Love is everywhere you look. People talk about love in pop songs, on TV, across social media, over dinner, at work, and in school hallways. There is also growing scientific interest in romantic love, as is evident from the increased number of publications on this topic, the organization of conferences—and the Greater Good Science Center’s new project on the science of love, which launches this month.

Couple standing together looking at each other, with her elbow on his shoulder

Why? First, romantic love pertains to virtually everyone. More than 80% of American adolescents reported to have been involved in at least one romantic relationship by the age of 18, according to one 2003 study, and love has been observed in almost all cultures that have been studied. Second, when people fall in love, it greatly affects their lives. People are sometimes even willing to change their friends, job, country, or religion to be with their beloved.

But do we really understand love? Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about romantic love permeating popular media, the scientific community, or both. Some of these stem from the assumptions we make about romantic love. Others arise from hypotheses or interpretations put forth in scientific articles being cited in other articles as empirical evidence. Collectively, these misconceptions hamper the progress of the scientific understanding of romantic love—and they can lead any of us astray when we think about love in our own lives. Here are six misconceptions about romantic love that are not supported by the research to date.

1. Romantic love is not necessarily dyadic or even interpersonal

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The first misconception is that romantic love is something that must exist between two people. For example, an anonymous reviewer of one of my manuscripts commented, “It’s odd that ~1/6 of the sample who were purportedly ‘in love’ were not in a relationship with the target of their love.”

Contrary to what the reviewer seemed to think, it does not take two to love. While romantic love has obvious interpersonal aspects (i.e., people are in love with another person and romantic relationships involve more than one person by definition), romantic love is not necessarily dyadic or interpersonal. For example, people can develop love feelings for someone before they become involved in a romantic relationship—and they can still experience love feelings after a relationship has ended. People can be in love with someone who doesn’t love them back. People can love someone they have never been and will never be in a romantic relationship with. People can experience love feelings for someone they have never even interacted with. Examples of this are love at first sight and parasocial attachment to celebrities or fictional characters in movies, TV shows, video games, and books.

So, romantic love is not always a social process and does happen outside of relationships. The misconception that romantic love only happens within relationships has led some people to confuse relationship satisfaction and love feelings. But people can be satisfied with a relationship if it fulfills some need (such as money, housekeeping, sex, protection, child care, status, personal growth), even if they don’t love their partner. And in abusive relationships, it is possible that the victim loves their abuser while being unsatisfied with the relationship. So, relationship satisfaction is not the same as how in love someone is.

2. Love is not an emotion

Many of us believe love is an emotion, like fear, anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, and joy.

Although scientists do not agree on how many and which types of love exist, they do agree that there are multiple types of love—and that’s actually one reason to assume that love as a whole is not an emotion. For example, researchers have distinguished between infatuation (aka passionate love) and attachment (aka companionate love). Infatuation is the early stage of love that is associated with euphoria, nervousness, and butterflies in the stomach. Attachment, on the other hand, takes time to develop and is a calming, comforting feeling.

There are also reasons to assume that the different types of love themselves are not emotions either. First, love elicits various emotions depending on the situation. Loving someone who loves you back can make you experience the emotion joy, while loving someone who does not love you back can make you experience the emotion sadness.

There’s another reason why the different types of love are not really emotions: My own neuroscience research finds that distraction after a romantic breakup decreased negative feelings but not the intensity of love, and that negative reappraisal of an ex-partner (e.g., “They weren’t so great”) decreased love intensity yet increased negative feelings.

Those observations suggest that love regulation and emotion regulation are distinct. In other words, love regulation targets love feelings (such as infatuation and attachment), whereas emotion regulation targets emotions (such as fear, anger, sadness, surprise, disgust, and joy).

Finally, love can be very long-lasting, whereas emotions are usually quite fleeting. Research has shown that emotions typically last for a half hour up to several days. The longest-lasting emotion was sadness, which can last two to five days. In contrast, it is not uncommon for infatuation to last for weeks or months and for attachment to last for years or decades.

Rather than an emotion, scientists have called love an attitude, a script, or a motivation or drive—like craving, lust, hunger, and thirst.

3. Romantic love does not just have positive effects

The third misconception is that romantic love has mainly positive effects.

Of course, love has many positive effects on people and society. Infatuation, for example, elicits positive emotions such as euphoria, and romantic relationships increase happiness and life satisfaction. But it is often overlooked that love has many negative effects on people and society, as well.

First, love can elicit several negative emotions. Infatuation is stressful, love can be accompanied by jealousy, the death of a romantic partner may elicit intense grief, and unreciprocated love and romantic breakups trigger sadness and shame.

Second, love can reduce general well-being. Romantic breakups are a main risk factor for depression in adolescents. And dysfunctional romantic relationships and romantic breakups are associated with decreased happiness and life satisfaction.

Third, people who are in love may be distracted from their duties (such as work or homework) because they think about their beloved all the time. Even though this may not bother the infatuated person, it may result in a loss of productivity or at least frustration in the people around the lover.

Fourth, love plays a role in several mental disorders (such as sexual dysfunctions, paraphilic disorders, and erotomanic and jealous delusional disorders), as well as in suicidal behavior. Finally, love is associated with criminal behavior such as stalking, domestic violence, and homicide.

It may be clear that love has both positive and negative effects, the latter of which cause substantial individual, social, and economic burden. I hope that scientific research on romantic love can both increase the positive effects of love and decrease its negative effects on people and society.

4. There is no love brain region, love neurotransmitter, or love hormone

It’s important to know that each brain region, neurotransmitter, and hormone has multiple functions—and also that each function requires multiple brain regions, neurotransmitters, and hormones. Love affects behavior, feelings, thoughts, and bodily responses in many different ways. And each of these “symptoms” of romantic love depends on different brain regions, and multiple neurotransmitters and hormones.

Take, for example, the fact that people have better memory for information that has to do with their beloved, which is related to how arousing this information is. We know that better memory for exciting information depends on two brain regions called the amygdala and the hippocampus, the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, and the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Therefore, it can be expected that those parts of our nervous systems are involved in the better memory for information related to the beloved.

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Or consider this: We get clammy hands when we are infatuated. Researchers know that this sweating is part of the flight-or-fight response and involves release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain. Therefore, that brain region and neurotransmitter likely play a role in getting clammy hands when infatuated.

Even though scientists typically understand that there is no dedicated love component in our nervous systems, they could improve the focus of their research questions and designs by understanding romantic love as an emergent process that consists of numerous moving parts, each with its own neurobiological basis. But why should everyone else care? Because, perhaps, if you share this understanding of love feelings as complex neurological processes, you might better understand why love can feel so complicated to you!

5. A love drug won’t be developed anytime soon

There is a misconception that we will soon be able to the develop a love drug, which is something that people have pursued for ages, for example through sorcery. Even nowadays, people across the world wishfully use aphrodisiacs and love philters. Although evidence-based pharmacological manipulation of love feelings may be possible at some point, several issues prevent the development of an effective and safe “love pill” in the short term.

We are only just starting to learn which neurotransmitters and hormones might play a role in the different types of love. For example, several neuroimaging studies have shown that certain brain regions (such as the caudate, putamen, ventral tegmental area, insula, cingulate cortex, and inferior frontal gyrus) are more active when people view pictures of their beloved than when they view pictures of other people. Some of those brain regions (especially the caudate, putamen, and ventral tegmental area) contain a lot of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The activation of these dopaminergic brain regions in response to the beloved has been taken to mean that romantic love is associated with high levels of dopamine. However, it is important to note that the method used in those neuroimaging studies (functional magnetic resonance imaging) only shows what areas of the brain receive extra oxygen through blood. But this method cannot show whether dopamine is released.

As far as I know, there is only one study that has actually measured dopamine levels when people view pictures of their beloved (compared to when they view pictures of friends), using a method called positron emission tomography. That study shows more dopamine release when people view the beloved (as opposed to the friend) in two brain regions that are called the medial orbitofrontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex. This study surprisingly did not find more dopamine release when people viewed the beloved than the friend in the more typical dopaminergic regions that received more oxygen through blood in previous studies. So, more research is needed on whether and where dopamine is released when people see their beloved.

As another example, it has been suggested that romantic love is associated with low levels of serotonin because of its resemblance with obsessive-compulsive disorder. But in one study, women who were in love had higher serotonin levels in their blood than women who were not in love. And obsessive thinking about the beloved in these women was associated with higher, rather than lower, serotonin levels in their blood. So we cannot conclude at this time that romantic love is associated with low serotonin levels.

Crucially, to develop a “love pill” we would have to prove that changing the level of some neurotransmitter or hormone actually changes the intensity of love. But most studies so far have only compared people who are in love when they view pictures of their beloved with when they view other pictures. It would be informative, but more difficult, to compare people who are in love with people who are not in love. Or, even better, to compare people before and after they fall in love.

It would also be challenging to design a drug that changes love feelings for one person specifically, which would be desirable in at least some situations. For example, someone who is married might want to decrease their love feelings for a crush without changing (or while increasing) their love for their spouse. And because the neurotransmitters and hormones involved in love have many different functions, any love drug that affects the levels of these neurotransmitters or hormones may have side effects that could be adverse. So, unfortunately, it will be a while until you can use a love drug to change how in love you are, if ever.

6. Romantic love is not uncontrollable

However, there are many situations in which it might be beneficial to change how in love you are—and my research says that you can. The solution is not drugs, but rather intentional thinking.

In some situations, love feelings may be stronger than desired, such as when people are still in love with an ex-partner, when the love is forbidden, and when people are in love with someone who treats them poorly. In situations like those, people may want to decrease how in love they are, which can help them cope with heartbreak. It can also help people to stop pursuing an inappropriate partner or to put an end to a dysfunctional (e.g., abusive) relationship.

At other times, love feelings may be weaker than desired, such as when they decline over time in long-term relationships. In situations like that one, you may want to increase how in love you are, which could help you maintain long-term relationships.

Nevertheless, many people think that love regulation is difficult or even impossible. But my research suggests that people can become more or less in love by doing or thinking certain things. One study shows that something as simple as looking at pictures of the beloved increases infatuation and attachment. Another study finds that thinking about positive aspects of the beloved (“they are so smart,” “he is such a good cook”), the relationship (“we agree on how to spend our money”), and the future (“we’ll live happily ever after”) increases attachment. And yet another of my studies suggests that fantasizing about having sex with your beloved (such as imagining something you would like your partner to do to you during sex) increases sexual desire and infatuation. These are strategies that you can use to strengthen your love feelings for someone.

In another experiment, thinking about the negative aspects of the beloved (“she never puts the cap on the toothpaste”), the relationship (“we fight a lot”), and the future (“we won’t stay together forever”) decreased infatuation and attachment. These are strategies that you can use to weaken your love feelings for someone.

So, in contrast to what you may think, it is beneficial and possible to change how in love you are. Give it a try when you find yourself more or less in love than you’d like to be!

This article is a shortened and revised version of “Refuting Six Misconceptions About Romantic Love,” published in May 2024 by the journal Behavioral Sciences.

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