope Your Partner Will Change
It's normal to wish they'd stop biting their nails or watching that one dumb TV series you can't stand. As Chlipala confirms, "There are some parts of one’s personality that will be different than yours and you can still have a healthy relationship." There’s also nothing out of the ordinary about going through phases where you’re more sensitive to each other’s behavior.
But according to Chlipala, "If you are wanting a major overhaul of your partner’s personality and frequently wishing they would behave differently, then that’s an indicator that you don’t truly accept them. Don’t date for potential." Hoping someone will make radical life changes probably won't pan out — instead, it's worth seeking out someone who's lifestyle and values already align with yours.
You Don’t Feel Compelled To Make An Effort
If you feel increasingly less compelled to take initiative in the relationship as you continue to get to know each other, it’s likely that you were never all that interested in this person to begin with. Same goes for a more serious relationship: If you lose interest in spending time together or having sex but you don’t put in the effort to revive your bond, you probably don’t feel all that invested in this person deep down.
"Safety and predictability are important, but it’s possible to experience this while also having a relationship that feels enlivening and exciting,” Daniel Sher, clinical psychologist and a consultant for the Between Us Clinic, previously told Elite Daily. And if that excitement is fizzling out, then the love you feel might fizzle out, too.
You Often Fantasize About The Future
If you’re with someone you love, then chances are you’ll start thinking about your future together. But if you’re constantly caught up in the fantasy of future trips and adventures, or even walking down the aisle together someday, then your love may be wishful thinking. "You might want this future story to play out so badly that you ignore the 'reality' that is in front of you," Chlipala says.
Unfortunately, there's no simple way to test if the emotions you feel for someone are true love or just strong feelings of comfort, contentment, or acceptance. It's also possible to fall in love with somebody over time — it can take weeks, months, or even years for love to fully blossom, and there's no one "right" timeline. Every relationship is different. The question is this: Are you happy in yours?
Anita Chlipala, licensed marriage and family therapist
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist
Jess O’Reilly, Ph.D., sexologist and host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast
Daniel Sher, clinical psychologist and consultant for the Between Us Clinic
Editor's Note: This story has been updated by Elite Daily Staff.
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