Words by Kathleen Wong. Art by Sam Liacos.
What should falling in love actually feel like?
There is arguably no other idiom in the English language more ubiquitous than “falling in love.”
We hear it in songs, television shows (hello, Bachelor Nation), books, movies, and of course, conversations in real life. The exact origin of the idiom is unknown, but the phrase was used as early as the 1500s, making it over 500 years old. One of the first mentions of the expression is said to be in English writer Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene in 1590. The Bard’s 1623 pastoral comedy, As You Like It, also includes the phrase.
But, why do we call it “falling in love” and is that feeling universal? The idea behind the word “fall” is that the feelings are out of our control and take us by surprise. As it turns out, the phrase is both accurate and concise. “The phrase “falling in love” does a pretty good job of capturing what a growing love feels like, especially because there are different ways to fall,” says Sarah Kaufman, a licensed therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy in New York. For instance, people can trip and suddenly fall, or leaves could gradually fall to the ground.
For 47-year-old Nikki Webster, falling in love is like the former. “It feels like you can’t breathe, your heart races and you have a knot in your stomach that’s unmistakable,” she says, attributing the feeling to a rush of adrenaline.
Same for Jack Miller, a 48-year-old in San Francisco. “To me, falling in love feels like a knock-out punch. You wouldn’t know what hit you and when it did but it’s powerful enough for you to take notice,” he says. “There’s that fear of ‘getting hit’ by that punch and not being able to get back to your feet.”
Love is a high-risk, high-reward state of being.Sarah Kaufman
In another intense comparison, Javen Yap, a 30-year-old music writer in Malaysia, compares falling in love to the beginning of a fever. “Something explodes in you, quite invisible to the naked eye,” he says. “Something no one will ever know about, but essential to your happiness and well-being.”
Such exhilarating descriptions make sense. Humans are social animals and biologically, our bodies want us to procreate as means of survival, according to Women’s Health. Although that doesn’t mean we have to reproduce, it does partially explain why the brain is wired to flood itself with feel-good chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin when “falling” for someone.
Romantic love can be distilled into three stages: lust, attraction and attachment. These stages are categorized based on the chemical reactions going on in our brain. For example, testosterone and estrogen fuel lust. Dopamine, which feels like a “high,” and norepinephrine create attachment, lending to a giddy, euphoric feeling and that feeling of being unable to take your mind off your new boo. Lastly, attachment is linked with oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, and serotonin that lead to bonding.
However, the story doesn’t end there. Love is a high-risk, high-reward state of being, according to Kauffman. “Falling in love can be terrifying,” she says. “It can be painful to love someone—to be vulnerable, to put yourself out there, to show who you are—and then be met with rejection or unreciprocated feelings.”
Explore your experiences, unpack your thoughts, and validate your feelings.Sarah Kaufman
Webster has “absolutely” felt terrified of falling in love. “I feel the fear of losing control, the fear of opening myself up to someone and being vulnerable,” she says. “The fear alone can stop you from taking the plunge.”
We all have our own walks of life—from religious background, education and upbringing—so we experience falling in love differently too. For some, the fear of falling in love only to get hurt is too overwhelming. In that case, Kauffman suggests uncovering where the fear of falling in love is coming from, whether that be alone or in therapy.
“Explore your experiences, unpack your thoughts, and validate your feelings,” she says. “They are not good or bad—they just are. Once you are able to accept that and bring awareness to them, you can start to evolve your beliefs, bring awareness to them…and shift your behavior.”
For Yap, the fear of falling in love can be tough to overcome due to something like being burned in past relationships. “We’ve all got our things we’re carrying around with us and conquering them is part of getting better as a person,” he adds.
When I’m in the early stages of a relationship, I’m rooting for true love to show up.Alexandria Boddie
Others may view falling in love as something slower and gentler—and that’s totally normal too. According to several studies published by the American Psychological Association in 2011, heterosexual men think about confessing their love after an average of 97 days and heterosexual women take about about 139 days.
For many like myself, that takes place when the little things in life are enhanced thanks to that person over time—laughs are longer, songs sound better, and that person’s smile lights up the room. It feels safe, despite that lingering fear of getting comfortable only to have the rug pulled out from under you.
Eva Keller, 27, says: “Falling in love is actually a calm and peaceful feeling. It’s comfort and security. There is a sense of wholeness and being complete together.” Keller says it’s not the falling in love part that she’s afraid of but rather the implications of how the new person can disrupt her current life priorities and dynamics.
For others, age and experience also play a role in shaping how they fall in love. “Now that I’m older, falling in love feels like relaxation and freedom,” says singer Alexandria Boddie, 39 years old. As a “romantic, yet picky” dater, Boddie says she hasn’t experienced any fears about falling in love. “So when I’m in the early stages of a relationship, I’m rooting for true love to show up.”
At the end of the day, when it comes to love, there are no rules, Kaufman says. You can fall in love fast and hard or take your sweet time if that feels better. As the folks above prove, falling in love is a deeply personal experience that puts our brains and bodies into high-gear. It’s no wonder falling in love is both magical and yes, pretty damn scary.