From Infatuation to Attachment: The Time Course of Romantic Relationships

collage of a pair of hands holding the tongue emoji on one hand and the heart emoji on another, with clocks in the background

Terminology surrounding love differs significantly from person to person. We use the terms “falling in love,” “being in love” and “loving” in so many different ways that it can get pretty difficult to distinguish between them all.

In relationship psychology, however, outlining the differences between the concepts are important for defining the key properties and stages of relationships (because if we can’t define them, we can’t study them, we can’t help you — and we can’t have that). I’m going to share some of those words we use to talk about love, as well as introduce you to some info on the average time course of relationships.

Studies show that experiencing love is basically equivalent to being on drugs —the feeling of falling in love is similar to the euphoria of cocaine, and the feeling of being in love is similar to the pain-relieving properties of heroin. On the most objective level, this is what makes the true difference between falling in love and loving. It’s the neurochemical basis for why we define things the way we do: through the lens of infatuation and attachment theory.

Infatuation is usually the first stage of romantic relationships (what you’d call falling in love). It activates receptors in your brain that release dopamine, which leave you craving your partner more and more after each interaction. This phase can last approximately two years (give or take six months) until it gives way to a more long-term attachment phase (what you’d call “real” love).

Mutual attachment begins to rise and stay relatively steady around that two-year mark, and it’s around this time that you choose to stay together because you still love and care about each other even without the maddening effects of infatuation. This phase of the relationship activates receptors in your brain that release natural opioids, creating satisfaction and contentment. 

This doesn’t mean that infatuation completely disappears — it continues to fluctuate throughout the rest of your relationship, just at a lower level than before. The dopamine high of early relationships doesn’t last forever, but not all is lost! If you stick it out with the right person, you get to spend the rest of your life in the bliss that comes with feeling secure in your attachment to each other.