There’s a reason Princess Jasmine recounts love as an “indescribable feeling” in Aladdin. Whether you’re riding on a magic carpet or standing at the altar, it can be hard to put into words what love feels like. So how do you know if you’re in love?
There are plenty of cliché ways to describe love that sound outlandish until you experience them. Do you see fireworks when you kiss? Get butterflies when you think of your person? Smell their perfume and swoon? Laugh at a meme and immediately send it to them? You may be in love, but feelings aren’t exactly scientific measurements.
Poets and platitudes may shape our definition of love, but scientifically speaking, endocrinologist Krishna G. Seshadri describes love as “an emergent property of an ancient cocktail of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters” in the 2016 study “The Neuroendocrinology of Love.” In other words, that indescribable feeling can actually be described and measured by the stimulus in your brain.
Mario Beauregard’s 2009 comparative study examined functional neuroimaging to measure the brain’s reaction to certain images representing either romantic or maternal love. The study found evidence of a distinct network of neurons that links love to certain emotions. For something that seemingly makes no sense, your brain has pathways that regulate love and how you experience it. MRIs have shown that love is more than an emotion—it is also a system of motivations and goal-oriented behavior.
So…how do you know if you’re in love?
While neurotransmitters and neuropeptides may comprise the scientific cocktail behind love, everyone has their own individual mix. Ask 50 people how they knew they were in love, and you’ll likely get 50 different answers. Standard responses may include how the person makes you feel; whether or not they provide a sense of safety and security; an intense sexual attraction; or someone who shares your sense of humor.
Tracy Kunyu has been with her partner for two years, and it was an argument that let her know she was in love. “During our first argument, after one and a half years of being together, I told her that I didn’t think this would work,” says Kunyu. “At that moment, I felt like my heart was shattered in pieces. I then knew that I had finally found my favorite person.”
If the idea of being apart from someone triggers strong feelings or emotions, that can definitely be a sign that you are in love. Think about the way that your dog runs in to greet you even if you were only gone for five minutes to take the trash out. Love is marked by a need for sustained attachment.
Lolly, who prefers not to share their last name, says that they knew they were in love because of how hard it was to say goodbye. Physical and emotional distance played a role in their experience of love.
For others, love can be an act of kindness. Did this person make you soup when you were sick? Do they kill all the spiders because they know they scare you? Did they fill your car with gas because they noticed your tank was low? When accumulated, all of these seemingly mundane tasks can show what scientists define as “love in action.” Seshadri notes that increased energy, focused attention, intense following, affiliative gestures, possessive mate guarding, and goal-oriented behavior all mark characteristics of mammals in love.
The way Patti Sprague knew she was in love was one of these seemingly small acts. “I noticed that I started giving him the bigger half of the best bit of something,” she shares. They’ve been together now 15 years, showing small acts can create sustained attachment.
What Drives You?
While love is highly individual, some studies suggest three common underlying motivations: lust, attraction, and attachment.
Hormones, testosterone, and estrogen may drive lust while dopamine and serotonin factor into attraction. Attachment is marked by the ability to sustain a connection. Experiencing all three of these motivations in tandem with another person makes love sound far more impossible than love songs would make it seem (but maybe that’s why we also have so many great breakup songs).
Looking at the physiological traits of love in the brain can have its limitations. While some scientific studies link love solely to mating and one’s need to reproduce and raise children, that outlook lacks the very necessary context that plenty of people experience love without the desire or ability to have children. To see love as strictly a means of reproduction invalidates the vast ways that people experience love without the presence of child-rearing.
Plenty of cisgender straight couples choose not to have children while some LGBTQ+ couples jump through medical, financial, and societal hoops to grow their families. People who identify as asexual can and do experience love without the presence of sexual attraction. These are just a few examples of how solely relying on scientific studies that do not recognize that love can exist in multitudes is a lot like looking at a black-and-white photo. There are far more dimensions to love than simply the science behind it.
Paving Your Path to Love
Love does not exist in a vacuum. People bring their trauma and insecurities into relationships. Ultimately, how people respond when their partner feels vulnerable says a lot about how safe that relationship is for someone.
Newlywed Sabrina Servance says, “I knew I was in love when I realized that I could 100 percent be myself and not hold back. And I wasn’t worried about letting my heart and soul be open for someone.”
Trauma builds walls and allowing another person behind that wall can be a sign that one feels safe to trust that person. Love means showing up authentically to another person without fearing judgment. Anyone who has ever laughed over waking up their partner with a fart can certainly relate to this point.
How do you know if you’re in love? There’s no checklist—and if there was, it would probably be different for everyone. While you’re doing the work to get to know a person, trust that your brain is building the pathways for that secure and sustained attachment known as love.