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How We Fall in Love

How we know we're ready and how we convince our partners.

Key points

  • A study showed that reciprocal liking and attractive personality are among the most important precursors to falling in love.
  • Researchers found that being ready to start a new relationship impacts the willingness to invest resources and emotion.
  • Relationship readiness has been associated with higher satisfaction, relational investment, and commitment.
Box_fox55 / Pixabay
Source: Box_fox55 / Pixabay

Finding a life partner sounds daunting, but for many people, it isn’t. We all know someone who spent hours crafting that perfect online dating profile, constantly updated their photos, and maybe even took the time to write out a list of top qualities desirable in a mate—only to fall for the next door neighbor, a classmate, or the co-worker in the cubicle next door.

So much for pre-planning. The good news, however, is that love is not always a complicated endeavor to strategize, manipulate, and master. For many people, it "just happens.” But how? Research provides some answers.

The Qualities We Fall For

Suzanne Riela et al. (2010) investigated some factors that impact the experience of falling in love.i They investigated 12 precursors to falling in love, “reciprocal liking, appearance, personality, similarity, familiarity, social influence, filling needs, arousal, readiness, specific cues, isolation, and mysteriousness,” in connection with cultural differences, ethnicity, gender, and speed.

Interestingly, although their first study examined white-American and Asian-American participants and their second study included participants from the United States and China, few ethnic, gender, or speed differences were obtained in either case. However, they found many cultural differences in their second study, most of which were consistent with models of individualism-collectivism.

Reciprocal Liking and Personality

Riela et al. found that reciprocal liking and a partner's desirable personality were the most important precursors to falling in love. They defined reciprocal liking as “the interest expressed between two people, through mutual disclosure and other such actions,” and attractive personality in terms of favorable characteristics, such as humor and intelligence.

Riela et al. noted that the importance of these two precursors as determinants of falling in love is consistent with prior research on both precursors and mate preferences, as well as first date research, speed dating, and online relationships.

Regarding the influence of culture on other factors, Riela et al. note that comparing American and Chinese participants, American participants emphasized appearance, specific cues, and readiness, while Chinese participants emphasized reciprocal liking, filling needs, personality, and social influence, findings they found to be consistent with the distinction between individualism and collectivism as well as the concept of independence/ interdependence.

Ready for Romance

One of the factors noted by Riela et al. that was important to the American participants was “readiness,” which they defined as “being emotionally or physically prepared for seeking a romantic relationship.” They gave the example of having experienced a recent breakup and desiring the comfort of a new partner. Sure enough, other research indicates that readiness appears to be a major determinant of the willingness to enter a relationship.

Benjamin W. Hadden et al. (2018) investigated the impact of “commitment readiness” on forming new relationships.ii Studying five samples of people who were not romantically involved, they found, among other things, that commitment readiness is linked with a higher degree of interest in developing a romantic relationship, as well as actively seeking to initiate a relationship.

How do you know someone is ready for a relationship? Hadden et al. noted they may engage in certain types of general behaviors such as paying attention to their appearance to attract potential partners. They may also proactively take steps to meet potential partners, develop a relationship with a romantic interest, or engage in flirtatious behavior.

Readiness Breeds Happiness

Hadden et al. found that relationship readiness is associated with a higher degree of satisfaction and relational investment and commitment. They explained that, for example, someone who is not ready to get involved would be hesitant to contribute resources to a new relationship or become emotionally dependent. On the other hand, relationship-ready people will not experience these types of reservations.

Together, mutual attraction and relationship readiness appear to be a great recipe for success.

Facebook image: dekazigzag/Shutterstock


[i] Riela, Suzanne, Geraldine Rodriguez, Arthur Aron, Xiaomeng Xu, and Bianca P. Acevedo. 2010. “Experiences of Falling in Love: Investigating Culture, Ethnicity, Gender, and Speed.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 27 (4): 473–93. doi:10.1177/0265407510363508.

[ii] Hadden, Benjamin W., Christopher R. Agnew, and Kenneth Tan. 2018. “Commitment Readiness and Relationship Formation.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 44 (8): 1242–57. doi:10.1177/0146167218764668.

More from Wendy L. Patrick, J.D., Ph.D.
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