So, is "love at first sight" real? (Sort of...)
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Many couples say it all the time – they “knew” the very first time they met.
Survey research by Zsok et al (2017) in the Netherlands asked 400 men and women about their experiences of romantic love finding:
- People report feeling an “instant attraction” to their partner (which appears to go beyond a “biased” positive memory)
- A higher rating of attractiveness level of the other person can be correlated with a higher rating of “love at first sight”
- More men reported the feeling than women, but it is unclear if those men had experienced it with all their previous partners.
Anecdotal reports of the phenomenon include feeling of:
- Butterflies in the stomach
- A deep connection
- A feeling like “you’ve known them all your life”
- An excitement when you see them
- An “electricity” when your eyes meet
…these are also potentially the portrayals in Hollywood Rom Coms and classic Disney movies, and it is possible to question if we are experiencing a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: we want it, we expect it, we “experience” it. That is of course not to say those experiences are not real – they are likely to entail physiological changes to match…but then so does the placebo effect.
...and it is unclear how many of those couples are still together after that initial survey!
Putting out the flying sparks...
I am not a cynic (I really am all for “true love”), but some of those feelings may be (literally) romanticised as we create the narrative of our experience, but it might be that what is happening is more “base”:
Dr Fisher of Rutgers University, New Jersey explains that there are 3 key components to attraction:
- Sex Drive (libido/lust) associated primarily with our hormones which motivates us to seek a sexual union
- The Attraction System – which is associated with high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and low serotonin (very similar to the “adrenaline rush” we may experience on a “thrill ride” or if the body is stressed!) In some cases we may even be able to smell a suitable mating partner…or at least their smell can heighten our feelings towards them
- The Attachment system – associated with oxytocin and vasopressin which helps form bonds between caregiver and offspring in turn supporting their survival.
The three systems can work independently, and they can also support each other eg: you can want to have sex with someone you don’t find attractive, but also a sexual attraction can easily turn into affectionate attachment – or vice versa (eg. friends who become lovers).
The low burn of love
So, while “love at first sight” is a very romantic narrative, initial attraction and fleeting moments can fade in the longer term. The “longer term” brings with it further commitment, possibly compromise or even sacrifice, and it is therefore very important to keep in mind your own ideals, hopes, values and goals when it comes to succumbing to the “love at first sight” feeling.
Further, research suggests that it is very possible to have those feeling for more than one person at the same time (especially Libido and Attraction) and acting on the drive for an illicit affair can bring painful consequences for more than just the two people involved. As such we need to consider the possible outcomes of succumbing to our emotional and physical motivations.
Although these are likely to “break the mood”, the questions we might need to ask ourselves when considering any relationship include:
- What do I want from this relationship (and does the other person want the same…there is a difference between a “Hook up”, a “potential spouse”, or a “Thrupple”)
- Can I be clear about my expectations with the other person…how will I respond if we do not agree (this also includes the things you are not willing to compromise on such as wanting to have children, or perhaps your religious beliefs)
- Why do I want this relationship? (Hopefully the answers here will relate to the feelings of joy you might bring to each other rather than – I am in an unhappy relationship and need a reason to leave (which is unfair on the other person), or I just need a relationship (a sense of desperation may indicate there is some personal self-love work that needs to be done)…although a cliché, the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself and then it is much easier to form a healthy relationship with others…ie. Your relationship doesn’t “complete” you …they other (whole) person is a bonus to your wonderful life).
Funnily enough, research from mathematician Dr John Billingham discussed that for 1/3 odds of “true love”, statistically, we need to reject the first 37% of people, and then accept the next one who is a bit better than the rest…1/3 is not great, but if 1 in 2 marriages in in divorce, it may give us a better chance!! (And realistically, of course, this may not work!!)
But love at first sight can work right?
Sometimes of course.
The feeling of instant attraction can lead to lasting love, it also might not. It’s important to recognise that rom coms and fairy tales don’t always extend beyond the “happily every after”. For some people who are instantly attracted, perhaps the attraction made them more likely to get together faster, than those who were not, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that one relationship is going to be longer lasting than the other.
Relationships take work (but it doesn't need to be difficult)
I'm someone who loves their job, and yes, I have to work hard, but it really doesn't feel difficult...and that's what my relationship is like too (and, to be honest, many of my friendships). For work, love and friends, I personally believe point 3 to be the most important.
1. Further research into creating deeper connections following attraction proposes 53 questions that we might want to ask a potential partner: 53 Relationship Questions That Will Make Your Love Life Better (lifehack.org)
While it is accepted that you may not want to go into your first date with a list research on the interactions of people found that while many people thought they would not enjoy being asked deeper questions, it turned out, they found them far more enjoyable and fulfilling than small talk.
2. Know your “love language”: Another practical tool I would recommend is to think about the ways in which you like to give and receive love (this includes within family and friends as well as romantic partners). Dr Gary Chapman proposed that we like to give and receive love in 5 different ways:
- Acts of service
- Quality Time
- Words of affirmation
…and while people have a mix of preferences, these preferences do affect their perceptions. For example, a person who expresses their love through acts of service (eg. my husband fixes my car) may be thanked by their partner, but if s/he prefers love to be shown through gifts – s/he may still feel unloved while the partner is now feeling under appreciated. The parents whose preference is for quality time may be turning up at university, when for the child, an text saying “Hey – I miss you” (words of affirmation) – may have been preferred.
It is the lack of awareness of preference, as well as a lack of communication between those in a relationship that can lead to misunderstandings.
So, again, it’s a case of being aware of yourself, and communicating this with your partner.
3. Open lines of communication is another important thing – mathematic modelling found that partners who allowed each other to gripe and complain were in fact happier than those who tried to avoid conflict. While it would not be a pleasant environment if partners were just moaning with no real attempts to fix things, allowing people space to experience and express emotions, and then being able to work together to move forward is a healthy form of teamwork…and relationships can be seen as a team.
Long term relationships take work from both parties – and if you have chosen wisely – all you’re really doing is continuing to make that choice.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt