Sex + Love

Love at First Sight

What is it? Is it real? A semi-scientific inquiry.

There are countless other biological variables involved in falling in love, including hormones and genes, but what about the psychological factors? I know people hate to get Freudian in these conversations, but reduced to their simplest possible rendering, Sigmund Freud‘s theories on what we find initially attractive in other people sound pretty right-on to me. Back in the late 1800s, he posited that our first “romantic” feelings are directed at the people who raised us when we were babies. This doesn’t mean kids have literal amorous feelings toward their parents, but that since as an infant you depend wholly on your caretakers for your happiness and comfort (or discomfort), they’re the first people you look at with all-consuming adoration, and this love you have for them builds the architecture in your brain that will later house your crushy feelings. When you’re older and scanning the world for appropriate crush objects, you’ll try, whether you know it or not, to find people who can comfortably live there too—strangers with qualities that you find familiar, because they remind you of how you parents treated you, or how they treated each other, or both. This works for both good and ill: If you had amazing parents or guardians who respected each other and treated you with love, care, and compassion, not only will you expect the same from a partner, you will naturally be more attracted to people who treat you that way. But some of us didn’t have the greatest parents—maybe they were cold or they fought all the time or were abusive—those are the familiar qualities that our traitorous brains will be looking for, and we will fall for people who have them without being able to explain why except to say that we understand these jerkfaces and feel comfortable with them and not with some weirdo nice person. AUGH! It’s totally unfair.

If you’ve ever had an instantaneous crush on someone that turned into a tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful relationship, think about that person now. Focus on what attracted you to them in the first place. If it was the same exact thing that made going out with them not that much fun, I’d be surprised if that quality didn’t remind you of someone from your past. (You might have to really focus to remember anything unpleasant about them—and again, you can blame science: Studies have suggested that our brains kind of protect us from reliving the pain of negative experiences by conveniently focusing on the good stuff and blurring out the bad.)

I should say here that even though love at first sight has never worked out for me, it’s not a disaster for everyone. Some people get lucky and run into someone at a party who is wonderful, trustworthy, and loyal and who makes their dopamine go nuts, and then they develop a perfect mix of pleasurable chemicals and optimism about the person that can sustain a relationship over the long haul. In fact, in such lucky cases, “love at first sight” actually gives your relationship an advantage: According to one study, if you get that positive feeling from someone during your first encounter and you do end up dating, it’s more likely that you’ll still feel that way about them nine weeks later. It’s a totally irrational and premature trust based on a fantasy, sure, but that illusion allows you to communicate with your crush more freely, and thus become closer to them. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy: You can picture yourself with this person forever, so you treat them in a way that would foster long-term closeness, and sometimes you hit the jackpot and you end up falling actually, truly in love with a great person. But it all starts out the same way, with a drug: dopamine.

If that describes your relationship, congratulations! But let’s say you’re like me, and “love at first sight” is a warning sign that you are about to go down a painful, time-consuming dead-end path. What do you do instead of trying to bend the universe to allow you to spend every waking moment with that person you saw once at a party a few weeks ago?

What worked for me was kind of a four-pronged approach to developing saner relationships:

1. Determine the kind of relationship and partner you want, setting aside the thought of any particular person. Make a list, even! Would you like someone to call you twice a day, or is once a week enough? Someone who wants to spend their life in academia, or someone who hopes to one day manage the store they’ve been working at since freshman year? A person who is very close to their immediate family or more of a loner? An emotionally expressive person or one who plays it close to the vest? There are no right answers, only right answers for you, so be completely honest with yourself. For example, I know that I need kind of a lot of attention from my love object. I need them to remind me often that they care about me, because it’s easy for me to forget. On my list, which I actually did put in my phone along with a few tips from my therapist, I wrote:

• Absolutely available: no spouses or significant others
• Loves his mother
• No substance abuse
• Buys me flowers when we won’t see each other for a while
• Texts or calls often and promptly

I used to try to be the “cool girl” who totally rolls with the punches and is unfazed when her love interest doesn’t call or text for a few days. I was confident in other areas of my life, and too embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t always that way in relationships—that I needed a little extra handholding in the beginning to feel secure. It didn’t help that I had a pattern of choosing partners who fed my insecurities and acted like it was a drag to reply to my phone calls or show in any way that they were thinking of me. But then I learned a miraculous thing in therapy that I’m going to pass on to you: It is never weak to ask for what you need. Furthermore, it turns out that my old axiom, “If you have to ask for it, it doesn’t count,” is dead wrong. In fact, it can mean even more if you ask someone for something and they give it to you just because they know you want it, even if it goes against their habits or instincts. Once I started looking for someone who wouldn’t mind sending me a sweet text once a day, occasionally buying me flowers, and calling me their girlfriend, it turned out not to be embarrassing at all.


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  • rosiesayrelax February 4th, 2013 3:04 PM

    This was really interesting. I think I really like being in love, and so I love a lot of things/people. Sadly most of them are fictional *Sherlock Holmes*

  • AnaRuiz February 4th, 2013 3:31 PM

    I don’t think I believe in love at first sight…

    • thebrownette February 4th, 2013 9:27 PM

      my parents fell in love at first sight!

  • Maggie February 4th, 2013 3:32 PM

    This article rules. I get so annoyed when the moral of some movie is basically “listen to your heart” because, hello, your heart can lead you crazy astray. “Love at first sight is a feeling, not a commandment.” Thank you!!!!! I think if you can operate with the awareness that a wild crush is unsustainable and CERTAIN TO DIE- that awareness can give you the freedom to actually enjoy it (without it ruining your life). Crush responsibly!

    • Anaheed February 4th, 2013 7:00 PM

      I love “crush responsibly.”

      • giov February 5th, 2013 6:54 AM

        I think I found a new life motto.

  • Runaway February 4th, 2013 3:52 PM

    This is so funny…I’ve been listening to this song by Towa Tei nonstop for more than a week now:

    As a crazy dopamine addict, thanks a lot for this piece.

  • faithdarwin February 4th, 2013 3:59 PM

    I have to say, I’ve never experienced love at first sight, and I’ve never related to any of my friends my friends who did. I’ve always had those friends who will tell me how totally in love they are with someone, and then two weeks later be completely done with that person and tell me how in love they are with a new guy. I usually only get crushes on people I’m at least friendly acquaintances with, and when I do get a crush on someone I barely know I feel weird and creepy about it, and I totally over-analyze my emotions, like “What’s wrong with me?! I keep facebook stalking him and I’ve barely even spoken to him! I need to stop this.” I guess I’m in the minority?

    • AnaRuiz February 4th, 2013 5:48 PM

      I feel the same way. I think it’s more like “obsession at first sight” than love. Love is a fuller thing than that

      • red lipped brunette February 7th, 2013 6:02 PM

        I totally agree with you. Just asking, where do you live? As you have a Spanish name I thought maybe we could get in touch, I´m from Argentina :)

  • Isabelle97 February 4th, 2013 4:01 PM

    OMG THAT PICTURE IS SO SWEET! Also, the comment ” It’s even fun to have five crushes at once, one for each of your different alter egos. ” is basically me. I’m quite happily aware that I’m not ready to get in a relationship with anyone but that doesn’t stop me getting all starry eyed over both my male politics teacher AND the girl who sits next to me. They’re both totally gorgeous and, needless to say, politics is my favourite class right now ;)

  • LadyKatie February 4th, 2013 4:20 PM

    fangirling because your husband is on guy code. HES HILAR, what a catch! :)

  • emine February 4th, 2013 4:57 PM

    I experience love at first and only sight? I like seeing someone that I don’t know at all from afar who is physically attractive and then dreaming up a personality for him. They’re just momentary crushes, but definitely a lot of fun :) I love this month’s theme!

  • ladiesfirst February 4th, 2013 5:07 PM

    Ahh your husband is so cute!

  • Violet February 4th, 2013 5:11 PM

    Loved this loved this loved this !!!
    it’s so true !!!

  • AmyL February 4th, 2013 5:13 PM

    This was AMAZING.

  • GlitterKitty February 4th, 2013 5:41 PM

    This explains so much about the last 2 years of my life….

  • decemberbaby February 4th, 2013 5:43 PM

    This is a really cool article. I’ve learned a lot more recently than I ever used to know about how people have to kind of learn to be in love… they might reallllllyyy like each other, but it does take effort and intention to get a relationship to work. That’s never included in the Disney romance prototype that we’re raised on.

  • Kayla Marie February 4th, 2013 5:46 PM

    Your husband is on guy code!!! Am I the only female person that loves that show?? Btw, your husband is amazing, but I’m sure you already know this

  • kirsten February 4th, 2013 6:31 PM

    that picture of your husband is amazing!!

  • sophiethewitch February 4th, 2013 6:33 PM

    Great article. I don’t believe in love at first sight. I think LAFS has a lot to do with our societal idea of “one love,” one right person for everyone. Which is just so statistically improbable, considering how many people there are in the world, what a small portion of those people any one individual meets, and what a weirdly big number of humans, considering that, find their “one.” The feeling we get that we call love at first sight isn’t about who you should have a relationship with, it’s about who you should have a one night stand with. It’s how we evolved to pick out people to have sex with, a lot of which is based on natural selection and reproducing with people more likely to make healthy babies. And physical appearance is, from an evolutionary perspective, a pretty okay way to decide that.

    I do think you kind of oversimplified dopamine, because it’s released anytime you’re happy, not just because of love or drugs.

  • StrawberryTwist February 4th, 2013 6:40 PM

    I wish to believe in love at first sight because I love the thought of it. It reminds me of Romeo and Juliet, which their love was endless.

  • JezebelRose February 4th, 2013 7:28 PM

    “BRB” — I love it! <3 <3 <3

    So good, Jane! Your list also reminds me of some advice a friend told me once, as I was pulling my hair out over a silly boy who couldn't/wouldn't tell me what HE wanted in terms of a relationship: "Well, what do YOU want?" Until she asked me, I had never even thought about it.

  • Ms.O February 4th, 2013 7:34 PM

    Wow, I literally never thought about “love at first sight” and now you’ve given me the information to answer those questions if I come across them. AND OMG THE ENDING CUTE CUTE CUTE

  • silvermist February 4th, 2013 7:56 PM

    Lots of feels about this. And the picture is so cute <3

    When I was 12 I read this brazilian children book by Jorge Amado that had a paragraph on love at first sight that has stayed with me since then. This is my sloppy translation of it:
    "I wish to say there are people who don't believe in love at first sight. Others, on the contrary, believe this is the only form of true love. Everyone is right. Love is in the heart of creatures, sleeping, and one day it wakes up with the arrival of spring or even in the harsh winter. All of a sudden, love wakes from its sleep on the vision of another being. Even if we already met, it's as if we are looking at the other for the first time and that's why people say it's love at first sight."

    This has somehow proved to be accurate for me; for every person I was in love with I can point a moment when I looked at them and they looked different from before and it felt magical and it made me think 'we should kiss/date/be together forever!' It's my personal definition of love at first sight :)

    • Yani February 5th, 2013 4:25 AM

      awww this is the most beautiful comment I’ve ever read on the internet. xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    • Miarele February 6th, 2013 10:57 PM

      That passage was beautiful, just beautiful. I think I’m gonna write it down in my journal so it can stay with me too. Thank you for sharing it <333

  • Abby February 4th, 2013 8:12 PM

    SUPER JEALOUS OF YOUR HUSBAND… he’s cute and sweet!! This was an awesome article… I’m not usually one to crush hard… but I still liked it!

  • TinyWarrior February 4th, 2013 11:20 PM

    I can totally relate to the part about falling for someone who you wouldn’t think you would. I fell in love this past fall with a guy who I used to make fun of my friends for liking, and then in late December/early January I fell COMPLETELY head over heels for his best friend (a guy who I would never have pictured myself loving a year ago). LOVE IS SURPRISING AND WONDERFUL, GUYS.

    Also, the ending of your article is sososo adorable. ♥

  • stellar February 4th, 2013 11:21 PM

    it’s hard to know whether it’s worth it or not!

  • Starsplitter February 5th, 2013 1:15 AM

    OMG i read this article and loved it and then saw your husband is on guy code and i LOVE that show, it and your hubby cracks me up. great article :))

  • Seat1one February 5th, 2013 3:13 AM

    I have never been in love at first sight. I’ve been in…love at first joke? Something like that.

  • diniada13 February 5th, 2013 5:33 AM

    I don’t believe in love in first sight. If you experience it you’re in love with their physical appearance, not them, and you’re just obsessed. I’m sorry I tend to be over-logical about these things xD

  • Pipstar February 5th, 2013 6:14 AM

    I loved this article, and your husband is lovely :) The real deal! xx

  • Melisa February 5th, 2013 6:53 AM

    You know, the way I’ve tried to understand “love at first sight” is to think that it is infatuation rather than actual love. Love is a pretty damn strong word, and I just don’t believe you could immediately connect in that level and care deeply about a person without knowing them deeply as well first.

    Anywayzzzz, this article is so well written. The ending makes me gush inside and smile and fantasize about a similar situation that I know I’ll have in the future with someone I love and who loves me back. <3

  • soretudaaa February 5th, 2013 10:12 AM

    I feel kind of sorry for people who are unable to randomly fall in love at first sight because even though they’ll suffer from far less heartaches, it’s the greatest feeling I know while it lasts.

  • Mintvirgin February 5th, 2013 10:43 AM

    to my mind, love at first time seems beautiful and colorful, but when you return from clouds to the Earth, you understand how silly you were. when I have last period, I become thinking about my life and tiny moments that made it different. what is love? – my question was. not at all roses, bunches of flowers and candies or? that thought was the first smart thought at all month. oh I was so tired of my feelings! and now I want to be a lesbian. no, I want to love no one, that is true!

  • wallflower152 February 5th, 2013 10:47 AM

    I like how this is a logical look at love. Love is nothing more than chemicals in our brains that evolved to help the species to survive. You fall in romantic love because your body wants you to reproduce, even if you don’t want kids and even if your affections aren’t directed at someone of the opposite gender. Parents love their kids because they want their genes to continue. Kids love their parents because they help them survive. Friends love each other because people survive better in groups. Not to be cold and unromantic, I love my family and friends and bf. I’ve heard of Helen Fischer and her work, I think the science behind love is SO interesting. If you do too I totally recommend Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast–feminism, women’s history, women’s health, trivia related to womanly things and LOTS of scientific stuff! I’ve said it before but I just love it a lot and I think other Rookies would too.

  • llorona February 5th, 2013 12:16 PM

    Thank you for writing this! And here I thought I was alone (or worse there was something w r o n g with me) because I was always drawn to people who would eventually hurt me. I will take your advice!

  • Nimble February 5th, 2013 5:15 PM

    This is great! I’m having a love at first sight experience and as much as I hate to admit it, it obviously won’t work out. But, we can still be friends, which is cool.
    And even though hot guys on my swim team will make me flip out, I will keep your advice in mind.

  • barbroxursox February 5th, 2013 9:05 PM

    I recently had a “love at first sight” moment on tumblr… I fell in love with a dude’s icon. Then I did some major creepin’ and found his instagram and fell even more in love. But then I realized I was being really stalker-y. It fizzled out quickly.

  • pinmq February 6th, 2013 10:34 PM

    grrrrreat story, thank you so much for writing it, jane! i can guarantee that this will help me, and i’m sure lots of other rookies, to ~calm down~ when it comes to finding the “right” person :) i just got out of a short but meaningful relationship and reading this made me feel a lot better about everything, so thanks xx

  • ivory-shakes February 7th, 2013 4:13 PM

    I’m currently trying to get over a crush.. Literally as we speak. We’ve met twice and we text almost every day and whilst people say something could happen, it doesn’t seem like he’s as into me as I am into him. I’m away this weekend so I won’t be able to see him and I’ll know he’ll kiss another girl and it’ll break my heart and I need to get over it and stop being pathetic. I’m sorry about how long this is but I just need to get it out of my system and talk to anyone. I’m so confuuuuuuuuuused!

  • Thisis40ish February 11th, 2013 2:47 PM

    Crushes.. a reason to shave your legs and get out the door on a Monday morning..

  • mack February 13th, 2013 3:03 PM

    this is the BEST article i have ever read about Love and Relationships. EVER.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 5th, 2013 7:42 AM

    Hmm… interesting…

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica June 5th, 2013 7:44 AM

      PS your Julian story is so sweet ♥

  • kelsey June 16th, 2013 6:13 PM

    Found my chappie through the “just friends” route and it was the best, most natural and lovely thing ever, basically. Because I didn’t have a gigantic, debilitating crush on him I was able to just hang out and be myself. And so when he said he got up the guts to share his feeeeelings with me, I knew he didn’t like me because I was a nervous, giggling wreck – he liked me for ME.