TWO ENDURING QUESTIONS among love’s many mysteries are (1) Why we fall in love when we do, and (2) Why we pick whom we do.
We don’t just fall in love with anybody, any time. Rather, life has moments when we are ripe for romance and, subsequently, through it are receptive to the dramatic change it precipitates in our circumstance, our attitude, even our physical appearance.
Love comes when it does. Though feasible to wall our feelings off and keep love at arm’s length, it’s impossible to do the opposite: We can never command love into existence. We are struck by it as if by lightning. Whether we credit love’s sudden appearance to cupid’s arrows, lightening bolts, love potions, or to the beloved’s irresistible charms, the would-be lover never fails to attribute his new-found feelings to an external cause. This is an illusion, however.
In reality, the impulse to love always springs from within and seeks its target. Love is a creative act of our own imagination that, in struggling to fulfill our deepest longings, winds up renewing and transforming us. Romance is the greatest agent of change ever invented. It rearranges our psyche, shuffles our priorities, and plops us on a new path that leads who knows where. The choice of who we love shapes a large part of our destiny.
Clues about the “when” of love are found in observations such as the natural capacity for sequential or even simultaneous infatuations, suggesting windows of psychological readiness when we are ripe for romance even when nobody appropriate looms on the horizon. If a would-be lover appears fickle, it is only the hopeful search for someone to reciprocate that makes it seem so. Being the most important person in another’s life is a defining axiom of love. Family, friends, or career can never supply the reciprocity and understanding we seek in a beloved, nor hedge against how alone we can feel when our missing half is what we long for.
Life circumstances that foster falling in love generally involve anticipated or actual separation. For example, affairs and marriage happen at the conclusion of college; after moving or leaving home; toward the conclusion of psychotherapy, a job, or military service; or on the heels of a break up. The latter is especially common and known as “love on the rebound.” Falling anew after the death of a beloved is likewise more common than usually thought. The alacrity of a bereaved spouse to recouple quickly signals not callousness but the devastation of their loss.
Separation from the practical constraints of daily life facilitates romance by loosening inhibitions. A free conscience presets new possibilities as seen by shipboard romances and flings while on vacation or at business meetings. When the moment is right and one or more plausible candidates nearby, circumstances can conspire to synthesize your heart’s desire—to your friend’s surprise as much as your own.
Often, the psychological and life situations that will catalyze romance for a given individual are unknowable. But knowing that windows of opportunity exist, you should leave the house whenever you feel sap rising. When the iron is hot, you will be too.