We've all experienced love. We've loved (and been loved by) parents, brothers, sisters, friends, even pets. But romantic love is different. It's an intense, new feeling unlike any of these other ways of loving.
Why Do We Fall in Love?
Loving and being loved adds richness to our lives. When people feel close to others they are happier and even healthier. Love helps us feel important, understood, and secure.
But each kind of love has its own distinctive feel. The kind of love we feel for a parent is different from our love for a baby brother or best friend. And the kind of love we feel in romantic relationships is its own unique type of love.
Our ability to feel romantic love develops during adolescence. Teens all over the world notice passionate feelings of attraction. Even in cultures where people are not allowed to act on or express these feelings, they're still there. It's a natural part of growing up to develop romantic feelings and sexual attractions to others. These new feelings can be exciting — or even confusing at first.
The Magical Ingredients of Love Relationships
Love is such a powerful human emotion that experts are constantly studying it. They've discovered that love has three main qualities:
- Attraction is the "chemistry" part of love. It's all about the physical — even sexual — interest that two people have in each other. Attraction is responsible for the desire we feel to kiss and hold the object of our affection. Attraction is also what's behind the flushed, nervous-but-excited way we feel when that person is near.
- Closeness is the bond that develops when we share thoughts and feelings that we don't share with anyone else. When you have this feeling of closeness with your boyfriend or girlfriend, you feel supported, cared for, understood, and accepted for who you are. Trust is a big part of this.
- Commitment is the promise or decision to stick by the other person through the ups and downs of the relationship.
These three qualities of love can be combined in different ways to make different kinds of relationships. For example, closeness without attraction is the kind of love we feel for best friends. We share secrets and personal stuff with them, we support them, and they stand by us. But we are not romantically interested in them.
Attraction without closeness is more like a crush or infatuation. You're attracted to someone physically but don't know the person well enough yet to feel the closeness that comes from sharing personal experiences and feelings.
Romantic love is when attraction and closeness are combined. Lots of relationships grow out of an initial attraction (a crush or "love at first sight") and develop into closeness. It's also possible for a friendship to move from closeness into attraction as two people realize their relationship is more than "just like" and they have become interested in one another in a romantic way.
For people falling in love for the first time, it can be hard to tell the difference between the intense, new feelings of physical attraction and the deeper closeness that goes with being in love.
Lasting Love or Fun Fling?
The third ingredient in a love relationship, commitment, is about wanting and deciding to stay together as a couple in the future — despite any changes and challenges that life brings.
Sometimes couples who fall in love in high school develop committed relationships that last. Many relationships don't last, though. But it's not because teens aren't capable of deep loving.
We typically have shorter relationships as teens because adolescence is a time when we instinctively seek lots of different experiences and try out different things. It's all part of discovering who we are, what we value, and what we want out of life.
Another reason we tend to have shorter relationships in our teens is because the things we want to get out of a romantic relationship change as we get a little older. In our teens — especially for guys — relationships are mainly about physical attraction. But by the time guys reach 20 or so, they rate a person's inner qualities as most important. Teen girls emphasize closeness as most important — although they don't mind if a potential love interest is cute too!
In our teens, relationships are mostly about having fun. Dating can seem like a great way to have someone to go places with and do things with. Dating can also be a way to fit in. If our friends are all dating someone, we might put pressure on ourselves to find a boyfriend or girlfriend too.
For some people dating is even a status thing. It can almost seem like another version of cliques: The pressure to go out with the "right" person in the "right" group can make dating a lot less fun than it should be — and not so much about love!
In our late teens, though, relationships are less about going out to have fun and fitting in. Closeness, sharing, and confiding become more important to both guys and girls. By the time they reach their twenties, most girls and guys value support, closeness, and communication, as well as passion. This is the time when people start thinking about finding someone they can commit to in the long run — a love that will last.
What Makes a Good Relationship?
When people first experience falling in love, it often starts as attraction. Sexual feelings can also be a part of this attraction. People at this stage might daydream about a crush or a new BF or GF. They may doodle the person's name or think of their special someone while a particular song is playing.
It sure feels like love. But it's not love yet. It hasn't had time to grow into emotional closeness that's needed for love. Because feelings of attraction and sexual interest are new, and they're directed at a person we want a relationship with, it's not surprising we confuse attraction with love. It's all so intense, exciting, and hard to sort out.
The crazy intensity of the passion and attraction phase fades a bit after a while. Like putting all our energy into winning a race, this kind of passion is exhilarating but far too extreme to keep going forever. If a relationship is destined to last, this is where closeness enters the picture. The early passionate intensity may fade, but a deep affectionate attachment takes its place.
Some of the ways people grow close are:
- Learning to give and receive. A healthy relationship is about both people, not how much one person can get from (or give to) the other.
- Revealing feelings. A supportive, caring relationship allows people to reveal details about themselves — their likes and dislikes, dreams and worries, proud moments, disappointments, fears, and weaknesses.
- Listening and supporting. When two people care, they offer support when the other person is feeling vulnerable or afraid. They don't put down or insult their partner, even when they disagree.
Giving, receiving, revealing, and supporting is a back-and-forth process: One person shares a detail, then the other person shares something, then the first person feels safe enough to share a little more. In this way, the relationship gradually builds into a place of openness, trust, and support where each partner knows that the other will be there when times are tough. Both feel liked and accepted for who they are.
The passion and attraction the couple felt early on in the relationship isn't lost. It's just different. In healthy, long-term relationships, couples often find that intense passion comes and goes at different times. But the closeness is always there.
Sometimes, though, a couple loses the closeness. For adults, relationships can sometimes turn into what experts call "empty love." This means that the closeness and attraction they once felt is gone, and they stay together only out of commitment. This is not usually a problem for teens, but there are other reasons why relationships end.
Why Do Relationships End?
Love is delicate. It needs to be cared for and nurtured if it is to last through time. Just like friendships, relationships can fail if they are not given enough time and attention. This is one reason why some couples might not last — perhaps someone is so busy with school, extracurriculars, and work that he or she has less time for a relationship. Or maybe a relationship ends when people graduate and go to separate colleges or take different career paths.
For some teens, a couple may grow apart because the things that are important to them change as they mature. Or maybe each person wants different things out of the relationship. Sometimes both people realize the relationship has reached its end; sometimes one person feels this way when the other does not.
Losing love can be painful for anyone. But if it's your first real love and the relationship ends before you want it to, feelings of loss can seem overwhelming. Like the feelings of passion early in the relationship, the newness and rawness of grief and loss can be intense — and devastating. There's a reason why they call it a broken heart.
When a relationship ends, people really need support. Losing a first love isn't something we've been emotionally prepared to cope with. It can help to have close friends and family members to lean on. Unfortunately, lots of people — often adults — expect younger people to bounce back and "just get over it." If your heart is broken, find someone you can talk to who really understands the pain you're going through.
It seems hard to believe when you're brokenhearted that you can ever feel better. But gradually these feelings grow less intense. Eventually, people move on to other relationships and experiences.
Relationships — whether they last 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years, or a lifetime — are all opportunities to experience love on its many different levels. We learn both how to love and how to be loved in return.
Romance provides us with a chance to discover our own selves as we share with someone new. We learn the things we love about ourselves, the things we'd like to change, and the qualities and values we look for in a partner.
Loving relationships teach us self-respect as well as respect for others. Love is one of the most fulfilling things we can have in our lives. If romance hasn't found you yet, don't worry — there's plenty of time. And the right person is worth the wait.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2010
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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