A slight flirty tilt of the head when they talk; a smile when they walk in the room; mimicking the way they sit; they may not even know it yet, but this non-verbal dance between two college students are signs they might be falling for each other.
Across campus, and beyond, this exchange is happening. While it may seem like a sudden rush of emotion, University experts say falling in love in college involves a gradual process of building chemistry, whether the couple is aware of it or not.
“You can be very sexually involved with someone, but once you get to know them, you will develop more of a companionate love,” Parnia Haj-Mohamadi, a doctoral student in social psychology at the University said. “Where it's more than just a sexual desire for your partner, you accept the person and then your self concepts merge. You essentially become one person.”
Haj-Mohamadi is one of a group of University researchers at Gillath Lab that takes a look behind the curtain at what makes a close and intimate relationship.
Mohamadi is currently working on a dissertation on how people in relationships resist looking for alternative partners. Before couples get to that stage, Haj-Mohamadi said a potential partner goes through the rules of attraction in order for someone to begin to have feelings. The two pillars of these rules being proximity and similarity.
“What's most interesting is that a lot of college students, they attend parties and go to bars and they really engage in these shared experiences with other people,” she said. “So for example, if they go to the same sports event and they are both showing the same interest in the team or they're both watching a movie together and they are laughing together, whenever they engaged in these similar behaviors, it really shows that shared experiences create closeness between people. They then really like them because they understand them on a different level, which makes them feel like they are much closer.”
That spark the two feel when they are together, Haj-Mohamadi said, is built on being able to openly share personal interests.
“We tend to be into people who share the same interests as us, the same music preferences, political orientation, and there's been substantial amount of research suggesting that we prefer those who are similar to us even on our levels of attraction,” Haj-Mohamadi said.
Author and professor at the University of Maryland Charles Stangor describes this dynamic of similarity in his book “Principles of Social Psychology.” Stangor is a charter fellow at the Association for Psychological Sciences, and he suggests physical attraction becomes of less importance once someone has feelings, and instead, they will consistently “share their important values and beliefs over time” with the other mate.
Being able to express yourself freely leads to what Stangor calls reciprocal self-disclosure, which he defines as “the tendency to communicate frequently, without fear of reprisal, and in an accepting and empathetic manner.”
But in order to get to self-disclosure, potential partners don’t have to agree on everything. In a 2001 study done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jody L. Davis and Caryl E. Rusbult look into “attitude alignment,” where two people in close relationships will knowingly and even unknowingly adapt and adopt attitudes to create a symmetry between the two that will create an even stronger bond. Once a person interested starts to open up to values that are different than the previous relationship, it is a sign that they are beginning to look long term.
During this period of time when someone is falling in love there is also a neurological process taking place. Omri Gillath, associate professor of psychology and researcher behind Gillath Lab said there has been research using fMRI technology that shows chemicals and neurotransmitters begin to change at the sight of the partner.
“There's actually a process of habituation,” he said. “So, when you first fall in love with someone, there are very high levels of a few chemicals in the brain.”
This includes the hormone oxytocin, Gillath said. Haj-Mohamadi added that once one starts to feel these chemicals during regular interactions with the other, they will begin to seek this out more and more.
These neurological studies are also a starting point for understanding falling out of love in a college relationship. When a partner feels a chemical imbalance, areas of the brain signal to the body that they no longer feeling that same rush and even in some cases, they begin to feel a level of suffering.
To maintain that relationship after the initial feeling of falling in love, Haj-Mohamadi said one must stay attentive to their foundation of trust.
“Having a secure attachment style leads to the most beneficial outcome,” she said. "Not worrying if they are going to leave you, showing great emotion and intimacy, these are very important in a successful relationship.”
— Edited by Paola Alor