“I like you very much,” he said after he’d arrived at my apartment in Washington, DC, “but I don’t know that this is a long-term thing.” He wanted to keep dating me for now, he explained, but he didn’t know that he saw a future with me, or that he felt the way one should feel after two months.
For my own part, I knew that I liked Daniel. He was compassionate, with a wry sense of humor. He was thoughtful about things like not talking to me about his exes too much and—that most important of dating skills—texting back. I told him that I’d like to keep dating, too, and that I thought we should keep seeing each other as long as that was what we both wanted.
But I also thought he was putting too much pressure on the relationship. I didn’t think there was a set point in time at which we had to be sure about each other. And if there was, I certainly didn’t think it happened at the two-month mark.
The conversation got me thinking: At what point do people know they’ve met the “right” person? Are there clear patterns that apply to how, and when, we become sure we’ve fallen in love?
To find out, I contacted about 20 people I knew—friends, family, former housemates, and coworkers—for a series of anecdotal interviews. The people with whom I spoke were largely (though not all) white, straight, female, in their mid-to-late 20s and had at least a college degree. I asked them why they felt sure the person they were dating was someone they wanted to be with in the long-term.
In Russian, the verb that means discover or recognize also contains the verb to know. I wanted to learn about the moments of discovery that contain, within them, the knowledge of love. I called it the “When Did You Know” project.
Romantic love is a mysterious thing, and research on the subject reflects its complexity. According to an early 2016 Match.com survey of 2,000 people, the average couple says “I love you” after about five months. But our cultural backgrounds also influence our expectations about love. Individualistic cultures like the US often see romantic love as an opportunity for personal growth and fulfillment, according to University of Toronto psychology professors Karen K. Dion and Kenneth L. Dion. Meanwhile, people from collectivistic cultures like China may be more concerned about the wishes of family members, and are more likely to see love as a deep form of friendship rather than a mystical connection.
My own small, informal survey did show certain patterns when it came to the timeline of falling in love. First, those who had found love in their teens or early 20s tended to say that they fell in love much more quickly. My mother, for example, met my father at age 20 and told him she loved him after just two weeks. (They then dated for five years, and have been married for over 30.) As a friend of mine from college put it, “When you have very little baggage, it’s really easy to say, ‘I love you.’ And to sort of find yourself in free fall.”
Those who had found romance in their teens or early 20s tended to say that they fell in love much more quickly. But those who met later in their 20s, or in their 30s or 40s, unanimously said that recognizing their love for a new person took at least a few months. These moments of recognition were almost always pegged to some display of tenderness or kindness on the part of their partners.
One of my best friends said she knew she loved her boyfriend when he excitedly told her he wanted to use his bonus to take her on a trip to the Ben & Jerry’s factory. Her sister knew she truly loved her now-husband when, two and a half years into their relationship, she saw how he took care of her and her family as they were sitting shivah for her grandmother.
Other people who found romance a bit later in life said they knew they were in love when they wanted to make sacrifices for the other person—to risk sleep and sickness for them, perhaps (“I have had a cold for the past week because this happened,” as one respondent explained)—or to go through the potentially uncomfortable process of introducing their partners to parents and friends.
The second pattern that emerged was that my interviewees distinguished between the moment they knew they were in love and the moment in which they made a long-term commitment. The latter was a slower and more difficult process.
The desire for commitment was less an overwhelming, knock-out feeling, and more of a repeated choice. Those who were able to find both love and longer-term compatibility stressed that the desire for commitment was less an overwhelming, knock-out feeling, and more of a repeated choice. “You have to keep having those moments,” said my recently engaged coworker, “when you look at a person and think, ‘Yeah, I made the right call.’”
The last pattern I noticed was that most people were either unable to unwilling to analyze former, failed loves—or did so only in the abstract. My guess is that it’s hard to remember when you “knew” you were supposed to be with a former flames. After all, if you’re not with a person anymore, maybe you didn’t really know in the first place.
The most notable exception was my uncle, who has been divorced for a couple of years. He said that he’d fallen hard for his ex-wife, but struggled to explain why he felt so sure about her. A month after their engagement, an acquaintance asked how he’d known she was the one. “When I’m with her, I feel like everything is always going to be all right,” he said.
Although their marriage is over, my uncle’s certainty about his decision hasn’t faded. “The fact is that what remains, I think permanently, is a frustrated confusion over whether I fell in love with a fiction or a fact that altered,” he wrote. “But for the record, I continue to be in love with the fiction or the past tense or whatever it was. So I wasn’t wrong.”
I thought about my little project often as Daniel and I continued to date. Sometimes it reassured me—perhaps we didn’t need to profess our love yet! Sometimes comparing my experiences to others’ did just the opposite.
The next four more months with Daniel were filled with home-cooked meals, baseball games, and weekend excursions. I tried to be my best self with him—warm, patient, and kind. But I didn’t forget what he had said at the two-month mark. The fear that he would break up with me was always somewhere in the back of my mind.
Then, six months after our first date, he asked to come over to my place to talk. This time I knew. “Are you breaking up with me?” I asked over text.
He was. He said he didn’t feel they way he thought he should—that after six months you should be ready to seriously commit to the person you’re dating.
I told him that I would miss him, but that I accepted his decision, and that he should go before I said something not so nice. We said goodbye; he left and I cried. He texted me later to say that I meant a lot to him and that he was sorry. I didn’t respond. I didn’t know what to say.
I’d listened to his frustrations after bad days at work. He’d listened attentively to my analyses of favorite TV shows and reminded me to put on sunscreen when we went outside. Once, arriving back home after 30 hours’ worth of travel, I went to see him first instead of going home to sleep. After all my research, I still don’t exactly know how you’re supposed to feel or when you’re supposed to feel it. But Daniel did. And I guess that’s the difference—he knew when he knew.