What does falling in love really mean?

Let me define falling in love as well as I can, so we know what we are talking about. One person finds himself/herself excited and preoccupied with someone else and desirous of touching that person and being with that person as much as possible. That strong physical attraction usually includes sexual feelings. There is a frequent desire to share thoughts and experiences, even trivial experiences. It is a headlong, pleasurable feeling that, everyone seems to agree, colors judgment so that the loved person is not seen clearly. Vague fantasies of a dramatic nature enter into the lover’s thoughts. The rest of life fades a little behind this dramatic daydream. It is as if there is a magnetic attraction to the other person that transcends rational thought. It is so powerful that, like other powerful feelings, such as grief, it seems to the affected person that it will last forever. It is the sort of thing people write songs about.

People can fall in love over time, but most often it is sudden, developing quickly. It is called falling in love because it seems beyond control—a little like falling down. Or tripping over something. It often comes at the wrong time, people tell me, and sometimes plainly with the wrong sort of person. It is not a voluntary process.

One ordinarily thinks of romantic love as starting quickly, but developing further over time during a courtship that may last months. At the other extreme, there is the phenomenon of love at first sight. I have heard men and women speak of this so frequently that I know that it exists. But most of the time, even then, falling in love is not literally at first sight.

Let me report one example of this experience:

A man came to a party and immediately noticed a woman at the other end of the room. She was talking animatedly with a group of other young people. She was dressed nicely. And she laughed in a certain kind of way. When I spoke later on to that man, he did not spontaneously describe her further, but when I asked, it turned out he had noticed other things about her. She moved in a certain way, and listened to the others she was talking to in a certain way. He felt she was even standing in a certain, attractive way. He thought, watching her from across the room, that she looked like she had gone to an Ivy-league college—judging from her dress and make-up. Growing impatient with me, he summed it all up. “She looked wonderful, and I fell in love with her right away.”

But then he talked to her, at first with other people present, and then alone—until the early hours of the following morning. It was only then, when he stopped to think about it, that he decided he had fallen in love with her at first sight. I think that had they not found each other interesting and exciting, he would have forgotten that he was attracted to her initially.

Still, it is true that it is possible to learn something about someone simply by watching from across the room. The individual who is being observed can be seen, for example, to be formally dressed, or informally. Whether that person stands stiffly or is relaxed, or is neatly groomed, or careless, or whether he/she is demure, or talkative, or attentive, or any of a hundred different ways of being, can be discerned in a moment from across the room. Even aspects of personality can be judged to be one way or another. I think it may be possible to make a guess about how educated that person is, how self-confident he/she is, and a host of other aspects of background and personality, all of which are important. Each way someone appears to be will appeal to one person and not another.

There have been other times when both men and women have told me that they fell in love at first sight, usually giving me no more detail than that the other person seemed especially attractive to them. I was unable to discover exactly what they thought was appealing, and they did not know either. Usually the objects of their admiration were not seen by others as remarkably attractive. Plainly, such things are a matter of taste. Why someone is drawn strongly to a particular person and another is not is an imponderable. I assume that those inclinations are a reflection of a great many experiences in the past. I assume those experiences are imbedded somewhere in memory—in other words in the unconscious. But I have no evidence of this one way or the other.

But falling in love can happen even faster.

One young man was travelling on a subway when an attractive woman, also young, sat next to him. He picked up something she dropped. They smiled at each other. They said hello. They even spoke for a few minutes. She was a student, she told him. He said something. He watched her, distracted by how shy, but charming, she was. But then she stood up. “This is my stop,” she told him. The doors of the subway opened. She stood at the door and looked back at him, and hesitated; and then she turned and left. And the doors closed behind her.

He thought to himself right away that, of course, he should have left the subway with her. He should have asked for her telephone number. He should have done something. But it was too late. He took that subway over and over again at that same time trying to meet her again; but he never did. He remembered this incident for years. He dreamed on occasion of this girl.

A second man was walking along a street in Manhattan when a beautiful woman walked by. She was in a naval uniform. She walked away. He never saw her again, but he thought of her frequently.

Perhaps you think that these are not examples of falling in love. They were passing encounters, of no substance. There was no relationship between the men and the women who fascinated them. But a careful reading of the definition of falling in love that I give above makes no mention of a relationship. The feelings these two men had were the same as those others who fell in love at first sight.

By that looser standard, one may speak of adolescent girls falling in love with rock singers. I do not think it is fair, or accurate, to dismiss their feelings because they are young. It is true that their love is not likely to last—but neither are other kinds of love.

Similarly, there are accounts of men and women falling in love with movie stars. My high school teacher, an otherwise sober and mature person, had a picture of Katherine Hepburn on his desk. I, myself, remember carrying a picture of a very young Elizabeth Taylor in my wallet. There was a movie made, “Laura,” in which a detective is portrayed seriously as falling in love with a picture—that is, a woman portrayed in the picture. I had a patient who spoke to me repeatedly of being attracted to a newscaster on a business channel. (I went out of my way to watch her program. She was attractive; but I did not find myself thinking of her during many of my waking moments as my patient did.) As an experiment, I asked him to look at her with the sound turned off, looking for clues to her attractiveness. Maybe it was her voice. But it was not.

There are cases where men and women have fallen in love and stalked people they had never met. One woman fell in love with a ball player by observing him from her seat in the stands. She came to public attention when she stabbed him “so that no one else could have him.”

Finally, I came across a situation where I thought falling in love had occurred with as little provocation and opportunity as possible. A theoretical limit had been reached. A patient of mine became enamored of a woman in a photograph. That was all he knew of her. She appeared in an advertisement in a scientific journal. She was wearing laboratory goggles. He carried the photo around with him.

I am embarrassed to admit that I suggested to him an experiment. I asked him to cover parts of the picture to determine if there was a single part– some irreducible essence of the girl– that appealed to him. I would not have suggested such a stupid idea except that a colleague and friend of mine had just published a book claiming that a person’s expression can be analyzed by dividing his/her face into quarters and “reading” each quarter separately—another stupid idea.

It turned out my patient thought the woman in the photograph had especially beautiful eyes.

So, what does it take to fall in love? Very little, obviously. I think it is also obvious that falling in love has little to do with the person who is loved. It has to do with the person who is falling in love. Even then, it is a matter of timing and circumstances. Two people may meet each other–and pass by each other, only to meet again later on and fall in love—but beyond that it cannot be explained. Certainly, it can be inconvenient. An educated person can fall in love with someone who is not. Movies have been written about this also.  Why someone is vulnerable to falling in love and why they fall in love with the particular person they do is unknown.

(c) Fredric Neuman 2013

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Fred Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center. After serving as Associate Director for 21 years, Dr. Neuman assumed the directorship in 1994. Educated at Princeton University and the NYU College of Medicine, Dr. Neuman specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is the author of the following books: Caring: Home Treatment for the Emotionally Disturbed, Fighting Fear: An Eight Week Guide to Treating Your Own Phobias, Worried Sick?: The Exaggerated Fear of Physical Illness, and Worried Sick? The Workbook. Dr. Neuman is also the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the efficacy of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Neuman is a member of the American Psychiatric Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Science. Dr. Neuman is also the author of the following novels: "The Seclusion Room," Viking Press. "Maneuvers" Dial Press "Come One, Come All," "The Wicked Son," "Detroit Tom and His Gang" "Superpowers." All these books are available from Amazon.


  1. Imagination plays a big part of falling in love, as does idealization. Often we’re projecting positive traits of family members, or even ourselves, onto our lover. I would agree that it has little to do with love, which is based on knowing a person and takes time, and is why so many couples become disillusioned with “love” after six months when they start to know the real person. Of course, most daters are on their best behavior and overtly or subtly attempt to seduce one another by the way they dress, please, and get involved with in each other’s interests, usually only temporarily. Codependents then try to change their partner back into the one they idealized when they met.
    Darlene Lancer, JD. LMFT
    Author of Codependency for Dummies