Ask anyone if love is complicated, and there’s a good chance they’ll probably say, “yes,” or “sometimes” at the very least.
Part of love’s complications stem from the fact that it can be challenging when the person you love doesn’t feel the same way — or when they do, but your relationship fails to take off.
Love can also complicate life because it takes different forms, and you might not immediately recognize which type of love you’re feeling.
Deciphering your feelings and trying to identify exactly which type of love you feel — while tight in its grip — might not be the easiest task, but we’re here to help.
Keep reading to learn more about how to tell these related, but still uniquely different, experiences apart.
Love doesn’t always look the same.
Sometimes, it progresses through specific stages.
The first flicker of love, when you fall head over heels for someone, often seems more like infatuation, complete with plenty of excitement and nervousness.
And if it’s mutual? The euphoric bliss many people experience can keep you and your partner completely wrapped up in each other. Over time, that just-fell-in-love feeling often transforms into something less charged, but more stable and lasting.
Higher-than-usual levels of hormones, like
But feelings of love don’t always follow a linear path.
What does being in love mean?
Maybe you fall for someone you just met, but you eventually realize the first blush of love has tinted your view. Once the first intensity fades, your feelings begin to wither without taking root.
You can also develop romantic love without experiencing euphoric, heart-pounding excitement. Someone who falls for their best friend, for example, might notice their long-standing platonic love become more romantic and sexually charged almost overnight.
And, of course, the love you feel for friends, or platonic love, can still run pretty deep — even though it doesn’t involve any romantic or sexual attraction.
People often talk about love as if everyone experiences it in the same way, but life experiences and relationship history can alter the course of “typical” romantic attraction.
If you’ve experienced relationship abuse or betrayal, you might feel cautious about letting your guard down again. This could temper the feelings of euphoria and impulsivity that often accompany the first stages of love.
Your thoughts return to them regularly
Maybe you frequently think back to your last interaction or plan your next meeting. You want to tell them about your experiences every day: the great, the awful, and the ordinary.
If they’re having a hard time, you may worry about their difficulties and brainstorm ways to help.
When spending time with family and friends, you might talk about them a lot and imagine how much your loved ones will like them, too.
You feel safe with them
When you see them, you might notice your tension relaxes, in much the same way as it does when you return home after a long day.
It’s normal to want to protect yourself from pain. Feeling safe enough with someone to trust them with your personal weaknesses or vulnerabilities often suggests developing love.
Life feels more exciting
The rush of hormones associated with love can make everything seem more exciting, particularly when you know you’ll see them soon. Time might seem to fly by when you’re together and crawl like a turtle after they leave.
You might even notice renewed energy and interest in the mundane things you do every day. Folding laundry? Taking a walk? So much more fun when you’re in love (especially when they’re nearby).
You want to spend a lot of time together
Loving someone often means wanting to spend plenty of time with them, so you might find yourself craving their company more than ever before.
You might leave their company feeling somewhat unsatisfied, as if the time you spent together wasn’t enough.
You may not care much about what you do together, simply that you are together.
Another key sign? Your interest in spending time with them doesn’t depend on their mood or energy level. Even when they feel sad, cranky, or frustrated with life, you still want to show up and offer support.
You feel a little jealous of other people in their life
Jealousy is an emotion like any other. Generally speaking, it’s what you do with jealousy that matters. Talking about your feelings never hurts, but you might want to skip the digital snooping and social media stakeouts.
When you love someone, you might fixate on the other people they spend time with and wonder about their relationship with each other, or worry about potential threats to your love, such as an attractive co-worker they mention regularly or an old flame who’s still part of their life.
Generally speaking, these worries tend to fade as trust develops.
You feel compassion for them
When you’re in love with someone, you’ll start to develop strong compassion for them. The powerful urge to be connected to this person brings new aspects to your relationship, such as emotional or physical intimacy, passion, and a desire to know everything about them, and be known by them in return.
You may also find yourself wanting to take care of or be cared for by your partner.
When you love someone platonically, you might notice some basic signs of love.
You might also:
- have similar interests, values, and goals
- discuss emotions and relationships you have with others
- support each other through difficulties
- enjoy spending time together
Embracing platonic love successfully requires you to set any romantic feelings aside. Loving platonically doesn’t mean simply waiting and hoping the person will fall in love with you someday.
Good friendship behaviors can help you maintain platonic love. For example:
- Communicate. Everyone has different communication needs, but you can maintain your closeness by calling or texting. When you do talk, try to spend at least as much time listening as you do sharing your own thoughts.
- Set boundaries. Some platonic friends may be perfectly fine spending the night at your place, hanging out at all hours, or discussing the sexual details of your other relationships. Others may reserve these activities for romantic partners. Talking through boundaries can help you avoid any miscommunication.
- Spend time together. Stay connected, even when you can’t physically see each other, by planning online chats, video game sessions, or virtual movie nights.
- Offer emotional support. Love and friendship can make it easier to weather life’s challenges. Show your love by checking in with a friend or asking, “What can I do to help?”
Loving someone romantically usually involves a desire for a many-faceted connection.
Maybe you find their looks appealing, but you mostly want to spend a lot of time with them because you value them as a whole person and want to develop a lasting emotional connection.
Try these tips to cultivate and maintain romantic love:
- Practice open communication. Relationships require open honesty to thrive. Sharing feelings, setting healthy boundaries, and discussing relationship goals early on increase your chances of a lasting relationship.
- Avoid getting swept away by lust. In the early days of love, you might dedicate a lot of time to thinking (and talking) about what you’ve already done between the sheets (or anywhere else) and fantasizing about future encounters. This is absolutely normal. Just make sure you’re working toward an emotional connection, too.
- Learn and grow together. If you want to make your love last, it’s essential to really get to know each other. This might mean discussing dreams and goals, sharing challenges and successes, and trying new things. You maintain your own identities, but you also develop a shared third unit: the relationship itself.
Romantic and platonic love are two different things, but many people consider them equally valuable.
Humans need connections to survive, generally speaking. Some people go through life without ever experiencing romantic or sexual attraction, and that’s OK. You can absolutely get the love you need from relationships with family and friends.
Others thrive with both friends and romantic partners in their lives. Perhaps you can’t imagine life without romance and pursue relationships in the hopes of finding the right partner or partners.
Your friends, however, remain part of your life even as partners come and go (often supporting you through breakups).
In short, platonic love might not fulfill the same needs as romantic love for everyone, but it’s equally valuable and equally worth pursuing.
Friendship isn’t a silver medal or a consolation prize. In fact, some types of platonic love may prove more stable and secure than romantic love.
If you’re experiencing confusing new feelings, you might have some uncertainty about how to handle them.
Falling for a friend, for example, can feel pretty terrifying. You think you could have a fantastic romance, but what if you end up losing the friendship instead?
Even when you love someone you know less well, you might wonder what your feelings mean. Do you truly want to develop a relationship? Simply get closer? Or are your feelings just lust-driven?
Asking yourself the following questions can yield some insight:
- Which types of connections do I find most appealing? Emotional, physical, or a combination of both, for example.
- Can I see myself sharing my life with this person?
- Do I want to experience different types of intimacy with them? Or do I just want more of what we already have?
- Is a general desire for physical intimacy complicating my platonic love for them?
- Do I actually desire romantic love, or is it something I’m pursuing because people think I should?
A sudden change in attraction or existing feelings for someone can pull the rug out from under you.
Not sure about the best way forward? You have a few options:
Talk about it
You can’t pursue any type of relationship until they know how you feel. If you’re already friends, think back to how your friendship developed. You probably bonded over shared interests and one (or both) of you expressed the desire to spend more time together. Romantic relationships often develop similarly.
Preparing to share your feelings often involves some preparation for potential rejection. If you don’t feel comfortable telling them in person, try a letter, but avoid email or text.
Once you feel ready, ask if they can set aside some time to talk instead of suddenly dropping it into casual conversation. Choose a time when the two of you have some privacy.
Don’t forget to offer them space to sort through their own feelings, especially if you already have a platonic relationship. It may take time for them to evaluate and come to terms with their own feelings.
Consider other factors
Before you confess your love, take a careful look at the situation. You can’t help who you fall for, but you can help how you choose to handle your feelings:
- Do they already have a partner? If so, you may want to hold off on sharing your love.
- Are they a good friend’s ex? Proceed with caution — particularly if the breakup hurt your friend or the relationship ended badly.
- Has your friendship given you insight into bad behaviors? Maybe they lie to partners, ghost dates, or see multiple partners without openly discussing non-monogamy. People can change, yes, and it’s tempting to believe your friendship and love will inspire that change. Just be sure to consider potential outcomes for your friendship if this doesn’t happen the way you envision.
Let it lie
Perhaps you decide you’d rather cherish your friendship than take a chance on anything more. That’s entirely your choice. Remember: platonic love offers many of the same benefits as romantic love, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
Just allow yourself the time and space to fully address your feelings and come to terms with them. Accepting them completely can make it easier to let them go. Try spending a little less time with that person for now, or avoid hanging out one-on-one.
If you feel lonely or in need of physical intimacy, dating others may offer a way to create new connections and ease feelings of longing.
What if your feelings are unrequited?
It’s natural to hope the person you love returns your feelings, but romance doesn’t always play out as planned. Recognizing love sometimes requires you to accept that it may not flourish as you wish.
“If you love someone, let them go,” really does emphasize one key component of love. True, compassionate love means wanting those you love to find happiness and contentment, even when those needs conflict with what you want for yourself.
Resist the temptation to press your case by showing them what a great partner you’d make, since this will likely only damage your existing relationship.
Instead, show respect by honoring their feelings and giving them any space they ask for. Make it clear you intend to go forward by maintaining your platonic friendship. This can help ease any awkwardness that might come up.
Attraction and affection can change and grow over time, and people feel and show love in many ways.
Any type of emotional commitment can fulfill the human need for connection, provided you make the effort to sustain it.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.