When you think of love of first sight what comes to mind? Maybe it’s a cartoon cupid hitting you with an arrow, Romeo seeing Juliet across the room at a party and being struck, or a scene from a more modern romantic comedy where two people meet for the first time and somehow “just know” they’re at the beginning of something spectacular. Whatever your personal history or associations with love at first sight, the romantic idea of two people knowing instantly that they’re meant to be together is something people have been, well, er… falling in love with, for centuries. But what is love at first sight anyways? We know what it looks like in movies and stories, but what does it look like in the real world?
I work at the online dating site and app Zoosk and come across a lot of real-world stories of love at first sight—People who just know by looking at a photo or seeing someone walk towards them for the first time, that this is the person they’ll spend the rest of their life with. The stories are unbelievably romantic, but as someone who’s never experienced love at first sight myself, I wanted to learn what it’s all about.
So in an effort to gain more insight into the phenomenon, I did a little digging into the history, philosophy, and science of love at first sight and got a few different perspectives on just what it is and how it works. I also looked at descriptions from real-life couples who say they experienced love at first sight to see how their way of explaining it aligned with what others had to say.
The History of Love at First Sight
The idea of love at first sight has been around for a long time and goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Philosophers at the time were interested in exploring the nature of love (and the nature of many things for that matter) and had an interesting way of explaining it. In his work The Symposium, Plato introduces the idea of soulmates through a story told by Aristophanes—According to the story, humans were originally beings with four arms, four legs, and a single head with two faces. But Zeus (the Greek king of the gods, if you’re not familiar) saw these creatures as a threat (apparently they could do really cool cartwheels that made them great warriors). Instead of destroying them completely (as he did with the Titans), he split them in two.
As you can imagine, this made the humans pretty miserable. These split beings, humans, us, would forever long for their other half. In one of his speeches Aristophanes explains:
“Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature. Each of us, then, is a ‘matching half’ of a human whole… and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.”
And this is where love at first sight comes in—it’s said when soulmates finally find each other again for the first time in this life, on earth, that they instantly recognize their matching halves. The meeting is a sort of reunion of the two, and there’s an unspoken understanding between the two people that they’ve found each other at long last. A pretty romantic idea, though a bit bittersweet for those of us still seeking our other half.
There are also a few instances of love at first sight in religious texts. In the Bible, when Rebecca met Isaac, she was already betrothed to him, but on her way to meet him she saw a man meditating in a field and knew that it was him, that it must be. When Jacob meets Rachel, they too already knew they were betrothed. After Jacob sees her for the first time he’s so struck that he’s able to roll back a huge boulder covering the well the shepherds used to water their flocks, so that Rachel’s flock could also drink.
Later, love at first sight played an important role in the medieval tradition of courtly love. Troubadour poets may have been some of the first to describe being struck by love, or the ‘love dart’, when first looking into the eyes of a lady. And later Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare would take up the idea with the line, “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?”
Over the years, the idea of love at first sight can be found throughout popular literature, TV, movies, music, art… you name it. The idea has soaked into our consciousness. In the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Little Mermaid, the young mermaid instantly falls in love with the prince. In the popular Twilight novels, Edward feels love at first sight for Bella; movies like Forrest Gump, Moonrise Kingdom, or Titanic all have memorable scenes of love at first sight; and recently, Prince Harry explained meeting Meghan Markle for the first time as a love at first site tale.
Surveys have shown that 52% of American adults believe in love at first sight and four out of 10 Americas say they’ve actually experienced it for themselves. So is this idea of finding love in a passing glance something we’ve created or is there some truth to this collective belief? Can something so many people across different times and cultures explain so similarly, simply be a shared myth or is there something more going on?
The Science of Love at First Sight
The idea of attraction, and instant attraction, has interested researchers just as much as philosophers and artists. Studies have found that people form opinions very quickly when it comes to their potential romantic partners. One study says it only takes .13 seconds to rate someone’s beauty and find them attractive. It’s also been found that being attractive may be interpreted as sign of superior genes. Things like facial symmetry, waist to hip ratio, lung volumes, and even middle finger lengths (no big hand jokes, please) are all factors that affect attraction.
Another big factor is how much another person looks like you. A study that used a computerized system to morph peoples’ faces before asking them to choose the face they felt was the most attractive, found that most often people choose an image of their own face that had been morphed into the opposite sex. Which is pretty interesting, considering Aristophanes story… Is this evidence that we’re always looking for our other half? Meh, not so fast. The study’s author interpreted this attraction to our own face as having more to do with recognition—our own faces remind us of faces we constantly saw growing up, those of our parents and relatives. (Which Freud would have loved as well.)
Other research has pointed out that love at first sight may be a response to biology. According to a series of studies about biology and attraction, it’s more common for animals to mate with other animals that they’re genetically compatible with—as if they were preprogrammed to be able to spot who they should reproduce with. In this way, romantic attraction in humans could be a sort of evolutionary function as well, drawing us to those people with whom we’re compatible with.
Because of this, the authors of the study felt love at first sight was simply a strong initial reaction that couples later turned into a story, a memory, they created together. The authors called these biased memories, and though it might not sound very romantic, there is a sweet side to their findings—couples who created these memories together, who came up with these stories of feeling love from their very first meeting, tended to experience more love and passion in their relationship. So even if the feeling wasn’t truly mutual from the start, later they both agreed it was.
The Experience of Love at First Sight
So now that we know some of the history and the science about love at first sight, what does it really feel like? Do couples describe the experience in a way that aligns with what science and philosophy has to say about it?
To get some real-life explanations of love at first sight, I looked at success stories different couples who met on Zoosk had to share about it. As it turns out, their descriptions do have a few interesting themes…
It was if we knew each other forever.
Many of the couples who felt love at first sight, described it as if they already knew the other person. This often went along with having a long, great conversation or talking in a natural, easy way.
“We felt like we had known each other for years. I never believed in love at first sight, but it does happen.”
“Love at first sight is possible. I feel as if I have known him all my life.”
“The conversation just flowed and flowed; unrehearsed, unscripted, and natural. It was if we had known each other for years.”
“A few days later we met in person and it was unlike any other meeting. It wasn’t like meeting a person for the first time, but like a lifelong friend. I never believed in love at first sight until her.”
I just knew.
Another common trend, was people somehow just knowing or having an instinctive feeling about the other person. Many couples also described it as a mutual feeling, of “we just know.” Though there were a few exceptions, including my favorite: “It was love at first sight for him, but it took about four times for me.”
“I just knew in my heart he was the man I had dreamed about since as early as I could remember.”
“It was the fabled love at first sight. We knew immediately that we were soulmates.”
“We went on a date and it was love at first sight. I knew I was going marry this man from the moment I met him.”
“Since the first day we met, we both knew we were each other’s one. The chemistry… ELECTRIC.”
There was a connection.
Feeling a connection, energy, or chemistry was another common theme. People described a feeling of closeness that was different and unique from what they’d had with other people.
“It really was love at first sight. We felt this energy and connection that was unparalleled from any other person we had met before.”
“We hit it off and it was basically love at first sight!”
“When we met it was love at first sight. After that talk, I knew she was the one. If someone can hold a conversation with me about future plans and goals that are similar, then we have a connection.”
“Conversation never seemed to be a problem, and the connection was as deep as we both had been searching for. We couldn’t get enough of each other.”
“It was love at first sight, we connected instantly.”
Reading the descriptions you can find a lot of overlap—people describe how they didn’t believe in love at first sight until it happened to them, how they’d found their soulmate or the one, or how they talked and talked for hours. For an emotion that’s supposedly about sight and initial attraction, I was surprised by how many people described the feeling in terms of their ability to communicate so well. One woman even described it as, “love at first talk.”
And it’s telling how many people describe things so similarly. Through my work at Zoosk, I’ve read a lot of success stories over the years and though each one is unique in its circumstances, many use a lot of the familiar phrases of love when describing the actual feeling of it. Even if they’re not describing love at first sight, there are a lot of love clichés being thrown around—feeling butterflies, hearing fireworks, being on cloud 9; feeling warmth, comforted, or like you’ve come home; the chemistry, the magic, the lucky girls and the lucky guys; falling, stumbling, hearts soaring, hands shaking… it goes on and on.
But I read these stories and something feels undeniably, well, true about them. Maybe it’s because they’re so genuine. Despite their clichés, or perhaps because of them, they feel very real, very everyday. I mean, what is a cliché anyways?—a phrase that’s overused, commonplace, and unoriginal? Ya, okay. But it’s also a phrase that’s known and understood by many. It’s the personal made universal. A common language we can fall back on when we’re not sure how to describe something that by its very nature is indescribable.
Love at first sight may not work in exactly the way we think it does. It may not be two souls separated finding their match, or actually finding a real, lasting love in an instant. Perhaps, as our researchers found, it is a construction, a story we tell ourselves and others while looking back on the first moments of meeting someone we now hold so dear. But there is something going on here. Something to this idea. If it were nothing, I don’t think some of the worlds greatest authors, poets, philosophers, and minds would go back to this idea time and time again asking, What is this thing? What is love at first sight?
Despite my explorations, I haven’t found the answer. I did find a favorite answer however. One from a woman in Duluth, Minnesota who was struggling to find the right words to describe meeting her husband for the first time.
“It was a feeling that we both can’t really explain,” she said. “It just happened.”
Maybe love at first sight isn’t something we can explain. Maybe it’s just something that happens. And maybe that’s enough.