How do you know if you’re in love?
This week, our resident sexpert, Olivia Petter, answers the age-old question about realising when you’ve met ‘the one’
Friday 27 January 2023 By Olivia Petter Illustration by Darren Shaddick
Of all the questions I’ve received for this column, this is perhaps the most difficult for me to answer. The reason why is complicated. Let’s just say I’m feeling somewhat confused about matters of the heart these days.
When I realised that I didn’t have an immediate answer, I started to wonder if that meant I had never been in love, which was a little alarming and depressing. Mostly the latter. But having given it some thought, I don’t think it’s that simple. Because I’m not sure any of us can really pinpoint the feeling you have when you love someone. At least not in any ubiquitous way.
That’s part of it, though, isn’t it? Falling in love feels and looks different for everyone. It can depend on so many factors, like age, background, attachment types… even star signs. And a lot of it is characterised by what is not known as opposed to what is, because falling in love is always a risk: there are no guarantees the other person will love you back.
Let’s go back to basics. What does it mean to fall in love? Is it about realising you feel safe with someone? That you want to stay up late texting them all night? Or is it that they make you feel seen, understood and accepted?
Perhaps it’s smaller things. Like making someone a cup of tea one morning and realising you want to do it every day. Or making them laugh and thinking you’ve never heard a better sound. Or holding their hand on a walk in the park, and wondering what it would be like to never let it go.
But is all of that really love? Or familiarity? I’m not sure – and it transpires that neither are a lot of people. ‘You just know,’ said one friend when I asked her how she knew she’d fallen in love with her husband. ‘It’s like trying on a dress; it feels right. Something just fits.’ Another friend posits a similarly simple answer: ‘It feels easy,’ she tells me. ‘You can sit on the sofa next to each other in total silence and be completely content.’
On Instagram, the responses were a little more varied. ‘I realised I was thinking about him constantly,’ said one person. ‘We had just slept together for the first time and I started to cry,’ another said. ‘Without saying anything he looked at me and said, “I feel the same”.’ For some people, the moment was a little more obscure. ‘He was evaluating the Queen’s speech in such detail, I remember thinking how in love I was,’ replied one person. ‘She used a semicolon in one of her texts to me. I knew then I was a goner,’ added another.
I was pleasantly surprised that, out of everyone I spoke to, nobody seemed to conflate love with lust. It’s a common mistake, something we’ve all surely been guilty of. It’s confusing that intoxicating feeling you have when you first meet someone with something deeper. You know, the fireworks. The butterflies. Or, to quote Carrie Bradshaw, the ‘zsa zsa zsu’. All of that is exciting and exhilarating, but it’s not love. It’s a high, a spark. And it’s one that will burn out faster than you think. The trick is not to spend the rest of your life trying to keep it alight.
If you want to know if you’re falling in love, my advice is to ask yourself: how does this person make you feel? Constantly on edge or stable? Insecure or content? Anxious or settled? It shouldn’t take a genius to work out which feelings you should be aiming for. But then again, maybe love is something we shouldn’t question quite so much. It doesn’t always make sense, nor should it have to. As my friend said, if you know, you know. The older I get, the more I think we shouldn’t try to complicate it much beyond that.
Got a question for Olivia? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org. All submissions will remain anonymous.
Olivia Petter is the relationships writer at The Independent and author of Millennial Love, which is out now in paperback with 4th Estate