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Relationships

Why Crushes Are So Common, and Healthy, at All Ages

Testing, and proving, partners' strength of commitment.

Key points

  • Crushes are an important part of teen sexual development, but they happen frequently in adults as well.
  • Adults in committed relationships are especially prone to crushes.
  • Crushes in adulthood help us test the strength of our commitment to our partner.

Fiona is happily married to Garrett. She enjoys the time she spends with him, and she looks forward to a long and fulfilling life together.

Yet, she can’t stop thinking about her co-worker Brendan these days. She daydreams about him at work, and sometimes she even flirts with him a little when they’re in the breakroom together. But she would never think of sharing her feelings with Brendan, and she certainly has no intention of telling her husband Garrett about them either.

Still, she often has romantic fantasies about Brendan. One night, she even imagined she was making love to him when she was having sex with Garrett. It made the sex more exciting, even though she did feel a little guilty about it afterward.

While Fiona understands that she’s “crushing” on Brendan, she’s also confused. Like most people, she thought crushes were just a teenage thing, a clumsy first attempt at understanding your blossoming sexuality. But here she is in her thirties, feeling just like she did in her teens.

Crushes Aren’t Just for Teenagers

According to University of New Brunswick (Canada) psychologist Lucia O’Sullivan and her colleagues, crushes aren’t just an adolescent experience. Rather, adults of any age can have crushes—even when they’re in a committed relationship and completely devoted to their partner.

To clarify the discussion, O’Sullivan and colleagues define a crush as a one-sided attraction to another person that the experiencer has no intention of communicating about or acting upon. In this way, crushes are distinguished from other types of romantic attraction, such as mutual infatuation or attachment.

Previous research has shown that crushes are quite common among adolescents. Typically, these crushes occur before teens begin dating or enter into their first romantic relationship. Thus, psychologists tend to view crushes as an early step in the development of intimacy skills. In other words, teens often experience their first romantic attractions as crushes because they don’t yet know how to act on those feelings.

At the same time, there’s plenty of research showing that even adults in committed relationships experience attraction toward persons other than their partner. In other words, they may fantasize about being with another person even though they choose to stay with their partner, whom they still deeply love. They may also casually flirt with their crush, even though they have no intention of letting it go any farther than that.

Adults in Committed Relationships Often Experience Crushes

In a study they recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, O’Sullivan and colleagues explored three research questions:

  1. How do single and coupled individuals differ in their experience of crushes?
  2. What are the positive and negative outcomes that people experience as a result of their crushes?
  3. What expectations do people have about the potential for developing an intimate relationship with their crush?

Regarding the first question, the researchers found that people in committed relationships reported far more crushes than those who were single. At first glance, this may be an unexpected finding, but it makes sense after further consideration.

Singles are more likely to act on their attractions to others rather than letting their feelings linger in the unrequited stage. In contrast, coupled individuals still feel attraction to others, but they hold back expressing their feelings for the sake of preserving their relationship. Likewise, people in committed relationships often engage in casual flirting with their crush, whereas single persons are more likely to make their feelings directly known to the one they’re attracted to.

Regarding the second question, respondents reported mostly positive outcomes from their crushes. Their crush gave them something to fantasize about, brightening their day and bringing excitement into their lives.

Some even reported that having a crush strengthened their relationship. That is, their romantic fantasies made them feel sexy, which they then acted out with their partner. Moreover, they believed the heightened arousal improved the sexual experience for both of them.

Negative outcomes came mostly in terms of guilty feelings about having the crush. Some expressed concern that their crush may tempt them to be unfaithful. Others simply felt bad about keeping their crush a secret from their partner, whom, they feared, might feel jealous or hurt if they found out.

Regarding the third question, the researchers found that few people in committed relationships had any intention of pursuing their crush. We’re led to believe that we should only have eyes for our partner, and when we discover ourselves feeling attracted to someone else, we’re concerned or feel guilty.

In reality, however, it’s simply in our nature to feel sexually attracted to other people, and this doesn’t stop just because we vowed to forsake all others. Framing the attraction as a crush may then be a strategy that people use to protect their relationships. That is, the individual accepts the fact that they’re experiencing a strong attraction toward someone other than their partner, but they also know that they’ll never act on it because they value their relationship.

Why Have Crushes Anyway?

So why do we have crushes anyway? Post-pubescent teens, who are still naïve about their sexuality, likely have crushes as a step toward developing their intimacy skills. But the purpose of crushes in sexually active adults is less clear.

O’Sullivan and colleagues offer two possibilities. One possibility is that crushing is simply hardwired into us as part of our sexual makeup. Feelings of attraction drive us toward approaching potential mates, but sometimes we’re attracted to people that we’ll never be able to have a relationship with. This could be due to relationship commitments or other circumstances that keep us from pursuing a relationship with that person.

Another possibility is that crushes provide a test of the strength of our current relationship. On the one hand, if we can keep the attraction as a private experience, we know that our commitment to our partner is strong. In such a case, acting out fantasies with our partner may help dissipate the desire for another person and at the same time strengthen the bonds of our relationship.

On the other hand, if we find ourselves acting on our desire and revealing our feelings to our crush, this is a sign that there’s trouble in our relationship. As the results of this study show, mere attraction alone is rarely enough to push a person to infidelity. Instead, research shows that it takes both the availability of attractive others as well as a deep dissatisfaction with the current relationship to lead a person to be unfaithful to their partner.

Along these lines, O’Sullivan and colleagues point out that many young adults maintain a “back-burner” relationship, just in case things go south with their current partner. Crushing could then be one way that people assess the quality of a potential future partner.

In sum, crushes are a common phenomenon not just in teenagers but in adults as well, especially those in committed relationships. The current study shows that crushes are mostly harmless, as they can relieve the tedium and even spice up a couple’s sex life. Instead of feeling guilty about them, we should understand that crushes show us just how committed we are to our partners. Otherwise, we’d be pursuing that other person, rather than keeping our desires at the level of fantasy.

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

References

O’Sullivan, L. F., Belu, C. F., & Garcia, J. R. (2021). Loving you from afar: Attraction to others (“crushes”) among adults in exclusive relationships, communication, perceived outcomes, and expectations of future intimate involvement. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/02654075211038612

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