Is It Lust, Infatuation, or True Love: A User’s Guide

Are you truly in love, and will it last?

Falling in love, and sustaining that loving relationship, is complex. There are many twists and turns, and many false paths that lead to disappointment and heartbreak. How can we tell if we are on the right path to a love that will last?

There are three factors that must be analyzed in a potential love partnership. We will label them: Knowing Yourself, Knowing the Other Person, and Knowing the Situation.

Knowing Yourself

Over our early lifespan, we develop images of the kinds of people we are attracted to—the physical and psychological characteristics that we prefer in a potential partner. Are we attracted to outgoing, expressive persons? Rugged individualists? Homebodies? and the like. We also create “scripts”—ideas about how romantic encounters should occur, and in our minds we create expectations about the course the relationship will take.

We need to better understand not only what qualities in another person attract us, but also why we are attracted to those things. Generally, research shows that similarity is a logical basis for attraction. For a long-term relationship, the more similar we are in our likes, dislikes, background, and experiences, the more likely we will develop a “friendship” with that partner (what researchers label “companionate love”). We may be attracted to someone who is quite different from ourselves, but that may lead to infatuation, but not necessarily a long-term relationship (it’s generally the exception, rather than the rule when “opposites attract”). While we may be sexually attracted to a very different type of person who appears “exotic,” these sorts of romantic partners rarely lead to long-term relationships.

The bottom line to Knowing Yourself is to do a deep reflection on why and how you are attracted to an individual and assess objectively whether this will lead to a lasting relationship. A simple example is the fact that long-distance relationships (one of the situational factors that we will discuss later) rarely succeed due to the hassles involved in seeing the person, and the possibilities for other relationships to develop because of the separation (absence does not make the heart grow fonder, according to research).

Knowing the Other Person

It is very difficult to truly understand another’s intentions and motivation when it comes to romantic relationships. An obvious problem is that our motivations and expectations may make us see what we want to see, not what is actually there. Observation and objectivity are the keys. First, pay attention to your potential partner’s behavior. Does that person show interest in you, or are they more focused on themselves?

Second, does your partner seem committed to the relationship? Is there reciprocation, or is it all take and no give? This applies to both sexual relations, and to just spending time together. Finally, does your potential long-term partner treat you right? A person who belittles you or makes you feel bad about yourself is not good partner material.

Knowing the Situation

Finally, situational factors may cause us to be attracted to someone, but may not eventually lead to a committed, long-term relationship. For example, an individual emerging from the breakup of a long relationship may be subject to a “rebound effect,” and may fall too far and too fast into a new relationship in an attempt to “fill the void.”

Research also suggests that situational factors can trigger attraction. For instance, sharing some emotionally-arousing situation with another person may lead to misinterpreting that arousal as sexual attraction. A vivid illustration is the “shaky bridge study” where single, unattached individuals met either in the middle of a shaky, rope bridge or on solid ground. Sexual attraction and ratings of the stranger as a possible dating partner were stronger when meeting on the arousal-inducing shaky bridge.

Finally, situational factors, such as the opinions of other people, may affect attraction (“You two are perfect for each other!” “You better not let this one get away.”). The key is to strive to objectively analyze the situation to determine if your budding relationship has a chance to truly succeed, or if it is being affected by “surface” factors that are leading you astray.