You’re standing alone in a crowded room and then BAM: You lock eyes with an attractive individual. For a moment, time slows down and the whole world stops spinning. You feel those ever-familiar butterflies in your gut and your whole body is flushed with excitement. And when you lock eyes with this person, there’s that instant familiar connection, like somehow you’ve seen them somewhere else before.
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Whether you strike up a conversation with this person or you pass by each other like two long lost ships in the night, moments like this call back to that time-honored tradition of love at first sight that you see in movies and read about in fairy tales.
But unlike those multimedia moments that get our hearts percolating, love at first sight doesn’t always lead to a real, long-lasting relationship. In some cases, it can be an exciting fresh start to a new romantic endeavor, but when it doesn’t work out the way we’d hoped, it can leave us feeling a bit lost.
Psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, explains exactly what’s happening with your body when you experience love at first sight and some of the ways those first, fleeting moments can blossom into something real given the right amount of care.
What is love at first sight?
Love at first sight describes the moment in which you feel an instant connection with someone. The subject of many songs, TV shows, movies and popular literature, love at first sight is a moment characterized by intense longing and extreme attraction to another person with little to no reasoning behind it.
When you experience love at first sight, it happens within seconds, often unexpectedly, at just the mere glimpse of the person you’re attracted to. And if you engage that person in conversation, your sense of attraction to them tends to increase exponentially. Many times, people refer to love at first sight as if it were like fireworks or sparks flying.
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the intensity of that experience,” says Dr. Albers.
Is love at first sight real?
Love can come at you fast, but is love at first sight really a sign that someone may be the soulmate you’ve been looking for? Dr. Albers says that while love at first sight is a real phenomenon, it may not actually be what we know as love in the long term.
Dr. Albers points to Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love as a good method to measure the type of love you’re experiencing. Sternberg’s theory proposes all relationships are fundamentally based on varying amounts of three key components: intimacy, passion and commitment.
“Love at first sight is the passion part of that triangle, but to have real, romantic love, you need to have all three of those components,” explains Dr. Albers. “Distinguishing love at first sight from actual love takes some reflection and time to think and piece apart if it’s going to be a lasting relationship or a fleeting attraction. At the heart of it, love may not be the right term, but it is infatuation.”
So, why do we so often hear successful couples say it was love at first sight when they first met and chalk the rest up to history? Well, for starters, it may be because of a psychological behavior called the halo effect, where we tend to attribute more positive characteristics to people we think are attractive. Another reason may be because of selective memory bias and a couple’s innate desire to enhance the memory of their relationship.
“When people tell the story of how they met and say it was love at first sight, sometimes, they have selective memory bias,” notes Dr. Albers. “They’re rewriting the story to fit that description or that self-fulfilling prophecy of believing that’s how you fall in love.”
And like with any self-fulfilling prophecy, if you believe that’s how you’re supposed to fall in love and you take actions to validate that belief, in hindsight, it becomes a perpetual cycle that indeed fits that theatrical romantic narrative you’ve been longing for.
“If you experience love at first sight, it’s OK to enjoy it. Falling in love at first sight at least once can be life-changing,” says Dr. Albers. “When you personally experience the intensity of these emotions, it forever gives you a deeper appreciation for passion and connection.”
What causes love at first sight?
Contrary to fairy tales, love has very little to do with your heart and everything to do with your brain and its various processes. For starters, your prefrontal cortex is a region of your brain that’s responsible for executive functions like problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making.
“Our prefrontal cortex makes many snap decisions with minimal information throughout the day and acknowledging love at first sight is one of those decisions,” says Dr. Albers. “You see someone and, within seconds, you know if you are attracted to them.”
Studies show that when you make physical and psychological judgments based on someone’s appearance and behavior, different parts of your brain are activated. And knowing you’re attracted to someone comes with a full-body rush of physical and emotional symptoms caused by a surge of dopamine (that feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (a hormone that plays a role in sexual arousal, romantic attachment and bonding).
“You may not have a genuine or real connection and you don’t know this person on a deeper level, but the chemical reaction in your body is sending you a sense of closeness,” says Dr. Albers. “It is an immediate jolt and an emotional high.”
Some studies suggest that romantic love may be a motivational system rather than an emotion, similar to the way we develop an addiction. When our brains are flooded with that feeling of pleasure, we want more of it in order to maintain that emotional high.
“Unfortunately, we can’t really trust that flood of feel-good chemicals because it’s based on that initial surge or rush throughout the body instead of hard facts that we know about this other person,” says Dr. Albers.
What does love at first sight feel like?
Love at first sight feels different for everyone, but the common denominator seems to be an intense rush of emotion paired with physical characteristics. Signs you’re experiencing love at first sight may include:
- Increased heart rate.
- Mild shortness of breath.
- Feeling warm, flushed or feverish.
- Feelings of nausea or nervousness (commonly referred to as having “butterflies in your stomach.”)
- Hyperfocusing on a person of interest.
- Difficulty sleeping.
- Changes to your diet or daily routine.
“We meet so many people in a day, and people come and go into our consciousness, but that love at first sight sticks to your brain,” notes Dr. Albers. “Sometimes, it’s like a magnet. It can be hard to let go of.”
So you’re in love, now what?
“Love at first sight is a great place to start because that means there is an attraction, but it has to go further than that,” states Dr. Albers.
About 60% of individuals experience love at first sight, and if you’ve experienced it once, you’re more likely to experience it again. Rather than get caught up in the excitement of it all just to feel deflated when it leads nowhere fast, Dr. Albers suggests paying attention to whether or not you develop any patterns of behavior. If you tend to fall in love at first sight often, take a step back and try to evaluate the situation in the moment as it’s happening. It’s possible this happens to you often because of your attachment style.
“People who have love at first sight sometimes have an anxious attachment style. They want an instant connection with someone to help reduce their anxiety,” explains Dr. Albers. “You want to consider whether this is a pattern for you and if this is a sign of your attachment style.”
Other things you can do include:
Identify your values
Building a relationship is a lot like building a house. Before you can put up walls and open the door, you have to build a solid foundation. You can do this by identifying the values that are important to you. Do you want to start a family and have kids someday? Would you rather be exclusive or in an open relationship? And how important are finances and career goals?
“A beautiful way to start a relationship is to be mindful of when you feel that attraction to someone, to notice it and to pay attention to it. But then, it’s important to slow down to get to know the individual beyond that physical attraction to see if you have similar hobbies, if you have things in common and make sure that your values are the same or similar,” says Dr. Albers. “Making sure those things align are what create a really solid foundation.”
And if you don’t know where to start, or you have difficulty parsing out details about what you value, you can always create a list of important characteristics you’re looking for.
“Sometimes, a good conscious exercise is to make a list for yourself of the essential things that you must align with in a relationship and things that you’re OK with having differences on or things you’re willing to compromise,” she adds. “If something is critical to you, it’s important to have those conversations early on.”
Once you identify what you’re looking for, standing your ground and setting expectations can be key for weeding out anyone who doesn’t respect your healthy boundaries. But it’s also important to set expectations for yourself. Translation: If you’re a hopeless romantic, aim for a cinematic love but be prepared for a less theatrical presentation.
“In fairy tales and movies, love at first sight always magically works out. In real life, that may or may not be the case,” says Dr. Albers. “Setting expectations that it could turn into a romantic love story but it may not be perfect along the way is a good thing to do.”
Don’t rush in
Wise men say only fools rush in, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Red flags don’t always rear their ugly heads from the outset, especially if they’re attached to toxic behavioral patterns. It takes time to get to know someone and discover what they have to offer. Of course, some folks take less time to figure it out than others, but there should be no rush to walk down the aisle if you really want to see a long-lasting relationship come to fruition.
“Don’t make any big decisions right away,” advises Dr. Albers. “Slow it down and really get to know each other before you move in together or get engaged.”
Talk to a therapist
If your experience with love at first sight isn’t particularly positive, or you find yourself caught in a cyclical pattern of falling in and out of love quickly, a therapist can help.
“It can also be helpful to work with a therapist to understand your conception of love and your expectations and how you fall in love,” suggests Dr. Albers. “If you’ve had a love at first sight experience and it doesn’t work out and you feel confused or heartbroken and you’re at a loss for why it didn’t work out, talking to a therapist can help you peel back the layers of what’s happening and what’s not working.”