From the time we’re children, we’re introduced to “perfect” portrayals of love. (Looking at you, fairy tales and Disney movies.) But as we grow older, we see love isn’t as easy an equation as pop culture led us to believe. The truth is, love can be messy, and it can leave you confused about how exactly to navigate this overwhelming emotion that’s overtaken your head and heart.
But, for some, the biggest hurdle of all is not knowing what love feels like. Yes, feelings are subjective, and what love feels like to you may differ from person to person, but for many of us, love is a powerful emotion that can easily be mistaken for lust, companionship, or loneliness. But if you realize you are in love, it’s among the best feelings in the world.
“If you’re in love with someone who not only loves you back, but also is kind, respectful, trustworthy, and helps you become a better person, there is nothing more beautiful than being in love,” says relationship therapist Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski Jr.
One thing that makes identifying love so challenging is that pop culture also glamorizes unhealthy relationships, such as Ross and Rachel from Friends , and can lead us to mistake certain toxic dynamics for love. “If the person you’re in love with treats you poorly, those same feelings of love are dangerous,” Lewandowski adds.
What does real love feel like?
Lewandowski identified two main kinds of love, each with its own sensations: passionate love and companionate love. Again, feelings are subjective, but here’s the general overview of what to expect from each.
Passionate love feels like instant attraction with a bit of nervousness. It’s the “feeling of butterflies in your stomach,”Lewandowski says. “It’s an intense feeling of joy, that can also feel a bit unsure because it feels so strong.”
Aside from passionate love, you have longer-term love—also known as companionate love—which brings “feelings of calm support and stability, a feeling of steady ease, confidence, and comfort.” Companionate love is typically found in long-lasting relationships where each partner intimately trusts each other, and brings each other comfort and stability.
“For the benefit of long-term strong and healthy relationships, we focus too much on passionate love and not enough on companionate love,” he says. “That makes people believe they’re falling out of love when in reality their love is just shifting to become more companionate, which helps keep the relationship intact.”
BTW, companionate love isn’t just found in romantic relationships. The love you have for your friends may resemble companionate love because your close buddies bring you emotional intimacy and comfort.
Both varieties of love bring out strong emotions, though passionate love is the strongest of all and also the most dangerous because it can cloud your judgement. Since it occurs early in emotional relationships, it can bring a lot of highs and lows, especially if the passionate love does not develop further into companionate love, Lewandowski says.
“We often say in relationship science that passionate love is what gets you married, while companionate love is what keeps you married,” he says. “In fact, ‘expert couples’ married more than 15 years say the number-one secret to what keeps them together is ‘my partner is my best friend,’ a sure sign of companionate love.”