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Love tends to be somewhat complicated. Most people would probably agree, in fact, that even “complicated” is putting it mildly.

Even the act of falling in love can mean different things to different people — or at different points in your life. If you’ve fallen in love a time or two before, you might have some firsthand knowledge of its complexities. You might even find it a slippery thing to define, no matter how many times you’ve experienced it.

Is it that first rush of powerful attraction that leaves you dizzy, breathless, and feeling like you’re about to literally fall over? That spark of absolute certainty that you’ve finally met your match? That moment when you can no longer imagine a life without that person in it?

As you’ve probably guessed, there’s no simple answer.

If you already know people typically don’t fall in love at exactly the same time, in exactly the same way, it may not surprise you to learn that researchers find it somewhat challenging to pinpoint the time it takes to fall in love.

Basically, it’s tough to measure a process that doesn’t fall within any defined parameters. There’s no set test that can determine whether you’re in love or not. You might not even know with any certainty exactly what your own feelings mean.

But researchers have tried to measure how long it takes people to feel like confessing their love. Using this as a litmus test for falling in love makes sense, when you think about it.

You might choose to wait before saying those three (not-always-little) words, sure. But chances are, you wouldn’t start to consider saying them unless you actually had started to fall for someone.

A 6-part study published in 2011 looked at various aspects of commitment in romantic relationships.

In one experiment, researchers asked a total of 111 university students (45 female, 66 male) two questions about their current or most recently ended romantic relationship:

  • Who confessed their love first?
  • About how long did it take before you started to consider saying you were in love?

The results suggest it took male participants just over 97 days, on average, to consider sharing their feelings. Female participants reported taking more time to think about ‘fessing up: nearly 139 days, on average.

Various other surveys conducted by dating sites have found similar results, suggesting that it generally takes at least a few months to fall in love, regardless of gender.

Of course, gender goes beyond the male-female binary reflected in these studies and surveys.

Life experiences and social expectations around gender roles can absolutely play a part in the amount of time it takes you to confess your love.

But your actual gender, wherever it falls on the spectrum, may have little to do with the act of falling in love itself.

Romance novels, fairy tales, and romantic comedies would have you believe in the magic of chance encounters and serendipitous insta-love. Science suggests an alternate explanation: attraction at first sight.

Upon first meeting someone, you probably know next to nothing about their personality traits, ability to commit, or typical relationship behavior — you know, all those factors that play a major part in sustaining long-term love.

You don’t have much more to go on than physical appearance, in fact, and 2017 research supports the idea that most reports of “love at first sight” stem from that first flash of attraction.

Study authors also suggest some partners might put a more romantic spin on their connection by remembering that early spark of desire as love.

So, we’ve established you can’t use time to reliably predict when you might fall in love. Then how can you tell when it actually happens?

Most people agree it usually involves some of the following:

  • A burst of energy and excitement. You might describe this as feeling “on top of the world.”
  • A sense of newness. Your day-to-day routine might feel revitalized, brighter, or more interesting.
  • Difficulty focusing on anything else. Most of your waking moments, plus plenty of your dreaming ones, center on memories of your past encounters and plans for future meetings.
  • A desire to spend as much time together as possible. You don’t even care what you do together. Run errands? Scrub floors? Anything sounds fun when they’re around.
  • Interest in everything about them. You want to learn everything you possibly can — favorite foods, dreams and goals, and secret fears, not to mention anything you might have in common.
  • Feelings of attachment. Your bond isn’t just physical, though great chemistry might factor in. You also feel a strong emotional connection.
  • A sense of security. You don’t just feel physically safe around them. You also know you can open up about your deepest, most private thoughts and feelings — and trust them to understand and respect those emotions.

Intrigued? Learn more about the key signs of falling in love here.

Researchers have identified three main stages of romantic love.

Lust

This stage has a lot to do with sexual desire. You can thank your evolutionary impulse to propagate the human species for that.

On a more chemical level, the hormones estrogen and testosterone (present in varying levels in people of every gender) help boost libido and prompt the urge to get physical. That’s one good explanation why the early weeks of a relationship often involve plenty of physical intimacy.

Attraction

This stage can also involve feelings of lust and desire, but it goes a little deeper.

As attraction takes root and blooms, your brain produces higher levels of different hormones, namely dopamine and norepinephrine. These chemicals can boost energy levels and leave you with a sense of giddy bliss — and sometimes, feelings of jealousy and a need to fiercely protect a partner and your relationship.

This euphoric state can even begin to affect other body processes, like sleep and appetite.

Attachment

Once your attraction stabilizes, it can eventually transform to long-term attachment. The hormones oxytocin (aka “the love hormone”) and vasopressin take the leading roles here.

This stage tends to prompt the desire to form lasting bonds and nurture your existing attraction. Here, you might make a conscious choice to develop your feelings of love for someone who feels right for you, instead of simply dancing to the tune of lust and attraction.

Want to learn more? We break down love’s effects on your brain and body here.

If you tend to fall in love pretty easily, saying “I love you” may not feel terribly monumental. You recognize the feelings when they come up, so you share them with a partner because, well, why not?

Yet sometimes those three words represent an enormous leap of faith and trust. You want a partner to respond in kind, and you don’t know what you’ll do if they don’t return your love.

In either scenario, a confession of love is always a great place to hit “pause” and have an open conversation about what you want from each other.

What if only one of you feels “in love”?

People fall in love at different rates, so one of you will probably fall in love first.

“In healthy relationships, it’s normal for partners to feel different levels of intensity and certainty in their feelings of love for each other,” says Dr. Melissa Estavillo, a Phoenix psychologist who specializes in relationship counseling.

She goes on to explain the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed if you don’t fall in love at the same time or have varying degrees of certainty about the relationship’s future.

The best way to handle the situation? She recommends getting more comfortable with sharing feelings honestly.

“Feeling more sure of the relationship shouldn’t be embarrassing or shameful,” she says. “Just be patient for your partner to develop these feelings in their own time.”

That said, it can also help to decide for yourself how long you’re willing to wait for a partner (or the object of your interest, if you aren’t already in a relationship) to reciprocate those feelings.

You think you’ve fallen in love, but you worry it might be too soon. After all, you just started dating a few months ago. Can you really love them already?

Maybe they confessed their love, but you don’t know exactly how you feel. Do you love them? Or just like them an awful lot?

Most people need at least a little time to sort out complicated romantic feelings. If you have a secure attachment style, Estavillo explains, you might be more likely to trust your gut, or your intuitive sense of the relationship.

Accepting your feelings as they come might prove more challenging when you have an insecure attachment. Estavillo explains that an anxious-insecure attachment can mean you:

  • fall in love quickly
  • consider yourself unlovable
  • cling to relationships where you feel loved or have hopes of being loved

An avoidant attachment style can sometimes develop as an outcome of trauma or emotional neglect. With an avoidant attachment style, you might:

  • doubt your feelings
  • find it tough to trust others
  • struggle to share vulnerabilities
  • fear further hurt

Click here to learn more about the factors that shape attachment styles and how this can show up in your relationships.

It’s true that love carries some risk of pain. Still, you can’t get its benefits — companionship, safety, belonging — without accepting that risk.

What’s more, feelings of love that rapidly burst into existence might stem from a deep-seated sense of insecurity, a driving need to be loved by someone, anyone.

The bonds of early childhood may seem like ancient history, but attachment issues usually continue to resurface in your relationships until you make a dedicated effort to address them.

The good news? You absolutely can learn to create healthier, more secure attachments. Get started here.

You know you do want to fall in love, just not too quickly. So what’s a good middle ground to effectively build intimacy?

Generally speaking, this means letting love bud and flower naturally instead of forcing it. Nurture new love with:

  • open communication
  • clear boundaries
  • shared vulnerabilities

If you find it tough to trust a new partner, Estavillo recommends offering small opportunities to earn your trust:

  • Pay attention to how they react to your boundaries.
  • Consider how they respond when you share things that matter.
  • Practice taking risks together.

When to call it quits

Dealing with a one-sided love situation? You might wonder how long to wait before moving on.

Keep in mind it could take weeks, even months, before a partner (or you!) feels secure enough to say “I love you, too.”

Rather than using those words to assess the situation, it’s often more helpful to consider how you feel within the relationship.

Do you feel safe and secure, comfortable with your vulnerability, and excited and hopeful for the future? These signs suggest a healthy relationship, so there’s no harm in giving things time.

But what if you feel lonely, ashamed, or critical of yourself? Or believe you just have to do more to make them happy or relax your boundaries in order to “win” their love. In that case, the relationship probably isn’t serving your needs, since these signs don’t suggest healthy love.

Love doesn’t happen in the same way for everyone. It stands to reason, then, the amount of time it takes for your footing to falter as you tumble head over heels can vary pretty widely, too.

Instead of counting the months that pass, try focusing on how you feel around your partner. Love can exist and flourish without words, after all, and you might feel its presence before anyone gives it voice.


Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.