How long does it take to fall in love?
Prince Harry fell in love with Meghan Markle “So incredibly quickly,” as he tells it. But both Kate Middleton and Prince William have said that getting to know each other over a long period, just as friends, was key to their love.
Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher met as teenagers on the set of That 70s Show, but didn’t start dating for 14 years. (“One day, it just changed,” she says.) Michelle and Barack Obama had the opposite experience—she says she fell in love while watching him work as a community organizer.
My parents met at 19 and have been happily married for almost 36 years. “I knew really early,” my mom says. My dad laughs when I ask how long it took him to know he was in love. “Four years,” he says.
Every blockbuster, every insurance ad, every wise older person, every book series about teen wizards, tells you that love is the thing that makes life worth living. We wax poetic about the signs you’re falling in love but the moment you declare that you are in fact in it, people doubt you. Maybe you’re unsure yourself. As soon as you feel comfortable enough to start acting unbearably happy, concerned friends swoop in with questions. “Are you sure it’s love, not lust?” “You don’t really love her, you just think you love her.” “You don’t even know him.” “It’s too soon.” Well, how soon is too soon? When do most people know?
Forget, for a moment, love at first sight. Love at first sight, if you believe in it, takes a millisecond. Case closed! But how long does it take to fall in love for regular people, people for whom love is not like a fairytale but a Trader Joe’s line—interminable nothingness, and then all of a sudden you’re at the chocolate bars and ginger chews, and life is happening? How long does love take, when it begins not with fireworks but with friendship, or with a smattering of awkward dates, or with s*x where no one orgasms? How long does love take when it’s just two people meeting up on occasion to touch and talk and see if something grows?
The first spark
Empirical evidence isn’t conclusive. Love is, after all, hard to measure and track—it’s somewhere between a chemical process, a social construct, and some unknowable sacred thing, like a piece of God or like a poem. But that hasn’t stopped scientists and psychologists from trying to determine the average time it takes for people to fall in love. A 2010 review of fMRI studies found that the exact cerebral networks associated with “passionate love” can activate within one-fifth of a second of people meeting. That’s not the same as being in love, but it’s a vital initial spark. In 2006, Princeton researchers found that subjects judged attractiveness within a tenth of a second. That’s also not love either, but several studies have found that you are more likely to fall in love quickly if you value a partner who is physically attractive. It’s also been repeatedly found that women who have stronger s*x drives fall in love more often (the same thing is not true for men who have stronger s*x drives.)
When are other people saying it?
A 2018 eHarmony survey of 2,000 people in England found that the average time a respondent took to say “I love you” in a relationship was close to four months. Men under 35 were the fastest to say I love you—one in five said it in under a week. In 2016, Match reported findings that the average person surveyed says “I love you” after around 144 days, or about 4.5 months.
A 2016 YouGov survey in the UK found that 16% of people surveyed had told someone they loved them within a month, and the greatest number of people (22%) had said “I love you” within two or three months. A 2020 survey of over 1,000 people in relationships by the financial services company The Ascent found that the average amount of time people waited to say I love you was six months. (For what it’s worth, that happened months before, on average, they shared information about their salaries.)
So again, it’s not a precise timeline, but saying “I love you” somewhere between one month of dating and six months is all relatively common.
“You can’t hurry love”—true?
What could account for a person falling in love more or less quickly? There’s evidence to suggest that there’s a love gender gap between men and women.
In a series of several studies, published together by the American Psychological Association in 2011, researchers found that in partnerships between a man and a woman, the man is more likely to “confess to love” first. Men reported that they started thinking about “confessing love” in 97 days, whereas women took an average of about 139 days.
In a blow to anyone still holding on to the idea that women are more emotional and needy than men, researchers also found that it wasn’t that women were cautiously holding back—men were the first to even think about confessing their love. In fact, researchers found that men thought about confessing love six weeks earlier, on average, than women. The general consensus among studies on love is that men fall in love faster than women.
What about LGBTQ relationships? Megan Rapinoe said this week that when she met her future wife, WNBA star Sue Bird, she thought, “Okay, don’t be a cliché lesb*an, where you love this person when you first meet them.” It’s a famous stereotype that in relationships between two women, saying “I love you,” committing, and moving in together happen at hyper-speed. But do the facts bear that out?
Is there a shortcut to love?
A few years ago, a series of stories in the New York Times claimed “to fall in love with anyone, do this,” suggesting that by answering 36 personal questions as a couple, two strangers could fall in love. The articles were inspired by a 1997 study by psychologist Arthur Aron, and they sparked a craze—it felt like, finally, a definitive short cut to love had been reached. In fact, the study that inspired the article doesn’t even mention the word “love.” It measured a feeling of “closeness” which is not necessarily the same as romantic love.
But if you’re worried about losing love due to social distancing, don’t give up on finding “closeness” with people, even remotely—more than 9% of people in Match’s 2020 Singles in America survey reported that they fell in love just via video dates.
So how soon is too soon? When is the right time? Is it ever too late? Bella Swan falls “irrevocably in love” by chapter nine. Shakespeare’s Antony announces his love for Cleopatra in Act I, Scene I (“Thou needs find out new heaven, new earth,” he tells her, to understand the extent of his love.) Jane Eyre loves Rochester by chapter 16 (“It is madness in all women to let a secret love kindle within them,” she says.) And in To All The Boys I Loved Before, Lara Jean is in love with someone or other on almost every page.
There’s no way to calculate the perfect time, no one-size-fits-all approach, no test to prove definitively whether you’ve fallen in love. Most people wait a few months to say it. Some people don’t. There’s some evidence that love-at-first-sight is real, and a lot of consensus that there are many types of love that mean different things to different people. “The state of enchantment is one of certainty,” wrote W.H. Auden. Basically—no one knows better than you how you really feel.
Originally Appeared on Glamour
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