As humans, we are attracted to certain people and we can grow feelings without even realizing it. You don’t have to be in a relationship; you don’t even have to have had sex with the person.
But these feelings are not always reciprocated. According to Anita Chlipala, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Relationship Reality 312, it’s possible to find yourself in love with the idea of a person — but not the actual person, quirks, flaws, and all.
"I’ve asked clients, ‘Why are you with your partner?’" Chlipala tells Elite Daily. "Their answer is, ‘Because I love them.’ When I ask, ‘What else?’ they struggle with answering the question. If you truly love the person you are with, you should have no problem rattling off a litany of their characteristics and behaviors that you find endearing and make your partner special to you."
There are a few reasons people stay with partners they don’t truly love. According to Chlipala, this dynamic often occurs among people who are lonely. "A common fear is of never finding anyone and being alone forever, so people choose comfort and familiarity over taking the risk to find a good fit," she notes. It’s also possible to experience strong chemistry with a person before fully getting to know them, or to assume that you love a person because they look good on paper. In these cases, you might focus on a person’s highlights and dismiss or gloss over any potential problems.
So, how can you tell if the love you’re feeling is the real deal? Chlipala shares some warning signs.
1. You only miss your partner when you’re alone.
While it’s normal and healthy to have a full life — that is, school or a career, friends, hobbies, and more on top of your relationship — it’s also pretty typical to miss a beloved SO when you’re apart. If these feelings of loneliness only pop up when you’re alone, your partner might be filling a void in your life.
This is one of the most common red flags that your love might not be 100 percent there, Chlipala notes. She explains that in this case, "You’d rather have anyone around instead of dealing with your feelings of loneliness."
2. You overlook bad behavior.
If they make a rude comment, you overlook it. If they talk down to you, you ignore it. "You might rationalize their behavior and convince yourself that no relationship is perfect," Chlipala says, but deep down, if you realize you’re letting bothersome behavior slide, you might just be trying to keep up the illusion that the relationship is totally fine.
3. You start to change your long-held views, values, and beliefs.
Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a mom someday, but you’re putting those dreams on hold because your partner isn’t into kids. Maybe you find yourself agreeing with political beliefs you never thought would appeal to you, just because your SO is so convincing. There’s nothing wrong with your opinions evolving over time, but it’s important to stay true to your core beliefs.
If you’re starting to lose sight of your long-held views, Chlipala suggests exploring why you think this happening. "For instance, [do] you fear conflict and worry that your partner will leave you, or [do] you believe you have to see eye-to-eye on everything? In the beginning you may have wanted this person to like you so badly that you mirrored them."
4. You often fantasize about the future.
You find yourself imagining future trips and adventures, or even walking down the aisle together someday. "You might want this future story to play out so badly that you ignore the ‘reality’ that is in front of you," Chlipala says.
5. You hope your partner will change.
It’s normal to wish they’d stop biting their nails or watching that one dumb TV series you can’t stand. Chlipala confirms, "There are some parts of one’s personality that will be different than yours and you can still have a healthy relationship."
But she warns, "If you are wanting a major overhaul of your partner’s personality and frequently wishing they would behave differently, then that’s an indicator that you don’t truly accept them. Don’t date for potential." Hoping someone will make radical life changes probably won’t pan out — instead, it’s worth seeking out someone who’s lifestyle and values already align with yours.
Unfortunately, there’s no simple way to test if the emotions you feel for someone are true love or just strong feelings of comfort, contentment, or acceptance. It’s also possible to fall in love with somebody over time — it can take weeks, months, or even years for love to fully blossom, and there’s no one "right" timeline. Every relationship is different. The question is this: Are you happy in yours?
A version of this article was originally published on the author’s personal blog. Additional reporting by Hannah Orenstein.
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