Science Advice Goddess: Bed Over Heels?
I'm a 29-year-old guy with a "keep it casual" relationship history, but I can't stop thinking about this new girl at work. Beyond not wanting her to date anyone else, I don't want someone to hurt her or make her sad. No other woman has ever made me feel this way. How do I know whether this is lust or the beginnings of falling in love?
It's easy to believe you're "in love" when you're really just in lust. To be fair, lust is a form of love...if you broaden the field to stuff like "I love, love, LOVE your boobs in that inappropriately tight sweater."
In other words, lust is animal attraction, so the "inner beauty" that's elemental to loving somebody is immaterial. I know this firsthand, having repeatedly been the target of interspecies sex predators, large and small.
A giant male goat chased me across my friend's parents' farm, trying to mount me -- while my friends looked on laughing. A previous perv was six inches high and green: a friend's lorikeet (a kind of parrot). He ran after me on his little bird feet all around another friend's apartment, squawking the oh-so-sensual pickup line, "Otto, bird! Otto, bird!" I bolted into the bathroom, slammed the door, and refused to come out till he was behind bars. #beaktoo
Complicating the detangling of "love or lust?" is another important question: "Love or infatuation?" Falling in love is not love. It's infatuation -- an intense, usually lust-fueled obsession with our idea of who a person is: a projection of our hopes and romantic fantasies that often has little relationship to who they really are. That said, the sheer strength and intoxicating nature of infatuation -- like being blind drunk on romantic possibility instead of Jim Beam -- often leads to premature feelings of "We're perfect for each other!"
People tend to believe the more they learn about a new person they're into, the more into them they'll be -- a la "To know them is to love them." However, psychologist Michael I. Norton finds that when we have the hots for someone we barely know, we're prone to read ambiguity -- foggy, partial information about them -- as signs the person is like us. These (perceived!) similarities amp up our "liking" for them -- at first.
However, as time goes by, we can't help but notice all the dissimilarities poking up, which leads us to like them less and less -- a la "To know them is to loathe them." In other words, rushing into a relationship of any permanence is the stuff dreams are made of -- if you've always dreamed of being financially and emotionally incinerated in a grotesquely ugly divorce.
"Buyer beware" in love is best exercised in two ways: The first is "buyer be seriously slow." Consider putting the person you're dating on secret probation for a year (or more). This will give you time to not just see the best in them but give it much-needed company: glimpses of the worst.
Second, explore whether your compatibility with a person is surface -- "I love sushi! She loves sushi!" -- or sustainably deep. The ideal tool for assessing this is the best definition of love I've ever read, and by "best," I mean the most practically useful. It's by Ayn Rand. (And no, I'm not one of the glassy-eyed worshippers of everything she ever said or wrote, but she nailed it on this.)
"Love is a response to values," writes Rand. "It is with a person's sense of life that one falls in love -- with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person's character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures. ... It is one's own sense of life that acts as the selector," identifying one's own core values in the other person.
Using this "values model" to determine compatibility requires some preliminary work: figuring out your own values, meaning the principles you care most about -- the guiding standards for the sort of person you want to be. If you're in the "gotta get started on that" stage, recognizing what isn't love -- those love fakers, lust and infatuation -- should help you avoid sliding into the committed relationship nightmare zone.
Ultimately, love is nautical: It's both the ship that launched a thousand sappy cliches and, more vitally, a lifeboat. In lifeboat form, it gets romantic partners through the worst of times, major and, um, somewhat less major -- like when your bae spends your entire date night searching Hulu for a movie to watch. Love is dropping your phone in the goldfish bowl to keep yourself from whispering, "Hey, Siri, where's the legal line between murder and involuntary manslaughter?"