Infatuation vs. Love: How to Tell the Difference So You Don't Waste Time or Energy on a Bad Thing


There’s a fine line between love and infatuation. According to Robert J. Sternberg’s theory of love, infatuation is rooted in passion; you’re wildly attracted to the person, you’re excited to see them, the sex is great, etc. Meanwhile, romantic love is rooted in both passion and intimacy; you have all the ingredients of infatuation, coupled with friendship, trust, support, etc.

Since infatuation is literally part of love, it might be hard to distinguish between the two—especially if you’re not sure you’ve ever been fully in love. But here are some signs to piece the feelings apart, and what I consistently stress to my coaching clients when they’re trying to figure out what’s going on—love vs. infatuation—in a given relationship. 

If you badly crave being next to the’s infatuation

I can typically tell when one of my clients is infatuated. She can’t stop smiling; she’s talking a ton about the sex; she’s giddy. And that’s great! It’s just not everything. Infatuation is rooted in passion, excitement and lust. It’s intoxicating. You might crave to be physically near the person as much as you can. But if they wouldn’t be your first call if you had a bad day, or you are afraid of burdening them with a problem, it probably hasn’t evolved into love yet. 

If you feel safe around the person…it’s love

Love is patient, love is kind…you know the adage. With love, you feel completely supported. You feel able to open up about your deepest dreams and your darkest fears. When you’re with them, you truly feel their presence—not like they’re thinking about work, or might be talking to someone else online—and that presence is a comfort. A lot of clients, who are in love, will tell me they feel like everything is going to be OK when their partner is around. That is a very good sign.

If you overthink the relationship, or wonder what they’re feeling…it’s infatuation

Love is two-sided. Infatuation, on the other hand, is frequently one-sided. If you’re infatuated, you might spend a lot of your time wondering about whether or not they’re super into you or committed to you. You might overthink the little things, like what to text them in the middle of a day, when they haven’t texted you yet. You might feel constantly insecure about whether or not they’re going to leave. If the tenor of your relationship is uncertainty, it’s not yet love.

If you know you could count on them in a crisis…it’s love

Let’s say your car broke down, or you found out a loved one was in the hospital. Would you call the person in question? If the answer is yes, and you know you’d be greeted with warm, supportive, comforting gestures, it’s love. If you feel like a crisis would be “too much” for the person to handle, it is likely infatuation. Love has depth to it, and it isn’t scared away by problems. Love stays.

If your relationship is predominantly physical…it’s infatuation

Think about the time you’re spending with the person you’re seeing. Is sex a massive component of it? Would you (or they) rather hook up than go out? Do you spend time talking after you get physical, or does it feel hard to talk about “real things” outside the bedroom? Do you go on dates, meet friends, meet family, share in hobbies? Or must sex always be involved in all your get-togethers? Sex is great and important in any romantic relationship. But with love, it doesn’t feel like the central focus. It feels like a supplemental, exciting way to show you love your partner. When searching for the fine line, I always ask my clients whether sex is the main course or the side dish.

If your relationship is both sex + friendship…it’s love 

We’ve all dated someone where we feel we could be close friends, but there’s no spark. The flip side of that is dating someone you can’t stop thinking about and can’t stop dreaming about, but there’s no emotional side to your relationship. What’s that phrase about love being friendship lit on fire? It is! With Sternberg’s theory, infatuation and passion is typically complemented by friendship and intimacy. So, if you don’t have both, you don’t have romantic love.

What to do if you’re experiencing infatuation

I want to stress that infatuation is not a bad thing; it’s the starting point for a lot of great relationships. But both parties have to “do the work” to get to a place of love, and really be open to falling. If you’re not both on the same page, it will never evolve. If you want love, not just lust, then you just have to put the effort in. 

1. Prioritize date nights, not sex nights

If your emotional relationship hasn’t evolved, take yourself out of an environment (aka at home) where you’ll be too tempted to get busy. Take a walk or go on a hike instead. Take a bottle of wine, and enjoy a picnic in the park. Go on a mini road trip together. Really put yourself in situations where conversation can evolve, and you can get to know each other.  

2. Ask probing questions

You need to get beyond the person’s day-to-day, and into the stuff of their dreams. If you’ve been dating for a while—at least a few months—you should feel free to ask where they see their life going, if they want kids, if they envision getting married one day, if they want to travel, what kind of life they want to have. This is how you see if you’re evolving in the same direction, and if you can complement each other along the way. It’s shocking to me how many people don’t ask the deeper questions, and end up wasting time with someone who isn’t in it for the same reasons (i.e. marriage, kids, commitment) that they are. 

3. Talk on the phone

When I was dating, a weird sign developed among every person who was seriously invested in building a relationship with me: They’d call me on the phone. Hearing someone’s voice and sharing stories verbally, even when you can’t be physically with the person, creates far more of a bond and shows you’re committed to the work. It takes ten seconds to send a text; it takes set-aside time to make a phone call. Prioritize it, and command it from your partner. 

If you’re looking for love, don’t waste time on someone who is all about infatuation. Make sure you’re seeking out, creating and fine-tuning a friendship right alongside the passion you feel for them.

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