Every relationship begins with the meeting of two people who feel the pull of attraction. As that relationship matures, your memory of the actual details at your first meeting inevitably starts to fade, but those details can also start to shift. Do you remember even how you and your partner met? Has it all become fuzzy, and perhaps even distorted by how the relationship has played out over the months or years? New research by University of University of Groningen’s Florian Zsok and colleagues (2017) on love at first sight, or what they call LAFS, suggests that sharing your memory of first meeting with your partner can help you regain some of that passion that drew you toward each other.
The Dutch authors begin with the observation that “In Western countries, approximately every third person reports having experienced [love at first sight]” (p. 1). The chances are good, then, that you’ve had at least one LAFS episode in your life and the chances are even better that this is the person with whom you’re currently in a relationship. That LAFS episode becomes, according to the Groningen researchers, a central theme of the story you and your partner tell and retell about each other over the course of your relationship. If you’ve lost a grip on that theme, their research suggests that you can benefit from reconstructing that memory with your partner. The 4 little words, then, are “love at first sight,” and by asking your partner how he or she felt at that initial encounter, you can get back to those passionate sensations you once had toward each other.
The key idea for the importance of remembering your first joint encounter comes from the proposal by Zsok and his fellow researchers that LAFS is a “positive illusion” that couples create. This illusion can continue to inspire them over the course of their relationship as they focus on the grand romantic themes that unite them. Over time, your illusion can grow and feed onto itself. As you rework the details of the events that brought you together the LAFS illusion can become a “confabulated memory that adds meaning and uniqueness to the relationship” (p. 2).
Most people in a long-term relationship believe that it all started with LAFS. There is, though, a small but important minority whose LAFS didn’t lead to a subsequent relationship. Zsok and his associates were curious to find out if LAFS is actually a distinct entity from true love and intimacy, rather than only a memory bias that couples create out of their initial encounter. If they could identify episodes of LAFS that didn’t lead to a long-term commitment, it would suggest that LAFS is a form of love that differs in important ways from the kind that grows and matures over the course of a relationship.
They believed that LAFS, whether it’s separate from true love or its own entity, involves a strong dose of physical attractiveness. Knowing nothing about the person you feel an instant connection with, you can only go by this person’s outward appearance. If you feel sexually drawn to a person you first meet, this in and of itself can trigger what they call “eros,” or passion. Is this passion, though, like the kind that couples in long-term relationships feel toward each other?
To investigate the differences between LAFS and true love, the Dutch researchers created simulated first-meeting events in an online study, a lab study, and three in-person dating events involving strangers meeting in a bar. There was a total of 396 participants averaging 24 years of age; most were heterosexual, but the design was tailored to their actual sexual orientation. The online study involved a simulated speed-dating situation in which participants viewed six faces (either same or opposite sex) while imagining they were meeting them for the first time. The lab study involved a similar procedure except that participants saw 9 instead of 6 faces.
The Dutch researchers asked their participants to complete questionnaires that tapped into their feelings of LAFS, physical attractiveness, and the three components of “love.” Based on the triangular theory of love, these 3 components are intimacy, passion, and commitment. An additional measure tapped into eros, or passion, independently of the love scale items. LAFS items included, for example, “I am experiencing love at first sight with this person.” Getting a score of above 5 on a 7-point disagree to agree scale indicated strong LAFS feelings toward the individual whose face they saw, or who they were meeting in the bar. Participants also rated their attraction to, and love toward, their current partner if they were in a long-term relationship.