The first time I ever felt butterflies in my stomach was when I was 14 years old. My family had rented a house down on the Jersey Shore, and I'd become smitten with one of the lifeguards there. One night, when my friends and I were wandering around the neighbourhood where we were staying, lifeguard and I met up and stole away to the beach. The butterflies kicked in as soon as we hit the sand, and they were in full force when he gave me a very chaste kiss on the lips. This is what "it" must feel like, I thought to myself, trying to calm myself down as lifeguard and I returned to our friend group, blushing.
Those damn butterflies have popped up again and again throughout my adult life — less frequently, sure, but always with the same intensity when they show up. My heart rate increases. I get a ringing in my ear. My stomach churns and my eyesight seems to get a little cloudy. And whenever the object of my affection has left, I need to catch my breath.
But here's the thing: My imaginary winged friends have yet to whisk me in the direction of true love, which is exactly what every romance novel has promised they would do. In fact, the guys with whom the butterflies show up seem to be the opposite of prince charming — they tend to be more like the evil fucking troll that lives under a bridge. I brought up this dilemma with my former therapist a few years back. I'd just ended a long, tumultuous relationship which future-me would eventually set into flames by screaming at the man in question in a packed bar.
At that moment, however, I was devastated because he didn't want to be with me, and I couldn't understand why. "I felt butterflies with him," I'd told my therapist. She sat back in her chair and asked if I'd felt them before. I answered by rattling off a list of failed relationships and flings with men who turned out to be the worst representatives of the male gender I'd ever experienced. "So maybe, for you, your butterflies aren't telling you you're in love," my therapist said. "It sounds like they're telling you to get the fuck out of any situation you're about to get in."
She didn't like to mince words. But there is biological evidence to support my therapist's hypothesis. It's all has to do with your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which dictates your "fight-or-flight" response. Your ANS helps to prepare you for what you think is going to happen, an evolutionary vestige left over from when we'd have to run screaming from a lion in order to survive. Anxiety and fear are major triggers of your ANS, which is why looking at someone you're falling for — a fearful experience for many — sets it off, too. Adrenaline kicks in, your blood starts pumping, and the blood rushes from your gut, giving you a fluttering sensation in your stomach.
My butterflies were basically my body's way of telling me to run from the lion in front of me, because I sensed something in him that I should be afraid of. And Jean Fitzpatrick, LP, a premarital and marital therapist in NYC, says that this response is completely justified. "I think that the one thing we know is that, in order to be in a relationship, we have to make ourselves vulnerable, and that can create anxiety for a lot of people, especially if you don't think the person in question necessarily deserves it," she says.
Fitzpatrick is quick to note, however, that not everyone's butterflies mean that the person in front of them is disastrous. "You really need to take it in context," she says. Look back on past partners who gave you butterflies. What did they have in common? "Sometimes the person we choose [as a partner] is someone who zeros in on traits that we need to work on," Fitzpatrick says. "So you may be recognising that negative trait in another person, which is what's causing that anxiety."
So it's really up to you to decipher what your butterflies actually mean in your particular case, which can take a lot of trial and error. Romance novels couldn't look inside my head and define my stomach churning — I had to figure it out from dating a bunch of duds. (And putting myself in therapy.) So the next time you feel the flutter, take a deep breath, and look at the actual person standing in front of you — not the idealised version of them the bugs in your gut are making you imagine. Those butterflies are trying to tell you something, and if you just listen, you might be able to hear it.