Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q. How do I know if I’m attracted to someone? Is it different than liking someone? See, there’s this girl in my school who is fun to be with. I know I like her but I don’t know how much. I’m also confused by the whole love thing. When does attraction become love? I really want to know how people figure this out!

14-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: I love your questions! They are excellent! I know adults who struggle with questions like yours.

Human emotions like love are hard to define. I can give you words to describe what some people think is love, but each of us has a personal way of looking at this powerful feeling. Let’s leave talking about love for last, OK?

Attraction and liking someone are different, but related. When we like someone, the feeling may be platonic, which means the affection is one of friendship. I believe we have the capacity to like many people. Liking someone means, in part, that we have fun together. It may be we share common interests. Liking may be part of a basic desire to be with someone, to not face life alone.

Friends are important to our health and well-being. Scientists in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology discovered how our brains change when we interact with other humans. The chemicals in our brains that make us feel good and the hormone oxytocin – a feel good hormone – are released in social interactions. One study even linked levels of pain tolerance to friendships.

When does friendship become more? When we “like” someone more than others? Or when we “like” someone in a different way than the rest of our friends? The answer to those questions is yes. Friendship can lead to attraction.

Let’s talk about the idea of attraction. There are two types – romantic and physical. Physical attraction is often called lust. Think of how you feel if you walk into a crowded room and spy someone across that room. The person looks good to you … their body type is appealing, their physical characteristics fit your definition of beauty. Your heart may quicken, your breath my speed up, your palms may become sweaty, especially if you grow close and try to connect by talking. Physical attraction is sexy and may only be about sexual feelings. Kissing someone with whom you share mutual physical attraction is a common first step.

Romantic attraction is deeper. With romantic attraction, we seek attachment. We want to bond with someone, not only physically, but emotionally. Intimacy is about shared lives. Romantic attraction may lead to love. People “in like” enjoy each other’s company, but people who are “in love” care as much about the other person’s needs as their own.

A person may feel romantic attraction and physical attraction simultaneously; a person may only feel one type of attraction.

It’s time to look at the idea of love!

Psychologist Elaine Hatfield believes there are two types of love: compassionate love and passionate love. Compassionate love develops from shared respect and mutual understanding. Passionate love includes sexual attraction and intense emotion. Passionate love can have cultural implications; in other words, a person may “fall in love” when their cultural expectations lead them to consider love.

Another psychologist, Robert Steinberg, saw love as a triangle consisting of three parts: intimacy, passion and commitment. He suggested a relationship could have two components, for example, intimacy and passion, which would lead to romantic love. Commitment and intimacy might lead to compassionate love.

Yet another theory of love is psychologist John Lee’s Color Wheel of Love. Lee compared styles of love to the color wheel, suggesting there are three primary styles of love: Eros (passionate love), ludos (playful, non-committed love) and storge (familial or friendship love). Combinations of these three styles lead to six possible love types.

These are just a few ways psychologists look at love. Remember when I said love is personal? If you feel you are in love, then you are. The challenge is whether or not the person to whom you are attracted returns your feelings. Many people say love is complicated for this reason.

Discovering our personal feelings about liking someone, attraction and love are key parts of growing up. I wish you joy as you sort these feelings out.

Peer Educator Alumni response: I always hated when adults told me “you’ll know when you’re in love” when I was your age. Now that I’m an adult and in a committed relationship, I know it’s true. You do know. Not all relationships are healthy, of course, but a healthy one can make life better. Good luck. Be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email podmj@healthyteens.com.

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