Real Love Versus Infatuation

by | May 11, 2010 | Transitions - General, Wedding/marriage transition | 20 comments

If you’ve grown up in Western culture, you’ve been inundated from the time you were born with images and beliefs about love. Most, if not all, of these images are predicated on the archaic paradigm of Romantic Love. Romantic love is not real love. Romantic love is, most simply put, infatuation. It’s based on the model of longing for someone that you can never completely have, and it’s this longing that then becomes mistaken for real love. Being in a state of longing is a dramatic and fully alive experience. It creates butterflies in your belly and light-headedness in your mind. If not understood properly, the one in the longing position can easily believe that she or he is “in love.”

If the object of the longing, often called “the beloved”, does reciprocate, “the lover” often runs the other way. And so begins an all-too familiar game of chase with each participant alternating between the pursuer or distancer roles. The game is emotionally intense but ultimately unsatisfying. The bottom line is that real intimacy never occurs. It’s dramatic but safe. It’s temporarily painful but there’s no long-term risk involved. And it certainly isn’t a healthy model on which to base a marriage!

Real love, on the other hand, requires that both people show up for each other in the same place at the same time. There is no game-playing, which creates more consistent stability in terms of the intensity of emotion; gone are the ecstatic highs and despairing lows that defined the unhealthy relationships of the past. As such, real love requires that both people risk their hearts to form a bond of true intimacy.

One of my clients recently asked me to define real love. I rattled off a list and later thought it might benefit others to write about it here. So here is my list of the beliefs, attributes, and precepts that define real love (with the caveat that I’m not sure that anyone understands love in its totality!):

1. Real love is a conscious choice that often employs the rational part of our brains. Some couples have a “free ride” in the early stages of their relationship where they experience the intense feelings characterized by romantic love, but not everyone. And these feelings certainly aren’t necessary for real love to emerge as the relationship grows, as evidenced by the success rate of arranged marriages in other parts of the world. It’s when the infatuation feelings diminish that the couple has to learn that love is a choice, not a feeling, as M. Scott Peck says in “The Road Less Traveled.”

2. Real love accepts that your partner is a fallible, imperfect human, just as you are. Unlike romantic life, which ascends the object of desire to the realm of a god, part of the jolt down to earth that many of clients experience during their engagement is the realization that their partner is not perfect – that he isn’t as smart or witty or fun or good-looking as she thought the person she would marry would be. The romantic bubble of marrying Prince Charming is burst. Most of my clients focus on one missing area – sometimes to the point of obsession – and it’s often an attribute that never bothered her before they were engaged. As time passes, the real fears are addressed, and love is redefined, the obsession mellows and she learns to accept and fully love her partner exactly as he is.

3. Real love ebbs and flows in terms of interest, ease, and feelings. In other words, in any healthy relationship there will be times when things effortlessly work, where the spark is alive and the couple is interested in one another and life. And there will be times of, for lack of a better word, boredom. Part of accepting real love is understanding that the boredom is normal and not a symptom that something is wrong with the relationship or that you don’t love your partner enough.

4. Real love is based on shared values and a solid friendship. You genuinely like each other (even though you might not like everything about your partner).

5. Real love is action. Real love asks that you give even when you don’t feel like giving (in a healthy way, not a codependent way). Real love is more concerned with how you can give to your partner than what you can get from him or her.

6. Real love is a spiritual practice in that your focus is not how you can change your partner to alleviate your anger, pain, or annoyance but how you can assume full responsibility for those feelings and find healthy and constructive ways to attend to them. When you change in positive ways, the relationship will positively change as well.

7. Real love is a lifelong practice. You’re not expected to know how to give and receive real love at the onset of marriage, but are expected to work at it so that over the course of your life together your capacity to love grows. See my article “Marriage is a Work-in-Progress” for more on this point.

So the next time you watch a romantic comedy and find yourself doubting if you love your wonderful, supportive, honest, loving partner enough, read over this list and see if your anxiety finds containment as you redefine what love really is.



  1. Wonderful article! Wish I’d read this 20 years ago.

  2. Love it! Love it! Love it! 🙂 I’ll have to save this one to share in the future. 🙂

  3. wonderful article – i just printed it out to keep going over and over it 🙂

  4. I’m so glad it’s helpful! There’s so much misunderstanding and mis-information about what real love is in this culture. We think it’s infatuation or we think it’s about what we’re going to “get” from our partner instead of focusing on how we can give and learn more about the act of loving.

  5. Good stuff. I’m bookmarking this (or may print it out like the post above – and stick it to my forehead!)
    Actually, M. Scott Peck says that love is a DECISION. I love that word. He also says that it is NOT a feeling. So there, everyone who says they are “ruled by their feelings.” Watch out for those folks!
    This decision is then carried out with loving actions. There you go, that’s it in a nutshell. Rational part of our brain, indeed. But then maybe there’s a bit of magic fairy dust that just gives you a little tingle or that warm feeling when you look in your beloved’s eyes, or see them smile or watch them do something they are good at.
    I like how you referred to the “supportive, honest, loving” partner too, as opposed to the bank account, handyman skills or nice pedigree. There would be less divorce if more people shared those values and got together for the right reasons.
    Peck also said that life is difficult. All we can do is learn and keep trying.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Yes, that magic fairy dust and little tingles or warm feeling… love it. It’s exactly how it feels to be married to someone who truly loves you and whom you truly love. The M. Scott Peck quote is one of my favorites that I reference constantly with my clients. Thanks for your comments –

  6. What a wonderful post! I found point number 3 ´specially helpful, were you say that ‘Part of accepting real love is understanding that the boredom is normal and not a symptom that something is wrong with the relationship or that you don’t love your partner enough’. I have a great relationship with a wonderful man but I since started talking about getting married next year I started scrutnizing and over analysing the relationship and that’s the one point that caused me fear and doubt, that why I didn’t feel head over heels and butterflies in the stomach all the time (I smile because even when I write this down it sounds unrealistic to feel that way 24/7)
    The question is I know it sounds a bit inmature, after all it’s real life, but couldn’t it be a sign of a tedious future marriage? I have analized the thought so much that I have difficulty of living in the moment and enjoying my partner and my relationship, I also feel kind of ‘numb’ around him and ask myself every five seconds if I’m really in love or not, if maybe my unconscius is trying to tell me something or what. Meanwhile a small voice tells me he’s “The One” and I should be calm about the whole thing, but I have a lot of trouble listening to that voice and often feel overwhelmed and anxious/worried about the situation. What should I do in this situation?

    Thank you so much! 🙂

  7. Thank you for this great article. I have a question though. You wrote “Real love is based on shared values and a solid friendship. You genuinely like each other (even though you might not like everything about your partner).” Do you think it is an issue if you have different ideas about different subjects than your partner in your relationship? Thanks

    • Generally, no, but it depends on the subjects. Where do you differ?

  8. Hum I don’t know I would say details..I’ve been with my boyfriend for one year. We usually don’t really disagree about things but lately we had some disagreement. Like we were at a bar and I saw some older men staring at younger girls for hours and told my boyfriend I thought it wasn’t right. My boyfriend told me he thought that there is nothing wrong with that and explained me why etc… He explained me his viewpoint and I respect it. I was thinking maybe it’s a new step in our relationship, learning to know and respect our different viewpoints. I didn’t think there was anything wrong about it. I thought It could had some “pepper” to our relationship because agreeing on everything can sometimes be “boring”. What do you think?

  9. When I meet my boyfriend I was really excited, I had some butterflies, would check my phone every minute and wait for his calls etc.. I said “I love you” after a couple of months (6) because I knew it and there was just nothing else I could say, I knew it. After a while, when I could really see he loved me through his actions, I started questioning myself and realized I could not “feel my love”. So I got super worried, anxious etc…I would cry because i was thinking if i cannot feel the love it means i have to break up but i didn’t want to do so.. I was thinking that what I was feeling was not what I thought love would be, that it was not like in the movies, in fairy tales. Since that day i started being worried. I found one counselor that couldn’t understand me, talked to me about butterflies when we were talking about love etc. which made me feel more anxious. I finally found a great counselor who realized the cause of my anxiety was my false beliefs about love. She helped me a lot. Then cherry on the cake, I found your website that gathers and talks about all the crazy thoughts I had going through my head. It is such a blessing! So, if i good understand real love is :

    * a choice, I decide to love the person I love. You cannot love somebody you don’t want to love
    *not a feeling, not butterflies etc…
    * accepting that the one you love is not prince charming, he/she is imperfect
    * doing things for the one you love
    * understanding that you should complete yourself, this is not your boyfriend’s job
    * relationships are full of ups and downs, joy, boredom

    Now here are my question:
    1) Our routine was shacked 2 weeks ago because we could not be as intimate as before because one of my friend came to my place for vacation. During those two weeks I could feel more things for my love, I was dreaming about the time we would be able to be together again, just me and him, dreaming about a kiss etc… What is it? It seems that this are symptoms for false love…But I love him

    2) Also I am really confused sometimes with man-woman friendships. How would you define man-woman friendship versus man-woman loving relationship? Because you don’t feel butterfly for one of your friends, you do stuff for them too etc..

    3) If one day a woman gets butterflies when she sees a man in the street and gets really excited about him…What is it?

    Thank you so much for your hard work and your wonderful website!!!

    PS: Sorry for the spelling mistakes but English is not my mother tongue, I am from Europe 🙂

  10. Thanks for this post, Sheryl! I am even more sure that I “real love” my boyfriend and that we have a “real connection” now. He is a wonderful man who is equally committed to keep our connection and growing our true love. He has endured a lot as I sorted through my anxious feelings, but with the help of a good counselor and your blog, we are getting engaged soon, and I am happier and more at peace than I ever thought possible!

  11. Hey there,

    I met this guy when we were around 16 – I suppose you could say at that point it was a movie-kind of love. We spent all our time together even though we never did ‘couple stuff’ like kissing etc. He was always upfront about declaring his feelings to me, and I grew up not believing there could be anything like love – I come from a culture where it is still scandalous to have a relationship or fall in love and declare it. I suppose when it happened, I was unprepared and scared. Anyway, as many high school love stories go, this one, too, fell apart. We blamed the usual distance, costs of calling each other, etc. It’s been 12 years since then and we have stayed in touch through EMails, social networking and phone calls. He has moved to a couple of relationships since then – I don’t blame him nor am I jealous of him. However, I have never been in a relationship since then – I have had guys interested in me – but I always stopped myself from saying yes. Over the past couple of years, I have wondered if it is because I don’t see myself with anyone else. Thus, I have gone through many mental sessions of whether it’s real love vs infatuation, do I miss him or miss the idea of him, am I just not letting go and convincing myself that he will come back?
    I have been lonely for a while, but I still can’t consider a relationship with anyone else. I am not fantasising – I do know that even if he comes back, I’d have to fight to be with him, convince our parents, face issues with money as he is a musician and I don’t have a stable career yet. I know we’ll have our disagreements and fights in the long run, but I do believe that if love can make a difference to my life, it would be with him.
    When I consider that he might not come back, I actually do see myself pursuing my academic ambitions, probably dating for companionship and not sex, and possibly adopting a child much later in the future when I am more stable and can provide an appropriate atmosphere for the child .
    I know he loves me, he told me as recently as a year ago – but I also think he means it as someone who cares a lot and still has happy memories of us, but doesn’t necessarily want to go back to what we were or start something new.
    Any insight you can offer me would be really appreciated.

  12. Wow.. This is a heartbreaker after my honest, supportive and wonderful partner left me because he didn’t feel ‘romantic feelings’ for me. Despite caring so deeply for me, respecting me, being wildly attracted to me and seeing me as his best friend, this wasn’t enough. I guess he was not ready to ‘choose’ love, and he has been totally swept away by our false cultural narrative of romantic love. He believed that being in love with someone meant butterflies every time they walked in the room, and that if he ever felt like he was calling me out of routine or obligation rather than an undeniable romantic desire to do so, it was because he wasn’t in love. Sad for me and for him. I hope he doesn’t miss out too much in life because of these expectations. Continue to send out your message, it is clearly needed!

    • That’s very sad, Leanne, and, unfortunately, an all-too common story. I’m so sorry for your heartbreak.

  13. Hello Sheryl,

    This post could not have come at a better time.

    I have been dating my boyfriend for one year and 8 months now, we are both 21 years old. Back in February, I noticed the ending of the honeymoon phase. For 11 months now… I have been struggling with it, not accepting it. This post has really helped me, but why do I still feel scared and anxious? This is my first serious relationship, and I see a real future with my boyfriend. How do I simply “choose” love, when I always think that I should outright FEEL it. I am having a hard time transitioning, and is it normal for the transition period to have lasted 11 months? Thank you for your input.

    • Yes it can take a long time to grieve the old definition of love and accept the new one.


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