Three words, eight letters... and a whole lot of confusion. Saying "I love you" to a partner is a big step in a romantic relationship, but it's important to know that the L-word can have more than one meaning. The difference between loving someone and being in love with them is a little tricky. It's usually subtle, and you may not even pick up on it. But like Nick Jonas sings, "There's levels to your love." While he (sadly) is not the love expert I interviewed for this article, Jonas is definitely onto something with these lyrics.
There's no arguing the fact that you can love someone but not be in love with them. Your feelings can change over time, or they may not. To help sift through some of the uncertainty, I spoke to someone who knows a thing or two about love.
Susan Winter is a bestselling author and relationship expert in New York City who writes about, speaks on, and coaches individuals through relationship challenges. She works to foster high self-esteem and focuses on personal empowerment. I asked her about the difference between loving someone and being in love with them, and she shared her thoughts on the distinction.
"It's easy to 'love' someone," says Winter. "We overuse the word love, just like we overuse the word 'friend.' This term has been so watered down that most people with a fondness for someone are certain they love him or her."
She talks about "generic love," which she explains is an overall feeling of liking and being interested in someone. Generic love is conditional, however, according to Winter.
"We can love spending time with our partner and then within weeks that glow will fade," says Winter. "What happened? Our affection was whimsical because we weren't 'in love' with them."
It takes time to truly fall in love with someone. Whereas it's easy to "love" someone in the early stages of dating, when everything is going great, more than likely that's just lust. You need to experience ups and downs with a person before you can share true, unconditional love.
Winter differentiates being in love from being in lust. "In love means that you've weathered the storms of your partner's negative qualities, and still choose to remain in the relationship," she says. "Your love is unconditional. It's all-inclusive as you accept the positive and the negative aspects of your mate."
Of course, you can grow to love someone more over time. If you love your partner but don't feel like you're in love with them, that doesn't necessarily mean your relationship lacks chemistry. Perhaps it's just too soon. Winter points to the case of arranged marriages as proof that two people can fall in love with time.
"Real love takes a while to establish its roots," she says. "It is indeed possible to love your mate more deeply and thoroughly over time." As you get to know your partner better and discover both their strengths and their shortcomings, you can begin to determine the depth of your love for them. Maybe you do love them more platonically, or maybe you can see yourself falling madly in love with them.
Love is a tricky concept, so don't stress over the definition. When you're really, truly in love with a person, you'll likely be able to tell the difference.
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