It’s easy to cry love at first sight when you’re a few drinks deep at your local dive. With the right lighting and the right number of vodka sodas, that semi-cute stranger across the bar suddenly looks kinda like your “soul mate,” doesn’t he? Of course, that person rarely becomes the quote-unquote “love of your life”—few of those prolonged-eye-contact moments progress beyond a flirty exchange or a casual hookup. But you’ve undoubtedly heard rumors of the exception to the rule—that couple who claims they fell in love the first time they laid eyes on each other. “You know it when you feel it,” as they say. But can you actually know it when you see it?
Rom-coms and fairy tales have always been obsessed with a good love-at-first-sight moment (think Noah in The Notebook), and reality TV has recently started testing the theory with absurd-yet-addictive shows like Married at First Sight. But can those straight-off-the-screen moments actually happen in real life or are your eyes playing tricks on you? Is this intense attraction you’re feeling to a virtual stranger the beginning of your next true love story—or are you just, uh, horny?
Not to burst any bubbles, but “when it comes to the laws of attraction, love at first sight is not as mysterious or elusive as it may seem, and it’s a lot less magical and mythical than it’s cracked up to be,” says Monica Vermani, PsyD.
So does that mean “the spark” is just BS? Is it “lust,” not love? And if love at first sight does exist, can it actually lead to a healthy, sustainable relationship, or is it a one-way ticket to yet another romantic roller coaster of a situationship?
We’re romantics at heart who happen to love a good spark, so we asked the experts to give it to us straight. Here’s everything you, lovestruck reader, need to know about love at first sight—what it is, what it’s not, and what it actually means from a relationship-potential perspective.
Is “love at first sight” even a real thing?
To get to the bottom of things, we must start from the top: What is love at first sight anyway? According to Vermani, it’s a “strong romantic attraction and connection that an individual feels towards another immediately.”
Obviously, having a super-intense reaction when meeting someone for the first time is not just a figment of your imagination. Those feelings are very real. But they’re not exactly what we’d usually call love.
Essentially, love at first sight is what we might also refer to as “chemistry”—a strong feeling of physical and/or emotional connection upon first glance or a brief interaction. And while that connection may feel like a totally random moment of divine intervention when you find yourself suddenly lost in a stranger’s eyes, that attraction is probably driven more by things that are already familiar to you than you realize.
“[Love at first sight] is actually our mind drawing associations to people from your past, present, or even your fantasy of the perfect partner,” says Vermani. “When these associations are familiar to us, we interpret them as feelings of comfort, love, and attraction.”
This means that when you meet someone for the first time, you might make assumptions about how safe, trustworthy, likable, and relatable they are, based largely on past experience and/or preconceived notions (rather than some mysterious force of divinely inspired romance).
L.A.-based therapist Jenny Taitz, PsyD., author of How to Be Single and Happy, attributes these pleasant feelings of familiarity to the Halo Effect—a term used in psychology to describe the positive assumptions we make about someone because of their appearance (aka the reason you assume that Really Good Looking Person is also going to be a Really Good in Bed Person).
Can “love at first sight” lead to a successful relationship?
Whether or not that very real attraction can actually lead to something serious is another question. According to Taitz, that initial shot of passion can be blinding, making it more difficult to determine whether someone is actually a good match for you. That love-at-first-sight feeling is thrilling, sure, but unfortunately, “it’s not something we can bank on for a fulfilling relationship.”
Basically, when you’re super attracted to someone, it’s like your mind places a little halo over their head (hence, the Halo Effect). You place them on a pedestal and, as a result, they can do no wrong in your eyes—which is problematic for multiple reasons.
“Just because someone is really good-looking doesn’t mean that you know that much about them,” says Taitz. “You can run the risk of convincing yourself that they’re right for you based on your emotions rather than logic.”
That’s not to say that instant attraction can never lead to a real relationship, however. If you find someone immediately, jaw-droppingly, attractive, Taitz suggests approaching with curiosity rather than assuming perfection. Being open to revising your initial assumptions about a person lays a better groundwork for serious romantic success.
Of course, a successful relationship is complex (hi, duh). According to Vermani, long-term compatibility between partners is based on a number of factors including shared values, commitment, and respect for (and acceptance of) any differences in beliefs. Intense passion can certainly be part of a deep, long-lasting connection, but it’s probably not the most reliable foundation for one.
In short, “love at first sight” could lead to a lasting relationship, but an initial attraction is no guarantee of future success. In fact, sometimes the quest for that spark causes us to miss out on potential matches that could actually be a great fit.
“Many people are looking for this immediate sense of chemistry and connection, and—when absent—it’s often what stops one or both parties after a first date from trying to meet a second time,” says Vermani. You can’t force a connection, of course, but a lack of full-fledged fireworks doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no romantic potential there.
What’s actually happening to your brain when you fall in love at first sight?
Unfortunately, there’s a reason many of us are quick to write off a potential partner who doesn’t deliver on that whirlwind rom-com moment: That buzzy “love at first sight” high is intoxicating and can feel the way we assume love is “supposed” to. So why does the longevity of a stable, slow-burn relationship often pale in comparison to that love-at-first-sight blood rush? Short answer: hormones.
“Hormones play a big role in lust, attraction, and attachment,” says clinical therapist Naomi Bernstein, PsyD, cohost of the Betches Oversharing podcast. According to Bernstein, that love-at-first-sight connection is actually a “perfect storm” of lust, attraction, and attachment hormones—a “mating hormone cocktail,” if you will.
So yes, all those physical and emotional sensations we associate with falling hard and fast for someone new—butterflies, heart pounding, the irresistible urge to listen to Taylor Swift’s Fearless—are, in fact, very real, but they’re not particularly trustworthy indicators of a lasting love connection.
Does that mean “Love at First Sight” is actually...a red flag?
Yes—and no. While a strong initial attraction might not be the surefire sign of true love we want to think it is, that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad. However, Bernstein notes that in some cases, the immediate intensity of those feelings might be related to past trauma—i.e., you’re clinging to an addictive new feeling in an attempt to relieve emotional pain. And if that intense attraction goes unreciprocated, “love at first sight” can also lead to feelings of unworthiness or despair, which can put a serious damper on ye olde mental health. If you find yourself obsessing over the new object of your immediate affections to a degree that feels unhealthy, that “spark” might just be an activated anxious attachment style taking over. If your new infatuation is delivering more stress than bliss, it may be time to check in with yourself (and maybe take a peek at this handy intro to a little thing called limerence).
Generally speaking, however, “love at first sight” is just one of many, many ways people can experience love and attraction—and only you get to decide what kind of love feels the most “real” to you. Reality TV romances and rom-com meet cutes may not be real. But instant attraction and an immediate connection? Those are very real indeed.
Words by: Morgan Sullivan
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.