How to Know You’re in Love

by Dr. James Dobson

Beliefs about Love

It has been of concern to me that many young people grow up with a very distorted concept of romantic love. They are taught to confuse the real thing with infatuation and to idealize marriage into something it can never be. To help remedy this situation, I developed a brief true or false test for use in teaching groups of teen-agers. But to my surprise, I found that adults do not score much higher on the quiz than their adolescent offspring. The ten-item test is reproduced below for those who would like to measure their understanding of romantic love:

Beliefs about Love — A Self Quiz

Please circle the correct answer, true or false:

  • I believe "love at first sight" occurs between some people. True False
  • I believe it is easy to distinguish real love from infatuation. True False
  • I believe people who sincerely love each other will not fight and argue. True False
  • I believe God selects one particular person for each of us to marry, and he will guide us together. True False
  • I believe if a man and woman genuinely love each other, then hardships and troubles will have little or no effect on their relationship. True False
  • I believe it is better to marry the wrong person than to remain single and lonely throughout life. True False
  • I believe it is not harmful to have sexual intercourse before marriage if the couple has a meaningful relationship. True False
  • I believe if a couple is genuinely in love, that condition is permanent — lasting a lifetime. True False
  • I believe short courtships (six months of less) are best. True False
  • I believe teen-agers are more capable of genuine love than are older people. True False

While there are undoubtedly some differences of opinion regarding the answers for this quiz, I feel strongly about what I consider to be correct responses to each item. In fact, I believe many of the common marital hang-ups develop from a misunderstanding of these ten issues. The confusion begins when boy meets girl and the entire sky lights up in romantic profusion. Smoke and fire are followed by lightning and thunder, and alas, two trembly-voiced adolescents find themselves knee deep in true love. Adrenaline and sixty-four other hormones are dumped into the cardio-vascular system by the pint and every nerve is charged with 110 volts of electricity. Then two little fellows go racing up the respective backbones and blast their exhilarating message into each spinning head: "This is it! The search is over! You’ve found the perfect human being! Hooray for love!"

For our romantic young couple, it is simply too wonderful to behold. They want to be together twenty-four hours a day … to take walks in the rain and sit by the fire and kiss and munch and cuddle. They get all choked up just thinking about each other. And it doesn’t take long for the subject of marriage to arise. So they set the date and reserve the chapel and contact the minister and order the flowers. The big night arrives, amidst mother’s tears and dad’s grins and jealous bridesmaids and bratty little flower-girls. The candles are lit and two beautiful songs are butchered by the bride’s sister. Then the vows are muttered and the rings are placed on trembling fingers, and the preacher tells the groom to kiss his new wife. Then they sprint up the aisle, each flashing thirty-two teeth, on the way to the reception room. Their friends and well-wishers hug and kiss the bride and roll their eyes at the groom, and eat the awful cake and follow the instructions of the perspiring photographer. Finally, the new Mr. and Mrs. run form the church in a flurry of rice and confetti and strike out on their honeymoon. So far the beautiful dream remains intact, but is living on borrowed time.

The first night in the motel is not only less exciting than advertised … it turns into a comical disaster. She is exhausted and tense and he is self-conscious and phony. From the beginning, sex is tinged with the threat of possible failure. Their vast expectations about the marital bed lead to disappointment and frustration and fear. Since most human beings have a neurotic desire to feel sexually adequate, each partner tends to blame his mate for their orgasmic problems, which will eventually add a note of anger and resentment to their relationship.

About three o’clock on the second afternoon, he gives ten minutes serious thought to the fateful question, "Have I made an enormous mistake?" His silence increases her anxieties, and the seeds of disenchantment are born. Each partner has far too much time to think about the consequences of this new relationship, and they both begin to feel trapped.

Their initial argument is a silly thing; they struggle momentarily over how much money to spend for dinner on the third night of the honeymoon. She wants to go someplace romantic to charge up the atmosphere, and he wants to eat with Ronald McDonald. The flare-up only lasts a few moments and is followed by apologies, but some harsh words have been exchanged which took the keen edge off the beautiful dream. They will soon learn to hurt each other more effectively.

Somehow, they make it through the six-day trip and drive home to set up house together. Then the world starts to splinter and disintegrate before their eyes. The next fight is bigger and better than the first; he leaves home for two hours and she calls her mother. Throughout the first year, they will be engaged in an enormous contest of wills, each vying for power and leadership. And in the midst of this tug of war, she staggers out of the obstetrician’s office with the word ringing in her ears, "I have some good news for you, Mrs. Jones!" If there is anything on earth Mrs. Jones doesn’t need at that time, it is "good news" from an obstetrician.

From there to the final conflict, we see two disappointed, confused and deeply hurt young people, wondering how it all came about. We also see a little towheaded lad who will never enjoy the benefits of a stable home. He’ll be raised by his mother and will always wonder, "Why doesn’t Dad live here anymore?"

The picture I have painted does not reflect every young marriage, obviously, but it accurately represents far too many of them. The divorce rate is higher in America than in any other civilized nation in the world, and it is rising. In the case of our disillusioned young couple, what happened to their romantic dream? How did the relationship that began with such enthusiasm turn so quickly into hatred and hostility? They could not possibly have been more enamored with each other at the beginning, but their "happiness" blew up in their startled face. Why didn’t it last? How can others avoid the same unpleasant surprise?

First, we need to understand the true meaning of romantic love. Perhaps the answers to our quiz will help accomplish that objective.

1. I believe love at first sight occurs between some people.

Though some readers will disagree with me, love at first sight is a physical and emotional impossibility. Why? Because love is not simply a feeling of romantic excitement; it is more than a desire to marry a potential partner; it goes beyond intense sexual attraction; it exceeds the thrill at having "captured " a highly desirable social prize. These are emotions that are unleashed at first sight, but they do not constitute love. I wish the whole world knew that fact. These temporary feelings differ from love in that they place the spotlight on the one experiencing them. "What is happening to me?! This is the most fantastic thing I’ve ever been through! I think I am in love!" You see, these emotions are selfish in the sense that they are motivated by our gratification. They have little to do with the new lover. Such a person has not fallen in love with another person; he has fallen in love with love! And there is an enormous difference between the two.

The popular songs in the world of teen-age music reveal a vast ignorance of the meaning of love. One immortal number asserts, "Before the dance was throo, I knew I was in luv with yew!" I wonder if the crooner will be quite so confident tomorrow morning. Another confesses, "I didn’t know just what to do, so I whispered, ‘I luv yew!’" That one really gets to me, The idea of basing a lifetime commitment on sheer confusion seems a bit shaky, at best. The Partridge Family recorded a song a few years ago which also betrays a lack of understanding of real love; it said, "I woke up in love today ’cause I went to sleep with you on my mind." You see, love in this sense is nothing more than a frame of mind — and it is just about that permanent. Finally, a rock group of the sixties called The Doors takes the prize for the most ignorant musical number of the century; it was called, "Hello, I Love You; Won’t You Tell Me Your Name!"

Did you know that the idea of marriage based on romantic affection is a very recent development in human affairs? Prior to about 1200 A.D., weddings were arranged by the families of the bride and groom, and it never occurred to anyone that they were supposed to "fall in love." In fact, the concept of romantic love was actually popularized by William Shakespeare. There are times when I wish the old Englishman were here to help us straighten out the mess he initiated!

Real love, in contrast to popular notions, is an expression of the deepest appreciation for another human being; it is an intense awareness of his or her needs and longings — past, present, and future. It is unselfish and giving and caring. And believe me, friends, these are not attitudes one "falls" into at first sight, as though we were tumbling into a ditch. I have developed a lifelong love for my wife, but it is was not something I fell into. I grew into it, and that process took time. I had to know her before I could appreciate the depth and stability of her character — to become acquainted with the nuances of her personality, which I now cherish. The familiarity from which love has blossomed simply could not be generated on "Some enchanted evening, across a crowed room." One cannot love an unknown object, regardless of how attractive or sexy of nubile it is!

2. I believe it is easy to distinguish real love from infatuation.

The answer is, again false. That wild ride at the start of a romantic adventure bears all the earmarks of a lifetime trip. Just try to tell a starry-eyed sixteen-year-old dreamer that he is not really in love … that he’s merely infatuated. He’ll whip out his guitar and sing you a song. "Young luv, true luv, filled with real emo-shun. Young luv, true luv, filled with true devo-shun!" He knows what he feels, and he feels great. But he’d better enjoy the roller coaster ride while it lasts, because it has a predictable end point.

I must stress this fact with the greatest emphases: The exhilaration of infatuation is never a permanent condition. Period! If you expect to live on the top of that mountain, year after year, you can forget it! As I discussed in the second chapter, emotions swing from high to low to high in cyclical rhythm, and since romantic excitement is an emotion, it too will certainly oscillate. Therefore, if the thrill of sexual encounter is identified as genuine love, then disillusionment and disappointment are already knocking at the door.

How many vulnerable young couples "fall in love" with love on the first date … and lock themselves in marriage before the natural swing of their emotions has even progressed through the first dip? They then wake up one morning without that neat feeling and conclude that love has died. In reality, it was never there in the first place. They were fooled by an emotional "high." I was trying to explain this up-and-down characteristic of our psychological nature to a group of 100 young married couples to whom I was speaking. During the discussion period, someone asked one young man in the group why he got married so young, and he replied, "’Cause I didn’t know ’bout that wiggly line until it was too late!" Alas, ’tis true. That wiggly line has trapped more than one young romanticist.

The "wiggly line" is manipulated up and down by the circumstances of life. Even when a man and woman love each other deeply and genuinely, they will fling themselves supercharged on one occasion and emotionally bland on another! However, their love is not defined by the highs and lows, but is dependent on a commitment of their will! I attempted to express this thought to my wife on an anniversary card, written approximately six years ago. It is reproduced below.

To My Darlin’ Little Wife, Shirley,
on the Occasion of Our Eighth Anniversary

I’m sure you remember the many, many occasions during our eight years of marriage when the tide of love and affection soared high above the crest…times when our feeling for each other was almost limitless. This kind of intense emotion can’t be brought about voluntarily, but it often accompanies a time of particular happiness. We felt it when I was offered my first professional position. We felt it when the world’s most precious child came home from the maternity ward of Huntington Hospital. We felt it when the University of Southern California chose to award a doctoral degree to me. But emotions are strange! We felt the same closeness when the opposite kind of event took place; when threat and potential disaster entered our lives. We felt an intense closeness when a medical problem threatened to postpone our marriage plans. We felt it when you were hospitalized last year. I felt it intensely when I knelt over your unconscious form after a grinding automobile accident.

I’m trying to say this: both happiness and threat bring that overwhelming appreciation and affection for our beloved sweethearts. But the fact is, most of life is made up of neither disaster nor unusual hilarity. Rather, it is composed of the routine, calm, everyday events in which we participate. And during these times, I enjoy the quiet, serene love that actually surpasses the effervescent display, in many ways. It is not as exuberant, perhaps, but it runs deep and solid. I find myself firmly in that kind of love on this Eighth Anniversary. Today I feel the steady and quiet affection that comes from a devoted heart. I am committed to you and your happiness, more now than I’ve ever been. I want to remain your "sweetheart."

When events throw us together emotionally, we will enjoy the thrill and romantic excitement. But during life’s routine, like today, my love stands undiminished. Happy Anniversary to my wonderful wife.

Your Jim

The key phrase in my statements, "I am committed to you." You see, my love for Shirley is not blown back and forth by the winds of change … by circumstances and environmental influences. Even though my fickle emotions jump from one extreme to another, my commitment remains solidly anchored in place. I have chosen to love my wife, and that choice is sustained by an uncompromising will. "In sickness and in health; for richer or poorer for better or worse from this day forward…" This essential commitment of the will is sorely missing in so many modern marriages. I love you, they seem to say, as long as I feel attracted to you … or as long as someone else doesn’t look better … or as long as it is to my advantage to continue the relationship. Sooner or later, this uncommitted love will certainly vapourize.

How, then, can real love be distinguished from temporary infatuation? If the feeling is unreliable, how can one assess the commitment of his will? There is only one answer to that question: It takes time. The best advice I can give a couple contemplating marriage (or any other important decision) is this: make no important, lifeshaping decisions quickly or impulsively, and when in doubt, stall for time. That’s not a bad suggestion for all of us to apply.

3. I believe people who sincerely love each other will not fight and argue.

I doubt if this third item actually requires an answer. Some marital conflict is as inevitable as the sunrise, even in loving marriages. There is a difference, however, between healthy and unhealthy combat, depending on the way the disagreement is handled. In an unstable marriage, the hostility is usually hurled directly at the partner: "You never do anything right; why did I ever marry you? You are incredibly dumb and you’re getting more like your mother every day." These personal comments strike at the heart of one’s self-worth and produce an internal upheaval. They often cause the wounded partner to respond in like manner, hurling back every unkind and hateful remark he can concoct, punctuated with tears and profanity. The avowed purpose of this kind of in-fighting is to hurt, and the woes will never be forgotten, even though uttered in a moment of irrational anger. Obviously, such vicious combat is extremely damaging to a marital relationship. Healthy conflict, on the other hand, remains focused on the issue around which the disagreement began: "You are spending money faster than I can earn it!" "It upsets me when you don’t tell me you’ll be late for dinner." "I was embarrassed when you made me look foolish at the party last might." These areas of struggle, though admittedly emotional and tense, are much less damaging to the egos of the opposing forces. A healthy couple can work through them by compromise and negotiation with few imbedded barbs to pluck out the following morning.

The ability to fight properly may be the most important concept to be learned by newlyweds. Those who never comprehend the technique are usually left with two alternatives: (1) turn the anger and resentment inward in silence, where it will fester and accumulate through the years, or (2) blast away at the personhood of one’s mate. The divorce courts are well represented by couples in both categories.

4. I believe God selects one particular person for each of us to marry, and he will guide us together.

A young man whom I was counselling once told me that he awoke in the middle of the night with the strong impression that God wanted him to marry a young lady whom he had only dated casually a few times. They were not even going out together at that moment and hardly knew each other. The next morning he called her and relayed the message which God had supposedly sent him during the night. The girl figured she shouldn’t argue with God, and she accepted the proposal. They have now been married for seven years and have struggled for survival since their wedding day!

Anyone who believes that God guarantees a successful marriage to every Christian is in for a shock. This is not to say that he is disinterested in the choice of a mate, or that he will not answer a specific request for guidance on this all-important decision. Certainly, his will should be sought in such a critical matter, and I consulted him repeatedly before proposing to my wife. However, I do not believe that God performs a routine match-making service for everyone who worships him. He has given us judgement, common sense, and discretionary powers, and he expects us to exercise these abilities in matters matrimonial. Those who believe otherwise are likely to enter marriage glibly, thinking, "God would have blocked this development if he didn’t approve of it." To such confident people I can only say, "Lotsa luck."

5. I believe if a man and woman genuinely love each other, then hardships and troubles will have little or no effect on their relationship.

Another common misconception about the meaning of "true love" is that it inevitably stands like the rock of Gibraltar against the storms of life. Many people apparently believe that love is destined to conquer all; the Beatles endorsed this notion with their song, "All we need is love, love, love is all we need." Unfortunately, we need a bit more.

Much of my professional life is currently being invested in the Division of Child Development, Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. We see numerous genetic and metabolic problems throughout the year, most of which involve mental retardation in our young patients. The emotional impact of such a diagnoses on the families involved is sometimes devastating; even in stable, loving marriages, the guilt and disappointment of having produced a "broken" child often drive a wedge of isolation between the distressed mother and father. In a similar manner, the fibre of love can be weakened by financial hardships, disease, business setbacks, or prolonged separation.

In short, we must conclude that love is vulnerable to pain and trauma, and often wobbles when assaulted by life.

6. I believe it is better to marry the wrong person than to remain single and lonely throughout life.

Again, the answer is false. Generally speaking, it is less painful to be searching for an end to loneliness than to be embroiled in the emotional combat of a sour marriage. Yet the threat of being an "old maid" (a term I detest) causes many girls to grab the first train that rambles down the marital track. And too often, it offers a one-way ticket to disaster.

7. I believe it is not harmful to have sexual intercourse before marriage, if the couple has a meaningful relationship.

This item represents the most dangerous of the popular misconceptions about romantic love, both for individuals and for our future as a nation. During the past fifteen years we have witnessed the tragic disintegration of our sexual morals and traditional concepts of morality. Responding to a steady onslaught by the entertainment industry and by the media, our people have begun to believe that premarital intercourse is a noble experience, and extramarital encounters are healthy, and homosexuality is acceptable, and bisexuality is even better. These views reflect the sexual stupidity of the age in which we live, yet they are believed and applied by millions of American citizens. A recent study of college students revealed that 25 percent of them have shared bedrooms with a member of the opposite sex for at least three months. According to Life Styles and Campus Communities, 66 percent of college students reportedly believe premarital intercourse is acceptable between any two people who consent or "when a couple has dated some and care a lot about each other." I have never considered myself to be a prophet of doom, but I am admittedly alarmed by statistical evidence of this nature. I view these trends with fear and trepidation, seeing in them the potential death of our society and our way of life.

Mankind has known intuitively for at least fifty centuries that indiscriminate sexual activity represented both an individual and a corporate threat to survival. The wisdom of those years has now been documented. Anthropologist J. D. Unwin conducted an exhaustive study of the eighty-eight civilizations which have existed in the history of the world. Each culture has reflected a similar life cycle, beginning with a strict code of sexual conduct and ending with the demand for complete "freedom" to express individual passion. Unwin reports that every society which extended sexual permissiveness to its people was soon to perish. There have been no exceptions.

Why do you suppose the reproductive urge within us is so relevant to cultural survival? It is because the energy which holds a people together is sexual in nature! The physical attraction between men and women causes them to establish a family and invest themselves in its development. It is this force which encourages them to work and save and toil to insure the survival of their families. This sexual energy provides the impetus for the raising of healthy children and for the transfer of values from one generation to the next. It urges a man to work when he would rather play. It causes a woman to save when she would rather spend. In short, the sexual aspect of our nature — produces stability and responsibility that would not otherwise occur. And when a nation is composed of millions of devoted, responsible family units, the entire society is stable and responsible and resilient.

If sexual energy within the family is the key to a healthy society, then its release outside those boundaries is potentially catastrophic. The very force which binds a people together then becomes the agent for its own destruction. Perhaps his point can be illustrated by an analogy between sexual energy in the nuclear family and physical energy in the nucleus of a tiny atom. Electrons, neutrons, and protons are held in delicate balance buy an electrical force within each atom. But when that atom and its neighbours are split in nuclear fission (as in an atomic bomb), the energy which provided the internal stability is then released with unbelievable power and destruction. There is ample reason to believe that this comparison between the atom and the family is more than incidental.

Who can deny that a society is seriously weakened when the intense sexual urge between men and women becomes an instrument for suspicion and intrigue within millions of individual families … when a woman never knows what her husband is doing when away from home … when a husband can’t trust his wife in his absence … when half of the brides are pregnant at the altar … when each newlywed has slept with numerous partners, losing the exclusive wonder of the marital bed … when everyone is doing his own thing, particularly that which brings him immediate sensual gratification! Unfortunately, the most devastated victim of an immoral society of this nature is the vulnerable little child who hears his parents scream and argue; their tension and frustrations spill over into his world, and the instability of his home leaves its ugly scars on his young mind. Then he watches his parents separate in anger, and he says, "good-bye" to the father he needs and loves. Or perhaps we should speak of the thousands of babies born to unmarried teenage mothers each year, many of whom will never know the meaning of a warm, nurturing home. Or maybe we should discuss the rampant scourge of venereal disease which has reached epidemic proportions among youth. This is the true vomitus of the sexual revolution, and I am tired of hearing it romanticized and glorified. God has clearly forbidden irresponsible sexual behaviour, not to deprive us of fun and pleasure, but to spare us the disastrous consequences of this festering way of life. Those individuals, and those nations, which choose to defy his commandments on this issue will pay a dear price for their folly. My views on this subject may be unpopular, but I believe them with everything within me!

8. I believe if a couple is genuinely in love, that condition is permanent, lasting a lifetime.

Love, even genuine love, is a fragile thing. Love can perish when a husband works seven days a week…when there is no time for romantic activity…when he and his wife forget how to talk to each other. The keen edge in a loving relationship may be dulled through the routine pressures of living, as I experienced during the early days of my marriage to Shirley. I was working full time and trying to finish my doctorate at the University of Southern California. My wife was teaching school and maintaining our small home. I remember clearly the evening that I realized what this busy life was doing to our relationship. We still loved each other, but it had been too long since we had felt a spirit of warmth and closeness. My text books were pushed aside that night and we went for a long walk together. The following semester I carried a very light load in school and postponed my academic goals so as to preserve that which I valued more highly.

Where does your marriage rank on your hierarchy of values? Does it get the leftovers and scraps from your busy schedule, or is it something of great worth to be preserved and supported? It can die if left unattended.

9. I believe short courtships (six months or less) are best.

The answer to this question is incorporated in the reply to the second item regarding infatuation. Short courtships require impulsive decisions about lifetime commitments, and that is risky business, at best.

10. I believe teenagers are more capable of genuine love than are older people.

If this item were true, then we would be hard pressed to explain why half the teen-age marriages end in divorce in the first five years. To the contrary, the kind of love I have been describing — unselfish, giving, caring commitment — requires a sizable dose of maturity to make it work. And maturity is a partial thing in most teen-agers. Adolescent romance is an exciting part of growing up, but it seldom meets the criteria for the deeper relationships of which successful marriages are composed.


All ten items on this brief questionnaire are false, for they represent the ten most common misconceptions about the meaning of romantic love. I wish the test could be used as a basis for issuing marriage licenses: those scoring 9 or 10 would qualify with honour; those getting 5-8 items right would be required to wait an extra six months before marriage; those dummies answering four or fewer items correctly would be recommended for permanent celibacy. To which group would you be assigned?