Is Love An Illusion? Here's How To Overcome Your Doubts
Even some people in happy and healthy relationships may occasionally wonder if their love is real. And those doubts can become much louder when we’ve been disappointed, hurt, or betrayed in the worst way. Meanwhile, when you read about the latest discoveries from neuroscience and evolutionary biology, you might begin to suspect that romantic emotions are only tricks to get us to pass on our genes. Is love an illusion caused by our biology, or can it show us something true and real?
Psychological research does suggest that romantic feelings can distort our perceptions. However, it’s helpful to understand that this doesn’t necessarily mean that love is an illusion. Love can be real and fulfilling; there are things you can do to be optimistic about romance without deceiving yourself. Learn how to change your thought process surrounding love and approach potential relationships with a clear and level head.
Why you may think love is an illusion
It can sometimes seem as though science is telling us that love isn’t real. Neurological research has demonstrated that the same brain circuitry involved in drug addiction plays a role in monogamous relationships in some mammals. Psychological studies suggest that people project their own ideals onto their romantic partners rather than seeing them as they are — and that relationships may be more successful the more people overestimate their partners’ good qualities.
At the same time, maintaining love can feel extremely difficult. Roughly 39% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Many people find that their feelings for a romantic partner fade away in time. Others find out that the person they love has deceived or betrayed them, turning love into hate. Experiences like these may leave people wondering whether their relationship was based on anything real in the first place, convincing them that love is an illusion, not anything real or lasting.
These doubts can be very difficult to grapple with.
Surveys show that more than 80% of Americans believe that love is important or essential for a fulfilling life. If you aren’t sure that true love is real, it may seem like a major threat to your future possibilities for happiness.
Reasons for believing love is real
You don’t have to ignore science to think that love is real and important. We’ll review some common misconceptions about love and relationships and discuss the reality behind them.
Is love just an addiction?
Yes, romantic attraction seems to strengthen the same dopamine-based reward pathways in the brain as drug addiction. However, you can say the same thing about positive actions like giving to charity, spending time with friends, or watching a show that stars your favorite characters. Almost any behavior that makes us feel good involves the reward mechanisms in our brains in some way.
Furthermore, research such as this review article has demonstrated important differences between the neurological correlates of love and addiction. Unlike substance use disorders, romantic love promotes greater activity in areas of the brain involved in social cognition — our ability to empathize with the thoughts and feelings of others. This suggests that love may make us better at understanding the people around us rather than worse.
Is love blind?
Another reason love can seem like an illusion is that it may make us overlook another person’s negative qualities. Some psychological research supports the notion that people generate idealized, unrealistic images of their romantic partners. A 2020 study found that people are more likely to downplay a person’s flaws when they view them as attractive.
However, there are good reasons to see this apparent illusion as a helpful, positive factor rather than an error in our brain chemistry. Certain researchers argue our overly rosy views of the people we love may be self-fulfilling prophecies. When two people view each other positively, they may be better able to work on their flaws and change for the better. Over time, the relationship can grow to resemble the ideal version both partners imagined.
Some scientists have concluded that love encourages us to view the shortcomings of our partners in the best light possible, rather than making us unable to see their flaws completely. In other words, the “illusions” of love might be a form of optimism rather than a total disconnection from reality. By helping us think positively about our partners despite their faults, love could help us remain happier in the long run.
Is love fleeting?
Though not everyone experiences sexual attraction equally, many people are familiar with the rush of excitement and passion that comes with a new relationship or crops up around Valentine’s Day each February. But the intensity of this feeling often fades as two people settle into a stable partnership. Does this decline in passion mean that the reality is love can’t last your entire life?
Actually, evidence from research on long-term relationships suggests that while love may change over time, it doesn’t inevitably go away. A review of the scientific literature from March 2009 concluded that it’s only the obsessive element of early relationships that diminishes with time. Feelings of romantic love, sexual attraction, and emotional commitment appear to persist in the long term. Once you get used to being in love, it may not feel like a thrilling surprise every time you think about your partner. But that doesn’t mean your feelings for them are gone. It means you’ve settled into a comfortable relationship where you feel stable and loved because you and your partner are on the same page.
How to let go of fears that love is an illusion
Maybe we’ve convinced you that love is real — but you’re still having a hard time believing it deep down. For whatever reason, your life has made it difficult to trust that true love is possible. Here are some strategies that may help you release your doubts.
Acknowledge and accept painful feelings
Some people convince themselves that love is an illusion because they’ve suffered emotional pain in past relationships and breakups. In order to reduce the feelings of loss, they may adopt the attitude that those negative events didn’t really matter, because love is an illusion anyway. This can be a way to avoid confronting uncomfortable lingering feelings such as sorrow, shame, and anger.
The problem is that it may also get in the way of emotional healing. A 2019 experiment found that mindful awareness and acceptance of negative feelings helped to reduce their intensity, meaning that facing your pain could be a more effective way to deal with it.
You may need to acknowledge how your past relationships have hurt you before you can begin to rebuild your belief in love. One option that often helps is writing down your thoughts and feelings about your experiences with love in a journal. Research like this helpful report from Cambridge University indicates that this practice may improve your emotional health.
Are you having trouble believing that love is real?
Reframe your view of love
If you’ve become disillusioned with the idea of love, it could be because you had an unrealistic view of love in the first place. Love itself may not be an illusion, but some ways of thinking about it can be counterproductive and prevent you from being content in a healthy relationship. Potentially harmful beliefs include:
“There’s only one person for me.”
“Love is something that just happens to people.”
“If they really understood me, they’d know what I want.”
“True love shouldn’t feel like work.”
People who successfully maintain long-term relationships often say that it’s better to regard love as a conscious choice that you and your partner make together. It’s not always easy, either. Real love often requires the art of sacrifice, forgiveness, and patience.
Do you tend to think of romance in terms of finding your “perfect match” or “soul mate?” This may make your belief in love more difficult to hold onto when your partner turns out to be less than perfect. It might be more helpful to mentally frame love as something you do or something you build rather than something you passively experience. Once you’ve released your unrealistic expectations for your partner, you may find you experience greater happiness in the relationship.
Thoughts and beliefs can sometimes become habits, just as actions do. By making a conscious effort to think more positively about love, it’s often possible to change your attitude little by little. One simple way to put this into practice is to pay attention to your inner monologue when the subject of romance comes up. Every time you find yourself thinking that there’s no such thing as love or that you’ll never find anyone, counter it with an optimistic thought.
You can try this when thinking about other people’s relationships, too. When we’re feeling down about love, we may be tempted to feel bitter and cynical about the romantic success of others. Do you catch yourself scowling or thinking “They’ll never make it” when you see a couple showing affection? You might want to try to be happy for them instead — this could make it easier for you to believe in love for yourself.
Talk with a therapist
When you’re feeling discouraged about love, counseling from a trained professional may help you recover your sense of optimism, passion, and well-being. A therapist can often help you let go of self-limiting beliefs and think more constructively about your life. They may also identify sources of past trauma that have influenced your thinking, provide feedback on your current way of thinking, and suggest ways you can heal.
Some people prefer to seek therapy online rather than in person. Web-based programs like BetterHelp can sometimes make it easier to find the right therapist quickly and make it easier to schedule appointments. Many clients appreciate the convenience of being able to conduct therapy sessions in their own homes and communicate digitally with their counselor.
Research into online therapy has found that it can work just as well as in-person counseling. One July 2020 paper looked into the efficacy of Internet cognitive behavior therapy and reported that it had “an equal treatment effect” with traditional therapy. BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist for assistance in rebuilding healthy beliefs about love.
Though romantic desire may prompt some people to do foolish things, there’s no scientific basis for saying that love is an illusion. If you’re finding it difficult to believe in love, it may help to reframe your thinking about it, viewing it as a positive choice and making an effort to adopt an optimistic outlook. Online therapy from a licensed mental health practitioner can often make this process much easier.
Frequently Asked Questions
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