Many people in our culture believe in love at first sight.
I’ll never forget the first time I asked my mom to explain how she knew that she would marry my dad. She smiled serenely. “Oh,” she said, “I just knew.”
How, I wondered, could this be possible? Ten years old at the time, I assumed that her response would make sense when I was older, and that I, too, would be able to identify my future husband from across the room the moment I met him.
Have you ever met someone who gave you a similar story about the first time they met their spouse? Do you and your significant other believe this about your first meeting? The narrative of love at first sight is widespread; one in three people claim to have experienced it. Do you buy it?
As a spoiler, let me mention that I did not “just know” anything about my husband. I had my doubts for quite some time, and even now wonder how we will make it through certain events, like having a child, deciding whose family to visit for Christmas, and choosing schools for (God willing) our future kids. Narratives of perfect peace like my mom’s made me uneasy. Where was the serenity that the wives and mothers of my youth had described? Would I eventually change my own narrative to one of near-immediate certainty?
Many a practiced spouse is guilty of a psychological pitfall called the “halo effect.” Kelly Gonsalves explains this phenomenon in an article on MindBodyGreen.com: the halo effect happens when couples “retroactively embellish the story of how they met, applying their current feelings of love to their memories of the past.”
Most of the time, this shows up as love at first sight.
Plus, the feeling is not usually mutual. If a married person tells you that they experienced love at first sight, it’s quite possible that “one partner’s intense initial experience [helped to shape] the other person’s recollection,” according to Theresa DiDonato in Psychology Today. Most of the time, we choose how we remember events. And practically, the love at first sight narrative makes sense: if you and your spouse are together for life, why not choose to remember your courtship with the stars aligned from the beginning?
Alone, it is not enough to make a marriage work.
As appealing as this narrative sounds, I personally believe that it occurs much less often than it is reported and maintain that the best relationships do not begin from a feeling of love at first sight. You can’t love a person without ever having spoken to them. And you can’t know someone’s heart after your first meeting, incredible as your conversation might have been. At best, people mistake the “love” they experience at first sight for a feeling of strong physical attraction to a person: “lust at first sight.” At worst, they have re-fashioned the past into a narrative that better suits their own idealized version of their romance.
While initial feelings of strong intrigue or attraction for one’s future spouse—not necessarily love—are common, they were not my experience. I had very few romantic feelings for my husband the first time I met him. It wasn’t that I saw anything that was negative or a turn-off, but it was not love at first sight. This made me uncomfortable while we were engaged because we would meet couple after couple, among them our parents, mentors, and many friends, who would mention experiencing either a strong initial attraction to their spouse or “just knowing” that they would eventually get married. I doubted myself for months, comparing my feelings to what they reported.
Yet since we’ve been married, I have been tempted to talk the same way about our story. I think it lies in a fear: that people will think I’m crazy to have married a person that I wasn’t moony about from day one. I am afraid that if I tell people our “real story,” it won’t sound very romantic at all.
But that’s the problem. The culture has it backwards because we don’t have enough words for love. We’re comparing apples and oranges: “love at first sight”—that is, attraction, interest, lust, or infatuation—with the same love for which Christ died on the cross: respect, honesty, communication, and ultimately, self-sacrifice. This is the type of love that makes marriages work. Not love at first sight. Psychologist Sharon Gilcrest O’Neill says it well: “It’s an exquisite feeling. But it isn’t love—not the kind of love that marriages require over the long haul.”
If you, like me, didn’t experience love at first sight, don’t think of your relationship as inadequate or deficient like I did. And if this feeling is what brought you and your spouse together, how have you worked to move forward into committed, agapē love?