Liking, Loving, and Being in Love

From the Lecture Series: Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior

By Mark Leary, Ph.D., Duke University

People experience liking, loving, and being in love as separate feelings, but they probably do not realize this fact. These feelings can easily confuse us, but there are some distinctions that can clear this confusion forever. Read on to find out when you are in love, and when you just like someone.

Couple embracing each other outdoors.
Being in love with someone is different from liking or loving them, in the sense of their components and effects. (Image: AstroStar/Shutterstock)

Love has always been a mystery to people, so much that when science began exploring it, some people did not want to know what it really was. Some people have also asked whether it should be studied or not. Some have suggested that love ought to remain a mystery—that we would ruin love if we tried to understand it scientifically.

This sentiment was voiced by Sen. William Proxmire of Wisconsin. Sen. Proxmire may be best remembered for his Golden Fleece Awards, which he awarded from 1975 to 1988 to identify wasteful government spending. Proxmire awarded his first Golden Fleece Award to the National Science Foundation for funding a psychological study of love. Proxmire said, “I believe that 200 million other Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right on top of the things we don’t want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman and vice versa.” He suggested that scientists should leave love to poets and songwriters, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Irving Berlin.

But, he was wrong.

Psychological Research on Love

In the 1960s, scientists reluctantly began studying love. It took them until the 1990s to accept that love was not an intangible or spiritual thing, and studying it would not be nonsense or disrespectful.

A man and a woman's feet with autumn leaves on background. Lifestyle Fashion concept.
People used to think of love as a spiritual experience that science could never explain, but they were wrong. (Image: everst/Shutterstock)

Love is a psychological experience, and scientists can investigate the cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and physiological processes involved in it, just like any other experience. Unlike what Proxmire thought, scientists would not ruin love by trying to understand it. In fact, people could get a more realistic view and more success in relationships by understanding the concept.

The past 30 years of research has shown that people are interested in learning about love and maintaining their close relationships in a healthy way. Being in love can bring about the best and worst experiences of someone’s life, so they ought to know how to deal with it.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Love Relationships

A major source of unhappiness, depression, domestic violence, suicides, and homicides is misunderstanding love and problems in love relationships. The first problem with understanding love is that in English, and many other languages, a range of different psychological experiences is described with just one word: love.

A person can love a romantic partner, their children, their parents, their country, their pet, or pizza. They use the same word to describe their feeling and experience in all these cases, but none of them are the same in essence. Even where there are other words, people can still get confused. A common example is interchangeably using “liking” and “love”.

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Liking Vs. Love

If a person likes someone significantly, is that love? No. Both experience and research show that liking someone, even if it is to a very high degree, is not love. The two concepts are so distinct that they may not even occur together.

A person can like a lot of people without loving them, and love people whom they do not essentially like that much. When the experience is love, it can still be confusing.

Companionate Love Vs. Passionate Love

Companionate love is the strong state of affection often felt for people extremely close to a person. Companionate love is not an experience restricted to romantic relationships, and one can feel it toward their family members, their children, their best friends, or even members of a tightly cohesive group, such as a sports team.

On the other hand, passionate love is bound to romantic relationships. This is the kind of love that people can fall into (or out of). Passionate love usually involves sexual interest and is intense and exciting at first. A big distinction with other types of love is that being with the person one is in love with makes them feel happy. On the other hand, when they are not together, they feel empty and sad.

When a person loves you, it means they care about you and your health, but there is no excitement or sexual interest involved. What is the evidence of the interest and passion in passionate love?

Footprints of Passion

There are many different components required for passion, but it all starts in the brain. Being in love is a very powerful experience and has biological markers in the nervous system. There are also special neurotransmitters and patterns of brain activity involved in being in love.

In various studies, the researchers scanned the participants’ brains in an fMRI scanner while they looked at photographs of either strangers or people they were in love with. The results showed that parts of the brain associated with reward and pleasure showed increased activity when people looked at pictures of those they were in love with.

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Men Vs. Women

Happy young couple going for a bike ride on a autumn day in the city.
Despite common beliefs, men and women do not differ in brain activities associated with love and their focus on it. (Image: Ivanko80/Shutterstock)

Surprisingly for many people, men and women showed no difference in brain activity related to being in love. Unlike the common misconception, women are not more focused on love than men are. They showed similar brain activity when looking at pictures of people they were in love with.

Men even fall in love easier than women and suffer more when close relationships fail.

So, passion is the distinctive element of being in love, and without it, the experience is love.

Common Questions about Being in Love

Q: What is the difference between loving and being in love?

Loving refers to having positive feelings toward someone and caring for them, but being in love means in addition to caring, you miss the person very much, and you need to be with them all the time to feel happy.

Q: What is passionate love?

Passionate love is a result of being in love with someone. It is the kind of love that involves a sexual interest in the other person.

Q: Does liking a lot means being in love?

No. Liking and being in love are two different notions. When a person is in love, they miss the beloved and feel the need to be with them to feel happy.

Q: Is there only one kind of love?

No. Loving a child, loving parents, and loving a romantic partner are all love but different. Being in love involves sexual interest and desires, while loving children, parents, or friends involves caring and platonic feelings.

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