Love Vs. Being In Love: What's The Difference?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many quotes, songs, and media about love and its meaning exist. However, there are also several debates on the true meaning of being in love and whether it is synonymous with love as an emotion. Understanding the differences and similarities between love and being in love with someone may help you better understand yourself, your relationships, and the connections you want in life. 

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Understanding love: What is love? 

What is love? The answer may depend on the person you ask. Being in love is often considered different from the emotion of love itself. 

Love is a comprehensive term that describes a broad range of emotions associated with people’s interpretations of themselves and their relationships with others. The myriad of emotions, sensations, and experiences one might label as “love” can often be separated into being “in love," including romantic attachment, sentimentality, personal worth, or sexual attraction, among other categories.

Media and cultural conventions often hold a narrative that one can only find a sense of identity through wholeness or completion with a partner. However, love does not only exist romantically. A person can be fully content and happy with themselves and their life without ever seeking romantic relationships of any kind. Romantic love is not the only kind of fulfilling love in life, and it is normal and healthy to prioritize different types of love—such as with a friend or family—in other parts of your life.

The stages of love 

Love in the romantic sense may start with strong emotional attachment, passion, or intense fondness. Over time, that relationship may develop into a more stable connection based on mutual respect, trust, and concern for the other person, among other factors. There are various theories and concepts regarding the core components of romantic love, and recent research suggests that there may be four main factors: attraction, connection, trust, and respect.

The early stages of love and relationships are characterized by intense infatuation and lust that develop when one first experiences attraction, idealization, and projection. According to recent studies, when a person experiences these feelings of deep connection, intense attraction, and passion, their brain’s activity levels resemble those of individuals using psychoactive substances.

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

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In psychological terms, projection is a defense mechanism whereby we unconsciously assign certain qualities – either those that we associate with ourselves or with an idealized figure – to others. In romantic relationships, this can manifest as assuming that your partner is “perfect” or that they hold certain qualities that they have not proven themselves to have. For instance, you may project that your partner is attentive and sentimental when instead they do not put much stock in special dates or quality time. Because these assumptions aren’t based on real qualities, they can later lead to feelings of disappointment and disillusionment, creating challenges in the couple’s life and at times leading one party to walk away from the relationship.

No matter how enjoyable the early stage of love is, it is temporary. That’s why, as time passes, we may also find that we are in love with the feeling of being in love, rather than a real person with their own faults and flaws. Healthy long-term relationships develop because the individuals involved in them are dedicated to each other beyond the initial rush of early “puppy love” feelings. Beyond all the wonderful surprises and excitement of spending time together, both parties have found a connection on a deeper, more personal level. They accept that there will be good and bad times in their relationship, and each partner makes a commitment to work together to grow—both as people and as a partnership.

Creating healthier romantic relationships

Projection can create challenges for couples, preventing them from making a healthy, sustainable relationship their top priority. That said, breaking free of projection can be possible. Letting go of old fantasies makes room for deeper attachment and wonderfully sustainable joy, allowing couples to move forward with a more realistic idea of what love can look like.

One important step you might take towards making your relationship with relationships healthier is accepting the idea of wholeness through the reclamation of projection. This process is based on the Jungian idea that acknowledging and accepting the parts of ourselves that we previously did not consciously recognize can help us reach a sense of personal fulfillment and give us a more stable base for current and future relationships to build on.

In order to do this, consider asking yourself these questions:

  • What are my current expectations for my partner, both good and bad?
  • Are these expectations realistic – as in, do I expect a person to make an effort and meet certain moral standards, or do I expect perfection at all times in all ways?
  • Am I capable of acknowledging objective flaws in my partner, such as incompatible lifestyle choices or values, or different expectations for the future?
  • Are there patterns of behavior from my partner that do not match my expectations for them?
  • Have I adjusted my expectations based on these patterns of behavior?
  • Am I offering my partner the same level of respect, honesty, and companionship that I am expecting from them?

If you are in a relationship, consider sitting down with your partner and discussing these questions to better assess how much of a role projection plays in your relationship. This may promote a stronger sense of well-being between you and your partner.

This technique offers a chance to understand what it is you value and how you might implement those values into your life in order to foster authentic relationships.

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Looking for authentic love

Authentic love differs from projection, lust, and infatuation, but it is possible for authentic love to emerge from these feelings that are associated with being in love. Authentic love is based upon mutual respect, trust, and honesty in expectations. By expanding our sense of value beyond ourselves and our own needs, we often find that building relationships with authentic love also requires self-respect and self-acceptance.

If you are looking to work on your own self-image or your relationships with others, you may consider online therapy through BetterHelp. With therapy, you and your partner can meet with a counselor or a marriage and family therapist from the comfort of your own home. You can also message your counselor at any time and they will respond when they can, meaning you can send in-the-moment questions if you find that you have identified a projected quality but aren’t sure where it came from or how to handle it. This can make a wonderful difference for couples with busy schedules. There is ample scientific evidence to suggest that online therapy for couples is just as effective as in-person therapy for identifying and resolving potential problems with communication and managing expectations. This means that you don’t need to wait for an in-person visit to begin strengthening your relationship with your partner and with yourself.

Takeaway

Love is a comprehensive term that can encompass a wide variety of types of love and fondness, such as for one’s friends, family, self, and community. Meanwhile, being “in love” tends to refer to romantic love for a partner. If you would like support with concerns around love or relationships, online therapy can help.

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