Love or Infatuation, How to Tell the Difference

As Valentine's Day approaches and you may feel like getting carried away about the person who makes your heart flip over, there's a simple test that tells if they are worth the emotional investment.

Remember back in Junior High, when you had a “crush” on some hot guy or girl? How you could barely breathe when they were close to you? You couldn’t stop thinking of them. These “summer romances” weren’t expected to last for long. Indeed, they couldn’t, because they weren’t based in reality. You idealized this person and made them into something they were not. This is why it probably was so shocking when they fell off their pedestal and you saw them as who they really were: flawed, human and trying to survive, just like you.

As we get older, it’s not always easy to tell love from infatuation..

Infatuation can grow into love, but don’t count on it. Usually, infatuation turns into anger and disappointment when the glitter wears off and we see our idealized love object as he/she really is. Ugh, are we disappointed!

Sometimes we wonder what we ever saw in this person. Many affairs are based on infatuation: your partner seems so boring after all these years, and this new person is so interested in you and interesting to you. If you consider leaving your partner for this person, however, often reality whomps you hard upside the head. You realize: I don’t really know this person, I have projected all my fantasies and unmet needs onto them instead of bringing them to my partner and talking about them.

This is when most affairs end…and then I see the (un)happy couple in my office for couple’s counseling. But, let’s back up a bit. What is infatuation anyway?

Infatuation is based in fantasy. Hollywood movies with their happy endings are good examples of this kind of romantic fantasy. Swedish, French and Italian movies: not so much. They show the mess, the ambiguity and paradox of real love.

Carl Jung believed that the first six months of most “love” affairs are largely infatuation: we project our need for an idealized lover onto someone else and work hard to “ignore” the reality of how flawed and human they actually are. If your relationships rarely make it past six months, you’re stuck in infatuation mode.

Freud defined infatuation as “the overvaluation of the (love) object”: everything about your new lover is great, and yet those red flags keep going off. Science has found that the brain scans of infatuated lovers look remarkable like the brain scans of cocaine addicts. Infatuation is an addiction, with measurable chemical effects on your brain.

Infatuated lovers will work very hard to keep their addiction (and the good feelings it generates) going. You feel so good you have a hard time focusing on anything else: you are “love sick.” A perfect description.

“Love Sickness” is more common the more unsettled and unbalanced we feel: we need it, we want it, our life is pretty crappy and this new woman/man lifts us up out of depression into a kind of heaven. Who wouldn’t want this? Unfortunately, like any addiction, it has its dark side: it’s not based on reality, so, eventually, your new love (and your idealized vision of them) will crash and burn.

Photo by christian buehner on Unsplash

Some people — miracle workers of sorts — can transition from infatuation to real love. They do that by a slow process of replacing fantasy with reality. They get to know their new lover and stick around past the first argument, misunderstanding and disappointment.

They keep going through the snoring and the bad morning breath and their lovers’ awful best friend. They begin tip-toeing into real love and its three musketeers of affection, respect and reality.

The more you release your infatuation, the more clearly you see your loved one as they really are. No more delusions. You are willing to work on a relationship with this person, warts and all. We’re all terribly flawed, but whose flaws can you accept and — someday — even find amusing?

In conclusion, consider this:

Love is hard work; infatuation is easy.

Love takes time; infatuation can happen quickly.

Love helps you find yourself; infatuation encourages you to lose yourself.

Love is based on reality; infatuation on fantasy.

Love can last; infatuation — by its very nature — cannot.

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