Love tends to be somewhat complicated. Most people would probably agree, in fact, that even “complicated” is putting it mildly.
Even the experience of falling in love can mean different things to different people — or at different points in your life. If you’ve fallen in love before, you might have some firsthand knowledge of its complexities. You might even find it a slippery thing to define, no matter how many times you’ve experienced it.
Is it that first rush of powerful attraction that leaves you dizzy, breathless, and feeling like you’re about to literally fall over? That spark of absolute certainty that you’ve finally met your match? That moment when you can no longer imagine a life without that person in it?
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s no simple answer.
There isn’t a “normal” amount of time
If you already know that people typically don’t fall in love at exactly the same time, in exactly the same way, it may not surprise you to learn that researchers find it somewhat challenging to pinpoint the time it takes to fall in love.
Basically, it’s tough to measure a process that doesn’t fall within any defined parameters. There’s no set test that can determine whether you’re in love or not. You might not even know with any certainty exactly what your own feelings mean.
But researchers have tried to measure how long it takes people to feel like confessing their love. Using this as a litmus test for falling in love makes sense, when you think about it.
You might choose to wait before saying those “three little words” but chances are, you wouldn’t start to consider saying them unless you actually had started to fall for someone.
A 6-part study published in 2011 looked at various aspects of commitment in romantic relationships.
In one experiment, researchers asked a total of 111 university students (45 female, 66 male) two questions about their current or most recently ended romantic relationship:
- Who confessed their love first?
- About how long did it take before you started to consider saying you were in love?
The results suggest that it took male participants just over 97 days, on average, to consider sharing their feelings. Female participants reported taking more time to think about ‘fessing up: nearly 139 days, on average.
Various other surveys conducted by dating sites have found similar results, suggesting that it generally takes at least a few months to fall in love, regardless of gender.
Of course, gender goes beyond the male-female binary reflected in these studies and surveys.
Life experiences and social expectations around gender roles can absolutely play a part in the amount of time it takes you to confess your love.
But your actual gender, wherever it falls on the spectrum, may have little to do with the act of falling in love itself.
Understanding “love at first sight”
Romance novels, fairy tales, and romantic comedies would have you believe in the magic of chance encounters and serendipitous instant-love. Science suggests an alternate explanation: attraction at first sight.
Upon first meeting someone, you probably know next to nothing about their personality traits, ability to commit, or typical relationship behavior — yes, all those factors that play a major part in sustaining long-term love.
You don’t have much more to go on than physical appearance, in fact, and 2017 research supports the idea that most reports of “love at first sight” stem from that first flash of attraction.
Study authors also suggest some partners might put a more romantic spin on their connection by remembering that early spark of desire as love.
What falling in love can feel like
So, we’ve established that you can’t use time to reliably predict when you might fall in love. Then how can you tell when it actually happens?
Most people agree that it usually involves some of the following:
- A burst of energy and excitement. You might describe this as feeling “on top of the world.”
- A sense of newness. Your day-to-day routine might feel revitalized, brighter, or more interesting.
- Difficulty focusing on anything else. Most of your waking moments, plus plenty of your dreaming ones, center on memories of your past encounters and plans for future meetings.
- A desire to spend as much time together as possible. You don’t even care what you do together. Run errands? Scrub floors? Anything sounds fun when they’re around.
- Interest in everything about them. You want to learn everything you possibly can — favorite foods, dreams and goals, and secret fears, not to mention anything you might have in common.
- Feelings of attachment. Your bond isn’t just physical, though great chemistry might factor in. You also feel a strong emotional connection.
- A sense of security. You don’t just feel physically safe around them. You also know you can open up about your deepest, most private thoughts and feelings — and trust them to understand and respect those emotions.
Intrigued? Learn more about the key signs of falling in love here.
Common “stages” you might recognize
Researchers have identified three main stages of romantic love.
This stage has a lot to do with sexual desire. You can thank your impulse to propagate the human species for that.
On a more chemical level, the hormones estrogen and testosterone (present in varying levels in people of every gender) help boost libido and prompt the urge to get physical. That’s one good explanation as to why the early weeks of a relationship often involve plenty of physical intimacy.
This stage can also involve feelings of lust and desire, but it goes a little deeper.
As attraction takes root and blooms, your brain produces higher levels of different hormones, namely dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals can boost energy levels and leave you with a sense of giddy bliss — and sometimes, feelings of jealousy and a need to fiercely protect a partner and your relationship.
This euphoric state can even begin to affect other body processes, like sleep and appetite.
Once your attraction stabilizes, it can eventually transform into long-term attachment. The hormones oxytocin (aka “the love hormone”) and vasopressin take the leading roles here.
This stage tends to prompt the desire to form lasting bonds and nurture your existing attraction. Here, you might make a conscious choice to develop your feelings of love for someone who feels right for you, instead of simply dancing to the tune of lust and attraction.
Talking about what you want with your partner(s)
If you tend to fall in love pretty easily, saying “I love you” may not feel terribly monumental. You recognize the feelings when they come up, so you share them with a partner because, well, why not?
Yet sometimes those three words represent an enormous leap of faith and trust. You want a partner to respond in kind, and you don’t know what you’ll do if they don’t return your love.
In either scenario, a confession of love is always a great place to hit “pause” and have an open conversation about what you want from each other.
Questions to explore together
What do you want from the relationship? Do you prefer to keep having fun and see where it goes? Or talk about a longer-term commitment?
How do you define its terms and boundaries? These might include things like your need for personal space or behaviors you don’t feel comfortable with, like flirting or spending one-on-one time with an ex.
Do you have similar relationship goals? It never hurts to share your thoughts on things like cohabitation, marriage, and children before things get more serious.
Are you compatible on a basic level? While you don’t need to agree on everything, it can still help to discuss key values and other things that really matter to you before working to establish a deeper commitment.
These questions typically take some time to talk through, and it’s OK if you don’t have all the answers right away. Regular communication can help ensure you stay on the same page — plus make it easier to navigate any challenges that come up.
What if only one of you feels “in love”?
People fall in love at different rates, so one of you will probably fall in love first.
“In healthy relationships, it’s normal for partners to feel different levels of intensity and certainty in their feelings of love for each other,” says Dr. Melissa Estavillo, a Phoenix psychologist who specializes in relationship counseling.
She goes on to explain the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed if you don’t fall in love at the same time or have varying degrees of certainty about the relationship’s future.
The best way to handle the situation? She recommends getting more comfortable with sharing feelings honestly.
“Feeling more sure of the relationship shouldn’t be embarrassing or shameful,” she says. “Just be patient for your partner to develop these feelings in their own time.”
That said, it can also help to decide for yourself how long you’re willing to wait for a partner (or the object of your interest, if you aren’t already in a relationship) to reciprocate those feelings.
If you aren’t yet sure of your feelings
You think you’ve fallen in love, but you worry it might be too soon. After all, you just started dating a few months ago. Can you really love them already?
Maybe they confessed their love, but you don’t know exactly how you feel. Do you love them? Or just like them an awful lot?
Most people need at least a little time to sort out complicated romantic feelings. If you have a secure attachment style, Estavillo explains, you might be more likely to trust your gut, or your intuitive sense of the relationship.
Accepting your feelings as they come might prove more challenging when you have an insecure attachment. Estavillo explains that an anxious-insecure attachment can mean you:
- fall in love quickly
- consider yourself unlovable
- cling to relationships where you feel loved or have hopes of being loved
An avoidant attachment style can sometimes develop as an outcome of trauma or emotional neglect. With an avoidant attachment style, you might:
- doubt your feelings
- find it tough to trust others
- struggle to share vulnerabilities
- fear further hurt
It’s true that love carries some risk of pain. Still, you can’t get its benefits — companionship, safety, belonging — without accepting that risk.
What’s more, feelings of love that rapidly burst into existence might stem from a deep-seated sense of insecurity, a driving need to be loved by someone, anyone.
The bonds of early childhood may seem like ancient history, but attachment issues usually continue to resurface in your relationships until you make a dedicated effort to address them.
The good news? You absolutely can learn to create healthier, more secure attachments.
Tips for moving forward
You know you do want to fall in love, just not too quickly. So what’s a good middle ground to effectively build intimacy?
Generally speaking, this means letting love bud and flower naturally instead of forcing it. Nurture new love with:
- open communication
- clear boundaries
- shared vulnerabilities
If you find it tough to trust a new partner, Estavillo recommends offering small opportunities to earn your trust:
- Pay attention to how they react to your boundaries.
- Consider how they respond when you share things that matter.
- Practice taking risks together.
When to call it quits
Dealing with a one-sided love situation? You might wonder how long to wait before moving on.
Keep in mind that it could take weeks, even months, before a partner (or you!) feels secure enough to say “I love you, too.”
Rather than using those words to assess the situation, it’s often more helpful to consider how you feel within the relationship.
Do you feel safe and secure, comfortable with your vulnerability, and excited and hopeful for the future? These signs suggest a healthy relationship, so there’s no harm in giving things time.
But what if you feel lonely, ashamed, or critical of yourself? Or believe you just have to do more to make them happy or relax your boundaries in order to “win” their love. In that case, the relationship probably isn’t serving your needs, since these signs don’t suggest healthy love.
The bottom line
Love doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone. It stands to reason, then, the amount of time it takes for your footing to falter as you tumble head over heels can vary pretty widely, too.
Instead of counting the months that pass, try focusing on how you feel around your partner. Love can exist and flourish without words, after all, and you might feel its presence before anyone gives it voice.