Maureen Gaffney: Why and how do we fall in love?

Love is one of the essential nutrients of life, psychological growth and happiness

What is this thing called love?

We can live without St Valentine’s Day. But we can’t survive without love, because love is nested in the need for closeness that is wired into the deep structure of the human psyche. When that need is thwarted, we are beset by loneliness and rejection, blocked, adrift, stagnating in our lives. When we have love, we become more ourselves, more energised, more together. Love constitutes one of the essential nutrients of life, for psychological growth, for optimal functioning, and not least, for happiness.

Not all love is the same. We make a clear distinction between the love for family and friends, and romantic love. Most people can name about nine people in the first category, but only one in the second. Although we may fall in love many times, only a tiny minority put more than one person in that category at any one time. But what binds the two kinds of love is intimacy. Intimacy is how love starts. The loss of intimacy is how it ends.

When people describe experiences of deep intimacy they recall definite things. A look, a gesture, a touch. A sudden quiet awareness of what feels like the other person’s essence. The silent disappearance of the normal boundary between you, feeling as one. And yet, paradoxically, having an acute awareness of your own and the other’s body, although not necessarily in a sexual way. And then, the feeling of anticipation, of excitement: Something important about yourself and the other is being revealed. We feel a physical release, muscles relaxing, letting go of a weight.


Unlike the intimacy with parents and friends, the intimacy of romantic love has a sense of destiny and surprise about it. We experience it as completely natural and spontaneous, yet destined, meant to happen. Relationships with family and friends may be full of surprises, but rarely have a sense of destiny about them. The great mystery of romantic love is how we ever get to that sense of destiny. The story of falling in love is the extraordinary journey we make, from the moment two relative strangers first set eyes on each other, to some of the most intense moments of intimacy in our lives that happens over three stages.

The First Stage: Attraction

The first move in any love is simply to get closer. But in romantic love, you just want to find the “one”. But long before you do, you have entered a magnetic field. Evolutionary forces are already steering you towards a potential mate with the biological markers of good genes, who will help you produce nice, healthy babies. Clear skin, bright eyes, lustrous hair, white teeth, a lively gait, and a certain smell or pheromone that may signal a complementary immune system.

So men assign great importance to anything about a woman’s body shape that signals fertility, especially the ratio of fat between the hips, waist, and buttocks, a ratio that, irrespective of weight, seems to be biologically linked to a woman’s sex-hormone profile, fertility, and health. Women, for their part, show a strong preference for the traditional masculine inverted V shape – wide shoulders tapering into a narrow waist, hips and tidy buttocks. They are sensitive to male body scents and aroused by them, and respond to subtle facial changes that reveal high levels of circulating testosterone. Displays of male dominance, his ability to command attention and influence other men, are also noted as signals he can compete with other men. But women are paying even closer attention to anther set of cues – his education, career aspirations, talents, and financial situation. These are read as signs of his status or likely future status, and his ability to support a family. After a first encounter, these are the details she remembers better than details about his physical features.

But it’s the 21st century, you say. Surely, we have gotten over the “signs of fertility and status” business in dating? Nope. These are still the findings, right up to and including studies on internet and speed-dating. Whether people are describing what they want in a potential mate, looking at photographs, on-line profiles, or considering the speed-date prospect in front of them, the pattern is the same. As women advance their own careers and prospects, there is some evidence that a man’s financial status may be moving down, the hierarchy of attractors – but not too far down, mind you.

What about people who are gay and lesbian?

When it comes to physical attraction and sexual desirability, gay men are attracted to much the same things in a man as women are, although they tend to put a higher value on physical strength and muscularity, how “built” the potential mate is, than most women do. For lesbian women, findings about what they find physically attractive in a mate are mixed. Some studies suggest that they are relatively less concerned about finding a romantic partner who conforms to the cultural ideal of female attractiveness, especially “thinness”. They are more attracted by a woman who looks strong, fit, and in good condition, a body that is healthy and works.

People like us…

Your brain is also busy steering you towards people who are very similar to yourself, its way to reduce risk by increasing the chances that the potential mate will be safe and predictable, and not an unknown quantity. That is why we are attracted to people who are similar to ourselves in background, values, education, interests. The social and work groups we belong to are our natural mating areas. We are drawn to people who share slight but significant physical similarity: in skin tone, eye colour, thickness of lips, width of nose, distance between eyes, length of ear lobes and middle finger, even lung volume. Who would have thought?

But, your brain is also concerned to widen the gene pool of potential mates and ensure genetic diversity. That is why we are also strongly attracted to novelty, to risk, even to danger. Difference excites us. We are attracted to someone who has personal qualities we don’t have, or would like to have. So we end up with a kind of Goldilocks strategy. We look for someone who is similar but not too similar, different but not too different. Passing the physical and Goldilocks tests only gets you through the first round of finding a mate. But once you are through these filters, you are now close enough to get choosy about their personal qualities.

What you say you want ... and what survives the first encounter

What we say we want in a partner is pretty consistent. Someone caring, kind, sincere, trustworthy, someone who likes and values me, is responsive to my needs, and has a sense of humour. But all bets are off when we actually encounter someone on a first date.

Of course, we keep our quality standards in mind, but now we pay more attention to context information, reinterpreting what we said we wanted in the context of the whole person we see before us. We wanted sincerity, but not this over-earnest version. We wanted educated and caring. But now, we have to decide how much we value each quality. Are we prepared to trade off less of one for more of the other?

And of course, we are also acutely aware that we are entering a dating marketplace, requiring an exquisitely fine calculation of our own “value” as a potential romantic partner – including the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. How fierce is the competition? How slim are the available pickings? How alone and desperate do we feel? Certain readjustments may be required in terms what we are looking for, at least temporarily.

But even if a particular candidate had all the qualities we wanted in a partner, most of us claim that we wouldn’t marry somebody we did not love. There has to be some stirring of romantic desire, we say, some ‘chemistry’, some feeling of excitement. And this hot emotional process affects our cold judgments of suitability. We mistakenly attribute our feelings to our rational judgments of their qualities. Flaws are overlooked, virtues exaggerated. Too late now. We are in love.

The Second Stage: Falling in Love

When people describe falling in love, the descriptions are remarkably similar, even if they sometimes sound a little deranged: a sense of consummate passion, obsession, and possession, swept up in something over which you have little control. You feel high because your body is releasing amphetamine-like substances that increase your physical and emotional arousal. There are mild hallucinogenic effects – an idealisation of the beloved as unique and special. A belief that this love will “last forever”, or endure into the known future. Sometimes the onset is sudden, more often for men than for women. For others, the process is more slow motion, a feeling that “something” has happened, some wave of feeling or energy is passing between the two of you, but it has yet to unfold.

There is a feeling of self-expansion, your heart “bursting” with love, your body with desire. You feel “puffed up” with pride – in the beloved, in yourself, in having this experience at all. You want to “fill up” your senses, and when you do, you feel that sense of complete satiation and intimacy rarely felt since infancy. Freud described it as the re-finding of a lost love, our ‘lost half’, a return to the blissful wholeness and union of early infancy.

Romantic love in its early stages activates not just the reward centres in the brain, but also the areas associated with obsessive-compulsive disorders. There is an intense emotional and sexual preoccupation with the beloved. You are fascinated by the curve of her lower lip, the slope of his nose, the way she rises from a chair, his distinctive gait, something you feel is their “essence”. You want to be with them, know everything about them.


At no other time in the human life course, outside of infancy, do you experience such physical intimacy. From early childhood on, physical intimacy with parents wanes. We learn the habits of normal social distancing – not staring too long at people, confining physical contact within strict cultural limits. This process is now reversed with the lover – prolonged gazing, kissing, nakedness, intimate touching, and sexual union. Belly-to-belly contact, your whole body touching theirs, vital in infant-parent bonding, plays the same role in romantic bonding.

Small talk, sharing formal information about ourselves gives way to more intimate sharing. Tone of voice becomes softer, more tender. Gradually words themselves become less important. We revert to private baby talk, to cooing. This shared security envelops the couple. All the hurly-burly is shut out. And for those precious moments, and as in early childhood, the rest of the world goes by, unnoticed. But there is method in the madness of falling in love. All of the above is designed simply as glue to keep you together long enough for an attachment to form, and that is designed to keep you together for the longer-term.

The Third Stage: Full-Blown Attachment

“Falling” in love eventually gives way to “being” in love. Your brain habituates to the cocktail of “in-love” chemicals. Oxytocin and vasopressin, the pair-bonding endorphins, take over. The dominant feelings now are security and contentment, a sense that “all is right with the world”. There is a growing sense of kinship, of companionship, a pattern of caring for each other – similar yet subtly different from what happens in friendships. This is the real beginning of attachment, of the ties that will bind us in love or in misery in a more long-term way.

This new attachment bond will be shaped by the kind of attachment you formed with your parents in childhood. Was their love your safe haven, your secure base, your bulwark against stress? And can you now do the same for someone else? Or was their love so compromised that you too are now compromised, searching in vain for a closeness that carries no risk? Settling for control instead of intimacy, or a repeat of the old pain, because any love is better than none at all. How all that plays out in will most strongly determine how your great romance will end. And that is a whole other story.

Dr Maureen Gaffney is a psychologist and the author of Flourishing (Penguin). This is an extract from her forthcoming book.