When it comes to love, people are often divided. Some think it’s an emotion, while others say it’s a primary drive that encompasses feelings and behavior, or a combination of both. Psychologists, sociologists, and researchers also disagree somewhat on the exact characterization of love. Some, including psychiatrist Scott Peck, believe that it’s a mix of altruism and simple narcissism; others disaggregate it into two basic components, the former characterized by concern for the spiritual growth of another and the latter by self-gratification.
Regardless of how it’s defined, most agree that it’s an intense feeling of affection, protection, and loyalty. It’s a powerful and complex force that inspires us to make sacrifices for the people we love, and it can help us endure even the most painful of life events. Love can be expressed in countless ways, from romantic gestures to everyday acts of kindness—such as when your partner drops their sun-drenched vacation plans to take care of a sick relative.
In recent years, scientists and psychologists have devoted considerable effort to understanding the dynamics of love. Some research suggests that “love” is a biologically based urge that is the result of specific hormones and brain circuitry. Other studies, on the other hand, argue that it’s a complex mixture of emotions, behaviors, and beliefs. People of all cultures and religions have embraced the idea of love, though it hasn’t always been easy to define or explain.
Many people have questions about when the right time is to tell someone they love them, especially if it’s their first “I love you.” While there’s no set timeline for when it’s appropriate to use those three words, therapist Sofia Robirosa says there are some clear signs that a person is ready. “It depends on how much time you spend together and what your relationship looks like,” she explains. “If you feel like you can talk to each other about anything and are close enough that you’re imagining and loosely planning your future together, it may be time.”
Then there’s the question of whether or not your partner is willing to reciprocate your declaration of love. A 2017 study found that the best indicators of love were small gestures and acts of kindness—like hand holding, hugging, cuddling, and compassion—while controlling behaviors like possessiveness were ranked as least loving.
You want to spend all your free time with them. You miss them when they’re not around. You share life’s responsibilities and enjoy each other’s company. You have mutual interests, but you also respect each other’s independence and individuality. You trust them and respect their autonomy. You see a future with them, but you also have your own goals and dreams. You are growing and thriving as individuals, but you want to spend your future together.
Finally, you’re open to the possibility of a long-term commitment with them and are actively working on building trust, connection, and intimacy. You are a good friend and support system for them, and they can rely on you in return.