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Falling head over heels? Psychology of a crush is tricky

Article: Anni Savolainen
Illustration: Maija Kaunismaa
  • Having a crush in Turku style! The illustration depicts Posankka, a legendary local statue with a duck's lower body and a pig's head. Posankka is situated in the Student Village.

One day on campus we might just see someone and like them immediately. Why?

A few years ago a short film by filmmaker Tatiana Pilieva went viral. The video features 20 strangers kissing each other for the first time.

The reason those kisses feel so intense is the dynamics between people. The strangers are sweet yet very nervous, which makes them vulnerable and thus deeply human.

When we become infatuated, it’s often with a person we don’t know. There is something very exciting about getting intimate with a stranger in general.

Mysteries easily intrigue us. Not knowing another person allows us to use our imagination in the wildest ways possible.

In the 1990’s psychologist Arthur Aron had a wild idea too. He was able to make two strangers fall in love in his laboratory. Aron had a formula: he asked the strangers to go through a list of 36 specific questions together.

The list requires sharing personal preferences, memories and thoughts on one’s world view – and then there are questions like “Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?”. The questions can still be found online.

Isn’t that strange? Is infatuation about pre-determined formulas and mathematics after all? How can we trust the feelings we have after asking specific questions?

My theory is that Aron’s 36 questions are so intense they create a sense of openness that feels very attractive. Maybe revealing our inner worlds to someone makes it easier for us to feel attraction towards them?

AS A KID I found it weird how my text books in Health Education described infatuation and love. The books listed things that we will feel when we become infatuated with someone and form a relationship. “You will feel extremely excited for 3–6 months. After 1,5 years the reality hits and you will struggle to keep the love strong” – or something of the sort.

At 26, I’m in a stable relationship. There’s no way I could make a formula out of how I became infatuated and ended up with my partner. My path was much more complex than the textbooks stated.

Infatuation definitely is a feeling each of us recognizes, but the emotion itself is highly personal.

Some people experience infatuation on a daily basis, for others it’s a rare and deep emotion. Some of us find it hard to be attracted to anyone at all, while others become infatuated with someone new even if they are in a healthy relationship.

Infatuation is indeed an emotion that doesn’t just vanish as we enter a relationship. Research shows that people in stable relationships feel infatuation for others on a regular basis, but it’s not a threat to one’s current relationship.

I was talking about infatuation with Lotta Heiskanen who is a psychologist and psychotherapist. Based on her own experience, people tend to feel infatuation when they feel lonely and unsatisfied with their own lives.

Attraction has been studied as well. In one research participants were exposed to stress. The study proved that in threatening situations people feel attraction towards people who seem helpful and safe.

Perhaps we can think of stress as a threat in general? Does attraction function as a relief from everyday difficulties?

THERE ARE basically two reasons why we feel infatuation: evolution and psychological need. Evolution is pretty simple to understand, because infatuation and attraction happen in order to produce offspring.

Psychology is tricky, because the reasons for infatuation are diverse.

Pilieva’s film and Aron’s 36 questions are dealing with the same tension after all. Finding someone attractive might have a great deal to do with the fact that we don’t know them.

Heiskanen says that if we’re in a relationship and infatuated with someone other than our partner, it only means that we have an eye for attractive and charming features.

So, infatuation for someone else doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something wrong with our relationships... but it can also mean that. We just have to figure out ourselves whether the emotion is an alarm or not.

Finding someone other than one’s partner attractive can cause a lot of anxiety. How can we tell when our partners like someone else too much, though? Where’s the line?

Based on psychological research, infatuation easily distorts our actual perception of a given person. We easily project our needs and hopes on a person who might not be able to deliver those things for us.

Studies on the human brain also show that strong infatuation or love does weaken our understanding of both ourselves and the person we like.

So if we have warm feelings towards someone, it’s possible that we don’t really want that exact person in our lives. Instead, that person might have a feature that we long to have in our lives. This can be anything from a cool hairstyle to social skills.

WHEN IT comes to feeling infatuation, it all seems to go back to safety – and vulnerability. We’re talking about the same vulnerability that we deal with as children. Babies under one year already have an understanding on how to be physically close to someone in a way that maximizes their personal security.

Vulnerability really is key here. If we want security and closeness from someone special, we have to trust that person – at the expense of exposing our vulnerability.

Heiskanen is also critical towards the Western notion of “The one and only”. That concept is based on the false idea that the stronger the infatuation is, the better two people are as a couple.

In other words: if we have an extreme crush on someone, it might as well be a sign of insecurity.

Infatuation looks the same in our brain as obsession. What we want is not the same thing as what we need.

The emotion itself is ok, like Heiskanen said. If we act in a way that harms our relationships, we’re probably in trouble. 

This article is based on an interview with Lotta Heiskanen, a psychologist and psychotherapist from Väestöliitto, the Family Federation of Finland.

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