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, his theories on what we find initially attractive in other people sound pretty right-on to me. Back in the late 1800s, Sigmund Freud 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. And 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 we find familiar, because they remind us of how our parents treated us, or how they treated each other, or both. This works for both good and ill: if we had amazing parents or guardians who respected each other and treated us with love, care, and compassion, we’ll not only expect the same from a partner—we will naturally be more attracted to people who treat us 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 site” 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 a lot of attention from my love object. I need them to remind me often that they care about me, because it’s kind of 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 into 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.